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Tom Wilson is back after arbitrator reduces suspension to 14 games — here's why

Tom Wilson will be back in the Washington Capitals' lineup Tuesday after having his suspension reduced from 20 games to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator. What was behind the decision?

In a roundabout way, the Washington Capitals can thank Patrick Kaleta for getting Tom Wilson back in the lineup on Tuesday night.

After Wilson's 20-game suspension was handed down by the NHL and upheld by commissioner Gary Bettman, Wilson and the NHLPA took the case to a neutral arbitrator, and on Tuesday afternoon, the league announced arbitrator Shyam Das has reduced Wilson’s suspension, which stemmed from his illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues’ winger Oskar Sundqvist during the pre-season, by six games. The now 14-game suspension means that Wilson, by virtue of the Capitals having already played 16 games, becomes eligible to play Tuesday when Washington suits up against the Minnesota Wild. And while he won’t get back the two games he’s missed as a result of the initial suspension, Wilson’s bank account will be spared the $378,048.78 he would have been forced to forfeit had the 20-game suspension been upheld.

That Das has reduced the suspension should come as little surprise. This marks the third time in recent memory that a neutral arbitrator has reduced a ban handed down by the NHL. Prior to Wilson’s reduced suspension, Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension resulting from a check to an official was trimmed to 10 games after neutral arbitration, and Austin Watson’s domestic abuse suspension was cut from 27 games to 18 games. The latter was also decided on by Das.

What is interesting about Das’ decision to reduce the suspension, however, is that it wasn’t Wilson’s act itself, but the way in which the NHL Department of Player Safety came to its determination of a 20-game ban, that resulted in the suspension’s reduction. In fact, in the 42-page ruling on the suspension, Das supported the claim by the DOPS and commissioner Gary Bettman that Wilson made contact with Sundqvist’s head despite the fact “contact to the head was avoidable.” Of that, there was no question. Das took issue with the way DOPS head George Parros arrived at the 20-game number, though.

As it’s explained in Das’ ruling, in order to reach the conclusion of a 20-game suspension, Wilson’s last suspension was multiplied by a factor of three. And while some simple back-of-the-napkin math would make that a nine-game ban — Wilson’s last suspension was a three-game suspension during the 2017 post-season — Das accepted the league's explanation that a single playoff game is the equivalent of two regular season games. Thus, Wilson’s last suspension was, for these purposes, the equivalent of a six game ban. Multiplied by three, that brought Parros to the 18-game figure. Two additional games were then tagged on for the resulting injury to Sundqvist.

However, Das wrote: “The difficulty with the 20-game suspension at issue is the methodology used to ‘multiply' the most recent prior discipline — the equivalent, as upheld above, of 6 games — by a factor of 3x. Parros decided on this multiplier as part of his formula, which the Commissioner concluded was ‘eminently reasonable and appropriate,’ after reviewing prior suspensions issued to six other players who had received three suspensions within an 18-month period. There is no evidence that any specific ‘multiplier,’ as such, was used to determine the discipline in those (or other) prior instances of repeated rule violations, and the after-the-fact multipliers calculated by Parros for purposes of this case varied widely from negative numbers to 10x in (Raffi) Torres’ case.” (The Torres hit and subsequent suspension in question is the 25-game ban, later reduced to 21 games by the NHL, that resulted from his hit on Marian Hossa during the 2012 post-season.)

But that brings us to Kaleta.

If there was to be any multiplier used at all, the NHLPA contended that it should be the one used in the case of the former Buffalo Sabres winger, who “had three suspensions and a fine over a span of 94 games and considerably less total on-ice time than Wilson had in the 105 games during which he had three suspensions and one pre-season suspension, which the NHLPA insists should be considered the equivalent of a fine.”

In Kaleta’s case, the NHLPA noted, the league had stated his “six prior incidents of head contact or injury were more important than the frequency of his suspensions,” and when he was suspended twice in a seven-month span — in March 2013 for boarding resulting in injury and in October 2013 for an illegal check to the head — the March suspension, which was five games, was subsequently doubled, resulting in a 10-game suspension in October.

While Das wrote that Parros presumably didn’t use Kaleta as a comparison because he was not suspended three times in 18 months, the NHLPA argued that the 10-game suspension in October 2013 was similar due to the fact Kaleta had been disciplined by the league four times (three suspensions and one fine) in fewer games and less ice time, with two of Kaleta’s suspensions the result of illegal checks to the head and two resulting in injury. And that argument struck a chord with Das, who noted a disparity between Wilson’s 20-game suspension and Kaleta’s 10-game suspension despite “substantially comparable circumstances.”

“As remedy, consistent with my findings, I conclude that Wilson's suspension should be reduced to 14 games,” Das wrote. “I have arrived at this length by treating his most recent prior 3 playoff game suspension as the equivalent of 6 regular season games, as Parros did, doubling that based on all relevant circumstances to 12 games — which certainly constitutes more severe punishment consistent with the CBA — and adding 2 games, as Parros did, based on the injury to Sundqvist.”

And, just like that, Wilson is back.

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