Making sense of the playoffs, the suspension edition

KuklasKorner : KK Hockey : What Is The Difference Between Perception And Misperception?:

This was a sin so egregious Shanahan, the NHL senior vice president of player safety, will have no choice but to act swiftly to suspend Torres, right Commissioner Bettman?
“You’re asking me to prejudge something,’’ Bettman answered. “I’m certain it was observed by hockey operations and in particular player safety and to the extent it requires review or action, they will do it. But let’s not jump the gun.’‘
Bettman believes too many people have done just that during an ugly postseason when the quantity of scuffles has overshadowed the quality of play. Where I see a dangerous trend, Bettman sees tradition, citing the rough-and-tumble game he heard old-timers reminiscing about on the radio.
“A lot of it is perception and misperception,’’ Bettman said. “The game is physical, the game is emotional. These games are hard-fought. Having said that, I’d say player safety is monitored closely and being dealt with in an appropriate way.’‘
When I mentioned that the league had been inconsistent with penalties — contrasting Shaw’s three-game suspension with Predators defenseman Shea Weber’s $2,500 fine for slamming Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass — Bettman scoffed.

And so the winter of discontent continues.

No, it’s more the winter of “oh my god, what the hell is going on?”

I’ve been, frankly, trying to get my head around why hockey decided to turn into a gang war this playoffs.

I’m coming to believe the core of the answer is in something Brad Stuart of the Wings said:

KuklasKorner : The Malik Report : Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart says players need to crank up the respect factor:

Wings defenseman Brad Stuart not only called out Brendan Shanahan and the NHL’s department of player safety for their inconsistencies…
“I did read a comment right from Shanahan that mentioned discipline in the playoffs might be different than it was during the regular season because playoff games are more important to guys,” Stuart said. “They might take a one-game suspension in the playoffs that might be worth three or four during the regular season, which kind of sends mixed signals. If you can go after a superstar and get one game for it, knock him out for three or four games, whose got the advantage there? It does send a mixed message.”
Stuart said the only way the league is going to get a handle on this problem is by consistent enforcement.

And that ties closely into the first quote. It really does.

First, Bettman is in a no win situation here. Of  course he’s going to evade answering any question on the Torres hit. He is the judge of any appeal that may come from Shanahan’s suspension, and is involved in the discussions leading up to that. He’s smart enough to know better than to give the NHLPA any ammunition that might undermine that authority, or give them material to change that role in the next CBA. You think the current system is inconsistent? Imagine if it was handled by a committee that included both league and  voting on issues, or where appeals were heard by a shared board.

But the seeds of this year’s set of hits and injuries were sewn earlier this season. they were sewn by the players, coaches, GMs and especially the Board of Governors. Shanahan came into the role and early on, was issuing suspensions at a fair clip.

Pretty clearly, his bosses (eventually, the Board of Governors), decided that was too many, and so he was quietly encouraged to pull it back. The league explained it as “the players are getting it”, but I don’t see that from the games I’m watching. And then after the GM meetings, the word clearly was sent to the refs to “let the boys play” and have the reffing get out of the way of the players. So they did. And the players have been taking advantage of it.

And exactly what Shanahan was trying to prevent has been happening. Give the players an inch, and they’ll take a mile. And then some. And keep taking risks until someone pushes too hard, someone else ends up in the hospital, and everyone starts going “how did we get to this place?”

We got to this place as the result of a set of decisions that everyone agreed to, and people that should have known what the end result would be.

And then comes out the “R” word (Stuart again):

“In the end, we’re all in this thing together as players,” Stuart said. “Guys are so much faster and stronger. Those things you’ve seen in the past are devastating. The game is so fast, if you don’t have respect for a guy, you can really injure him.”
Stuart added it’s too easy to blame the league for this ongoing issue and players have to start really pondering what they’re doing on the ice.
“We as players have to decide are we going to keep that level of respect for each other or are we going to throw it out the window and let the guys upstairs try to figure out what to do?” Stuart said. “We, as players, have to take responsibility as well. Let’s not blame the guy making the decisions because he’s a little bit unsure of what to do. Let’s take it upon ourselves to have

Here’s the reality:

Players aren’t paid to be respectful. Players are played to win. They are trained from well before puberty to win at whatever cost necessary, and to compete until that point where further action will hurt the team more than help it.

Even the players admit that the Lady Byng is sort of a booby prize, and nobody plays to win it, nobody remembers who won it. You’re remembered for the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe, the Jennings. Not the Lady Byng.

So every time I hear someone call for the players to respect each other, I laugh. Quietly, sadly.

Players aren’t paid to respect. They’re paid to win. And they will win, because that’s what their entire lives have been built around. And if that means pushing the rules? they will.

I admit to (somewhat grudging) respect of Raffi Torres. he’s like Matt Cooke, and before him Claude Lemieux, and Matt Barnby, and Darius Kasparitius, and going back to guys like Dale Hunter and Essa Tikkanen. Torres has driven the Sharks batty over the years, and left his share of bruises. He’s a dirty player, in a league that doesn’t just tolerate dirty players, but puts them up on a bit of a pedestal. And at the same time, feels a bit guilty about that. Except for Don Cherry.

Fact: telling players to respect each other fails from the start. they aren’t paid to respect each other. They’re paid to win. Respect ends where it gets in the way of winning. And it always will. And frankly, it SHOULD. because what ultimately matters is winning.

So if you want to make sure the players respect each other, it’s simple: the rules must penalize players when they forget and cross that line. If the rules don’t enforce that respect, then the players won’t do it. and where the rules fail to do this — that’s where the injuries happen.

Now Torres has crossed that line hard and fast — and against a key player — and the press is up in arms, and so the league is going to react (over react, probably) because Torres is a useful target, and slap Torres silly for this. He deserves to be slapped, but he’s also going to be slapped to make up for the slaps that the league withheld, now that “it’s gone too far”

I don’t envy Shanahan’s job. Or Bettman’s. Blame them all you want, but they’re treading a political minefield — if the press aren’t yelling at them the fans are, or the coaches, or the GMs, or the Board. The board of governors being their bosses, when they get on the phone, you can bet it gets answered.

Shanahan’s trying to come up with where that line needs to be drawn. and behind the scenes, he’s got meddlers telling him to move it around. And when it gets moved around, he takes the blame. I’ll bet he didn’t think it would be this complicated. But it is.

I’ve also come to think he and the league are doing themselves a big disfavor here. They try very hard to be “fair” and “objective” here. counting video frames from pass to hit to see if it’s late, looking at a hit that starts on the shoulder differently than one goes right to the chin. And they’re right — those nuances matter.

the problem is, nobody WANTS those nuances. Not the coaches. not the owners. not the players. not the press, not the fans. And so the nuances get lost, and everyone bitches about the end result, even if objectively they can show why all of these nuanced differences matter.

So here’s my suggestion: throw all that nuance crap out. That is the core problem seems to come from. Simplify the justice system. If the owners and players are more comfortable with “hit to the head, first offense, two games”, then give it to them.

Come up with some relatively simple, straight-forward metrics on hit severity. Label them “grade 1” through “grade 5”. publish them, and enforce them. Grade 1 might be a hit to the head that glances off some other part of the body. Grade 5 is a hit directly to the head leading to a player leaving the game with an injury. Every grade is escalated for repeat violations; a repeat of a grade 1 hit is punished as a grade 2, a grade 1 and a grade two is punished as a 3. Once you get to grade 5, you simply double the penalty every time until the player gets the message or is too old to return from a suspension.  Fine, one game, two games, three games, five games. then double each time.

Simple. and it also tends to prevent the BoG from behind the scenes “encouraging” changes in the standards, because there’s much less wiggle room. And the players know exactly what’s coming, as long as it’s enforced. (if it’s not, then we’re back to playing Rollerball, folks. I’m not sure I’m interested in watching that — and there was a shot taken in the Philly/Pittsburgh series where the last time I saw someone do that, it was IN the damn movie. I don’t see that as a good thing).

The league wants to install a culture change in the players — but is unwilling to actually put the leash on until the players learn the new limits. By taking the leash off mid-season, the players adjusted back, and then some. Taht’s the league’s fault. Now they’re trying to put this particular genie back in whatever bottle is handy — and Raffi Torres is going to pay for that, big time. He deserves it, but probably not to the degree they’ll hit him.

The ultimate problem is that Colin Campbell and now Shanahan have worked very hard at solving the wrong problem: they wanted suspensions to be based in fact and “fair”, because the situations are so situational. And the reality is, nobody else wants it that way; they want it easy and understandable, not something that requires a PhD to decipher.

So it’s time to rethink what they’re doing with suspensions, and simplify it. And IMHO, once they do, double the length of all suspensions (not that they will).

Because the reality is, until you make it painful for the player and the team to cross that line, they will. And these are guys who get root canals between periods and come back out without missing a shift. Slaps on the wrist won’t slow them down.

So what the league really needs to do is ramp up the pain. that’s what it’ll take to put respect back in the game, not lecturing. Unfortunately, it looks like the Board of Governors doesn’t really want that.

So instead, I’m guessing the league will under-react to these kind of hits until something really bad happens, and then over-react to that one situation and hope that solves the problem.

And I think we all know that it won’t.