NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions

NHL
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When it comes to the court of public opinion the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is always going to be a no-win position.

Their job is a brutally difficult, thankless one that by its very nature is going to anger almost everyone watching the NHL. No player receiving a suspension is going to be happy about it, while their team and fans will usually think the punishment is too harsh. Meanwhile, the other side is always going to come away thinking the punishment wasn’t severe enough. Then there is always the neutral third parties in the middle that have no rooting interest with either team and will always be split with their opinions.

In short: It’s a job that a lot of people like me (and you!) enjoy yelling about. Sometimes we think they get it right; sometimes we think they get it wrong.

When it comes to Max Domi‘s suspension for the remainder of the preseason for “roughing” (the official wording from the league) Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the near universal consensus seems to be a gigantic shoulder-shrug and the understanding that this isn’t really a punishment.

[Related: NHL suspends Max Domi for remainder of preseason]

Sure, it goes in the books as a “five-game” suspension, because the Canadiens still have five games remaining in the preseason. And it will impact Domi in the future if he does something else to get suspended because it will be added to his history of disciplinary action that already includes a one-game suspension from the 2016-17 season for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game. This roughing incident, it is worth mentioning, also occurred while Domi was attempting to instigate a fight. Too soon to call that sort of action with him a trend, but it’s close.

The problem is that he isn’t losing anything of consequence as a result of the “punishment.”

He will not miss a single regular season game.

He will not forfeit a penny of his $3.15 million salary this season.

He basically gets to take the rest of the Canadiens’ preseason games off (and he would almost certainly sit at least one or maybe even two of them anyway, just because that is how the preseason works) and be rested for the start of the regular season on Oct. 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The only possible defense (and that word should be used loosely) of the DoPS here is that because the Canadiens have five preseason games remaining, and because suspensions longer than five games require an in-person hearing as mandated by the CBA, the league would have had to handle this incident with an in-person hearing to take away regular season games. In the eyes of the CBA, a suspension for five preseason games counts the same as five games in the regular season.

The only logical response to that defense should be: So what? Then schedule an in-person hearing if that is what it takes and requires to sit a player that did something blatantly illegal (and dangerous) for games that matter. Players tend to waive their right to an in-person hearing, anyway.

When it comes to dealing with suspensions in the postseason the NHL seems to take into account the importance of those games and how impactful even one postseason game can be in a best-of-seven series. If we’re dealing in absolutes here the same logic is applied, because had Domi done that same thing in a regular season game he probably doesn’t sit five games for it.

In the history of the DoPS “punching an unsuspecting opponent” typically results in a fine or a one-game suspension, unless it is an exceedingly dirty punch or involves a player with an extensive track record of goon-ism. The only two that went longer were a four-game ban for John Scott for punching Tim Jackman, and a six-game ban for Zac Rinaldo a year ago for punching Colorado’s Samuel Girard. Both Scott and Rinaldo had more extensive and troubling track records for discipline than Domi currently does.

If you want to argue semantics and say that Domi was suspended for “roughing” the point remains the same, because only one roughing suspension over the past seven years went longer than one game, and none went longer than two.

So looking at strictly by the number of “games” he has to miss he did, technically speaking, get hit harder with a more severe punishment than previous players.

But at some point common sense has to prevail here and someone has to say, you know what … maybe this translation isn’t right and we have to do something more. Because, again,  and this can not be stated enough, he is not missing a meaningful game of consequence or losing a penny of salary for blatantly punching an unwilling combatant (one with a history of concussions) in the face, leaving him a bloody mess.

The point of handing out a suspension shouldn’t just be for the league or an opposing team to get its pound of flesh when a player does something wrong and champion the fact they had to miss “X” number of games.

It should be to help deter future incidents and aim for meaningful change for the betterment of player safety around the league. That is literally why it is called “the Department of Player Safety.” It is supposed to have the safety of the players in mind. And that was the original goal of the DoPS — to try and put a stop to blatant, targeted hits to the head that were ruining seasons and careers (and, ultimately, lives).

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No one with an ounce of common sense is looking at this and thinking that this suspension does anything close that. And the NHL has to know that, too. How so? Because when a player does something in a previous season or postseason that warrants a suspension that will carry over to the following season (as was the case with Raffi Torres in 2011-12, and then Brayden Schenn in 2015-16), that carryover suspension starts with the regular season games — not the preseason games.

This, of course, is not the first time the league has handed out what is, ultimately, a meaningless suspension that only covers meaningless games.

Last year there were two such suspensions, with Washington’s Tom Wilson earning a two preseason game suspension for boarding St. Louis’ Robert Thomas, which was followed by New York’s Andrew Desjardins getting a two preseason game ban for an illegal check to the head of Miles Wood the very next night.

(It should be pointed out that upon Wilson’s return to the lineup in the preseason he earned himself a four-game regular suspension for boarding).

During the 2016-17 Andrew Shaw (who like Domi was playing in his first game with the Canadiens following an offseason trade to add more grit, sandpaper, and energy) was sat down for three preseason games for boarding.

There were four other similar suspensions in 2013-14.

Since the formation of the DoPS at the start of the 2011-12 season, there have been 21 suspensions handed out for preseason incidents. Only 12 of those suspensions carried over to regular season games. Of those 12, eight of them occurred during the initial DoPS season when the league was far more aggressive in suspending players (there were nine preseason suspensions handed out that season alone).

That means that over the previous six years only four of the 11 incidents that rose to the level of supplemental discipline resulted in a player missing a game that mattered.

That can not, and should not, be acceptable.

So, yeah. Five games for Max Domi. Given the circumstances, it is not even close to being enough.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.