By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Five games will not satisfy the Vancouver Canucks. Five games will not be punishment enough for those who think the NHL talks tough on concussions but acts soft in supplemental discipline. Five games will not make a statement.
Duncan Keith elbowed Daniel Sedin in the face Wednesday night. He did it even though Sedin never touched the puck. He did it after Sedin had hit him in the head. And he reportedly gave Sedin a concussion.
This was a Norris Trophy winner injuring an Art Ross Trophy winner, apparently retaliating for an earlier incident, amid the fierce Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry, just as we're entering the most emotional time of the hockey year.
All he got was a two-minute minor on the ice, when he should have gotten a major and a game misconduct? All he got was a five-game suspension, when it would have been so easy to give him seven games, the balance of the Blackhawks' regular-season schedule?
Keith, who leads the Blackhawks in average ice time (26:53), can rest down the stretch and come back for the final two games to sharpen for the playoffs. Meanwhile, Sedin, who leads the Canucks in goals (30), is in the concussion netherworld.
But five games is stiff for somebody who had never been suspended before and had been fined only once in a seven-year career.
If you've been paying attention since Brendan Shanahan took over as the NHL's disciplinarian this season, you know he intends to come down hardest on repeat offenders.
You know when it comes to the trial, Shanahan looks at the little picture – breaking down each incident in detail to determine the degree of illegality, and doing it on video to explain and educate.
You know when it comes to the sentencing, Shanahan looks at the big picture – not concerned with the specific amount of games as much as the range, his main goal to get the player's attention so he won't do it again.
And you should know that Shanahan doesn't plan to change late in the regular season or in the playoffs, and the league's general managers have signed off on that.
Shanahan outlined his approach at the NHL GMs' meetings last week in Boca Raton, Fla., partly to review what he had done to date, partly to get ahead of the playoffs and cut down on gamesmanship. The GMs gave him positive reviews.
"What we're trying to do when we suspend a guy in the regular season is, we're just trying to change his behavior," said Shanahan after his presentation to the GMs. "I think when you get in a playoff series, fans and people, especially in a particular market, they just want to see punishment. They want to get satisfaction. We're still going under the same premise that it's still about changing players' behavior."
Conspiracy theorists had fun with this one, and Shanahan left himself open to that.
First, Shanahan scheduled a phone hearing with Keith, meaning the maximum suspension could be five games. Then, he invited Keith for an in-person hearing in New York, meaning he reserved the right to suspend him more than five games. (Keith waived his right to the in-person hearing and did it over the phone, anyway.)
Did Shanahan have a change of heart? Did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have a change of heart for him? Did the league have larger reasons to make an example of Keith here?
That should be obvious now that we know the final decision.
Shanahan should have left his options open from the beginning. It would have looked better. But what matters is that he left his options open in the end, and he looked at a borderline situation and played it right down the middle. Five or less? More than five? It's five, then.
Three to seven was the range here.
Three was the low end, because Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan received three games for an elbowing incident this week and Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand received three games for a clipping incident earlier this season. Different cases, different circumstances, but some comparisons. Doan's was an elbow; Marchand's was retaliatory.
Seven was the high end, because Keith was essentially a first-time offender and the Blackhawks had seven games left in the regular season.
Five doesn't make everybody happy. But five makes a point, and five probably allows Shanahan to sleep at night. Consider what he said Jan. 28 during all-star weekend in Ottawa.
"Consistency is really something that's subjective," Shanahan said. "What we do is, we show our work, and we have an answer. You might not agree with it, but when we come up with a number … sometimes I'll sit on the phone afterwards and argue with a GM for 20, 30 minutes about whether something that got four games should have been three. My feeling is, that's a healthy argument, but we're on the same planet.
"We have a real concern if I think something's 10 and he thinks it's zero. But if I think something's four, that GM thinks it's three and the GM of the victim might think it's five, then I think we keep our eye on the ball in that situation and we just keep powering forward and doing what we think is right."
To me, Shanahan should be harsher overall as time goes on, even with first-time offenders, especially when they do something deliberate. Just because it's your first time doesn't mean you get a free shot. By now, after all the concussions and suspensions and videos, players should know better than to hit an opponent in the head.
Sedin should have received a penalty from the game officials for hitting Keith and a warning from Shanahan, if not a fine. Keith should have received a major and a game misconduct from the game officials, and had Shanahan banned him for the rest of the regular season, it would have sent a stronger message.
But Sedin's hit wasn't worth a suspension. Five games is no free shot for Keith. We're on the same planet. Shanahan has been relatively consistent in a shades-of-gray job, and though he feels the NHL has made progress this season, he knows it needs to make more.
"One bad hit, and the perception of hockey is that they'll never change and they're not respecting one another," said Shanahan last week. "We just don't simply see that as accurate. But I understand why it's said, and I understand there's a lot of work to be done and this is the beginning. We're not at the end of this."