As the NHL looks to get tough on discipline, the next true test won’t come when a player throws another wayward elbow or injures an opponent with a hit from behind.
It will happen far away from the ice, in a boardroom at a posh hotel, when the board of governors gather again in June.
That’s when commissioner Gary Bettman plans to hold a discussion with league owners about fining organizations that consistently have players running afoul of the law. He first raised the idea during last week’s GM meetings but it barely registered among other initiatives aimed at concussions.
In light of the stiff suspension given to Penguins agitator Matt Cooke this week—and questions about whether the league will continue to crack down—it’s worth revisiting.
Bettman didn’t outline his exact plans, but he is believed to be in favour of a tiered system with increasing fines. For example, an organization might be docked US$250,000 once its players have totalled 10 games in suspensions over a season and then face a stiffer financial penalty at 15 games, 20 games and so on.
The commissioner is also interested in looking at penalizing other members of an offending organization.
“If a player or players are subject to repeat disciplinary procedures that result in supplemental discipline, it will be the club, and perhaps the coach, that will be held responsible,” Bettman said in Florida.
The reaction of owners to the idea will be telling. As much as league disciplinarian Colin Campbell has been criticized for being too lenient with suspensions, an often overlooked part of the process is the fact many owners haven’t been keen on seeing their players forced to sit out long bans.
Change must come from the very top.
There seems to be a growing appetite for that as evidenced by recent comments from Pittsburgh co-owner Mario Lemieux, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk (Bettman, by the way, is likely to remind governors he disapproves of such statements being made publicly).
Lemieux appears eager to lead the charge. He proposed a supplementary discipline system that would see organizations fined with every suspension—unlike the Bettman model, where it only comes at certain thresholds—even though he would likely have thrown the most money in the pot if such a standard was in place this season.
“The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future,” Lemieux wrote to Bettman in a letter dated March 7. “We need to review, upgrade and more clearly define our policies in this regard, so that they can provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game.”
While organizational fines come with some potential problems—it’s reasonable to assume the back-channel pressure on Campbell might increase—they also have the potential to change behaviour.
How many coaches will continue putting players on the ice who are costing them money? Further, how many owners will want to keep those type of individuals on the payroll?
Perhaps most importantly, a call for increased supplementary discipline from the governors should carry serious weight. It will give Campbell the same mandate he received from GMs last week and almost certainly result in tougher penalties.
The league’s dean of discipline has been extremely busy this season—Campbell has handed out 31 suspensions totalling 114 games so far—and the price for crossing the line might be on the rise again next year.
If that’s what the owners really want.
With the NHL regular season winding down, Vancouver is poised to become the first Canadian team to capture the Presidents’ Trophy since 2003. The Canucks remain on top of our rankings:
1. Vancouver: Manny Malhotra will be impossible to replace. His serious eye injury has renewed the debate about mandatory visors.
2. Detroit: The Red Wings are already turning their attention to the playoffs. Coach Mike Babcock says the four injured forwards out of his team’s lineup would be playing if the post-season had started.
3. Philadelphia: A familiar question is being raised yet again. Who is the Flyers No. 1 goalie?
4. Washington: Alex Ovechkin is being given a rest to heal some injuries. A disappointing regular season—by his lofty standards—can be salvaged this spring.
5. San Jose: It appears the Sharks received a fortunate break after Logan Couture crashed into the end boards over the weekend. The impressive rookie says he’s feeling OK.
6. Pittsburgh: With everything that has gone on this season, it’s amazing the Penguins are still in the mix. Coach Dan Bylsma probably hasn’t received enough credit for keeping things together.
7. Boston: There was a time when Tim Thomas appeared to be a lock for the Vezina Trophy. After a recent skid, there’s no guarantee he’ll be the team’s starter in the playoffs.
8. Tampa Bay: Goals have been tougher to come by for Steven Stamkos. At one point there was talk of him chasing 50 in 50—now he needs seven in the next nine games just to reach the 50-goal plateau.
9. Phoenix: Another amazing season for a team surrounded by turmoil. Consider the club’s top goal-scorers—Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata and Lauri Korpikoski—are all shy of the 20-goal mark.
10. Los Angeles: A tough break for Justin Williams, who has battled more than his share of injuries in recent years. His solid campaign has been interrupted by a dislocated shoulder.
11. Chicago: Welcome to the fold, Marcus Kruger. The 20-year-old Swedish forward has been summoned from Djurgardens with the team battling injuries.
12. Nashville: Pekka Rinne is making a strong bid in the Vezina Trophy race. He’s won five of his last six starts for the streaking Predators.
13. Anaheim: Corey Perry is one goal shy of hitting 40 for the first time in his career. If the hot streak continues, he could reel in Stamkos for the league lead.
14. Dallas: Nice to see veteran defenceman Brad Lukowich get another shot in the NHL. Until now, the 34-year-old had spent the entire season with Texas in the American Hockey League.
15. Montreal: The Habs will be looking to make a statement during their visit to Boston on Thursday. The teams have played a number of hard-fought games this season, including the last one when Zdeno Chara injured Max Pacioretty with the much-discussed hit into the stanchion.
16. N.Y. Rangers: A recent surge has given them some breathing room in the standings. They look to be a playoff lock after missing out last season.
17. Calgary: With injuries mounting, Greg Nemisz is being pressed into action. The former first-round pack will be thrown “into the fire,” according to coach Brent Sutter.
18. Buffalo: Ryan Miller is finding his form at the perfect time. The goaltender posted his fourth shutout of the season this week in Montreal to edge the Sabres closer to a playoff berth.
19. Carolina: If the Hurricanes fall short of the playoffs, expect goaltender Cam Ward to receive an invite to play for Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
20. Minnesota: The bottom has fallen out during a disastrous homestand. The Wild has been outscored 16-5 in losses to Columbus, Montreal and Toronto.
21. Columbus: The organization seems to be losing faith in prospect Nikita Filatov, the former sixth overall pick who has six goals in 27 AHL games this season. GM Scott Howson tells the Columbus Dispatch he won’t be recalled before the end of the year.
22. Toronto: James Reimer has been the story for the Maple Leafs. Has he done enough to be considered the No. 1 man next year?
23. St. Louis: It’s been an up-and-down first season in St. Louis for goalie Jaroslav Halak. His .906 save percentage and 2.63 goals-against average leave him in the bottom half of NHL starters.
24. New Jersey: The air is starting to come out of the balloon after an unbelievable two months for the Devils. This will be a team to watch next season.
25. Atlanta: A crushing 8-2 loss in virtually a must-win game against Buffalo over the weekend. Coach Craig Ramsay said his team panicked and collapsed.
26. N.Y. Islanders: There’s reason for some optimism on Long Island. John Tavares needs four more goals to join teammates Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson with at least 30. Impressive.
27. Florida: Another team left playing out the string. The playoff drought is about to hit 10 seasons.
28. Ottawa: Craig Anderson gets rewarded after helping turn the team’s fortunes over the last month. Some are starting to suggest the rebuild will be quick in the Canadian capital.
29. Edmonton: Is the season over yet? With Taylor Hall on the sidelines and another low finish assured, the compelling storylines will have to wait until the summer.
30. Colorado: With just two wins in 21 games since the all-star break, the Avalanche is currently the NHL’s worst team. Biggest remaining question is whether the club will fall to 30th in the standings.