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It's time to put an end to the NHL's Roulette Wheel of Justice

Reduced suspensions for Austin Watson and Tom Wilson were the result of neutral arbitrators finding flaws in the formulas. If the NHL and NHLPA want to put an end to that, it's time to take some of the guesswork out of suspensions.

There’s a pretty good chance Shyam Das will lose his job as the neutral discipline arbitrator for the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. But if there’s any good to come of it, at least Das will be content knowing that he exposed the NHL Roulette Wheel of Justice™ and, one can only hope, inspired a few things to change.

In case you’re unaware of who he is, Das is the man who reduced Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension for his predatory attack on an opponent in the pre-season to 14 games and Austin Watson’s 27-game suspension for an alleged domestic assault to 18 games. And since the NHL (or the NHLPA, for that matter) has the arbitrary right in the collective bargaining agreement to fire an arbitrator without reason after every season, there’s a pretty good chance the league is going to follow in the steps of Major League Baseball, which fired Das in 2012 after he overturned Ryan Braun’s drug suspension over a procedural matter. (In fact, Das only came on board because the league fired the previous arbitrator, James Oldham, because Oldham reduced a 20-game suspension to Dennis Wideman for abuse of an official to 10 games. So the precedent is there.)

And it’s interesting to note that in both the Watson and Wilson cases, Das did not reduce the suspension because the case lacked merit. In fact, Das went out of his way to point out in the Wilson case that he disagreed with the outlandish NHLPA claims that Oskar Sundqvist’s head was not the principle point of contact and that the collision was unavoidable. Wilson’s hit was a predatory exercise in headhunting and was penalized as such.

Where Das differed with the NHL was in the length of the suspension and the fact that the NHL cannot simply pull their numbers out of its, uh, hat. Essentially, the NHL based Wilson’s 20-game ban on the fact that his most recent suspension was a three-game ban in the playoffs for a headshot to Zach-Aston Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins that left Aston-Reese concussed and with a broken jaw. The league has long held that, for purposes of supplemental discipline, one playoff game is equal to two regular season games. That number was multiplied by three, with two games added because Sundqvist was injured. It was a formula that Das basically ripped to shreds, saying the multiplier director of player safety George Parros used wasn’t consistent with previous suspensions and that it almost seemed to come out of nowhere.

“Parros explained that Wilson’s record of four suspensions within 18 months was unprecedented and that a multiplier of 3x seemed appropriate taking into account this was his third repeat offense,” Das wrote in his ruling. “Setting aside, for the moment, whether 20 games was reasonable under all relevant circumstances, this explanation is too thin a reed to substantially support the application of a multiplier of 3x as used in Parros’ methodology.”

It was the same with Watson, who pleaded no-contest to domestic assault on his partner. There was never any doubt that Watson, at the very least, exercised very poor judgment and was punished for it. What the NHLPA argued, successfully, was that the 28-game suspension seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t seem to have any basis aside from a desire by the league to look as though it was coming down hard on an alleged domestic abuser.

It should be noted that Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was suspended 20 games for violating the league’s drug policy, also appealed his sentence, not on the length of it, but because he felt he should not have been penalized at all. The NHL-NHLPA impartial arbitrator, George Nicolau, disagreed and Schmidt’s suspension was upheld. (It’s worth noting that Das handles all on-ice discipline appeals and Nicolau handles off-ice appeals. Das took on the Watson appeal only because Nicolau was unavailable.)

So what’s the distinction here? Well, the NHL has a performing enhancement drug policy. But it does not have a domestic violence policy, nor does it have a standard scale of suspensions for on-ice violations. It seems from this corner that these two examples scream for something more tangible and concrete to be worked out in the CBA by both the players and the league. And while they’re at it, perhaps they could dispense with the notion that appeals are heard by the commissioner prior to going to the independent arbitrator. All that did in the Wilson case was delay the process and cost Wilson and the Washington Capitals two games in which he could have been playing.

You see, because simply being indignant over things like headshots and alleged domestic abuse is not enough. There are a lot of people, your trusty correspondent included, who believe that 20 games was acceptable for Wilson. In fact, there are a lot of us who believe the suspension should have been longer, given Wilson’s past and the severity of the injury. But that doesn’t matter. As Das pointed out, the length on these suspensions has to be based on formulas that make sense and adhere to precedent. And until the league and players establish a scale of suspensions for headshots and repeat offenders, the NHL Roulette Wheel of Justice™ is going to continue to be the determining factor.

The NHL and NHLPA can do better than this. It will take the kind of willingness to compromise that neither side seems to be in the mood to adopt these days, so it likely won’t happen. So we’ll all be left to guess what punishments players will receive when they step out of line.

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