Top Shelf: Keith elbow could have lasting implications out West

There is no doubt that Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith earned a suspension when he drilled Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin in the head with a deliberate elbow Wednesday night.

How long that suspension will last is a question for Brendan Shanahan and there is reason to believe the NHL's senior vice president of player safety could make an example out of Keith when the ruling comes down on Friday.

The Keith-Sedin story is yet another example of the NHL's concussion issues dominating the headlines. Keith's vicious elbow resulted in a head injury for Sedin and the severity of the concussion could go a long way in determining who comes out on top in the Western Conference playoffs.

The length of Keith's suspension also could play a big part in how the West playoff picture shakes out. After all, nobody sees more ice time (26:53) for the Blackhawks on a nightly basis than Keith, and with just seven games left in the regular season, it's likely Chicago will be without its top defenseman for most, if not all, of its remaining scheduled contests.

Sedin's health looms even larger for the Canucks, who are powered year in and year out by the dynamic twin brother combination of Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Daniel Sedin was sent back to Vancouver for evaluation on Thursday and missed the first of what could be many games for the Canucks later that night.

Although Vancouver inched itself closer to a fourth straight Northwest Division title with a 2-1 victory in Thursday's tilt in Dallas, the prospect of entering the playoffs without Daniel Sedin, the goal-scoring half of hockey's most famous twin brother partnership, is a scary notion for the club to say the least.

The hit in question came in the first period of a game Chicago eventually won by a 2-1 score in overtime. It was certainly the type of play the league is trying to eliminate, one in which a defenseless player without the puck is the unsuspecting victim of a blow to the head.

It's not the worst head shot the NHL has seen, but the deliberate nature of it, and the fact that it involves two high-profile players in the heat of the playoff race, places the Keith-Sedin saga firmly in the spotlight.

The fact that both Keith and Daniel Sedin are such integral pieces to their respective teams' fortunes makes determining the right punishment for the former player the biggest decision Shanahan has had to make since taking over as discipline czar last summer.

There is already speculation that Shanahan will go beyond a five-game punishment in dealing with Keith. The defenseman reportedly waived his right to have an in-person hearing on Friday and the fact that the league wanted to meet face-to-face with Keith could suggest Shanahan is considering a ban that last longer than five games -- the maximum penalty allowed for hearings conducted over the phone.

Shanahan has plenty of reasons to throw the book at Keith. Just ask former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, who said in his blog on that the on-ice officials for Wednesday's game in Chicago should have hit Keith with a five- minute major for elbowing at the very least and possibly a match penalty for attempt to injure. Instead, Keith only received a two-minute minor for elbowing and that missed opportunity could lead to a larger sentence from Shanahan.

There is also the fact that earlier in the game -- about 6 1/2 minutes before administering his deliberate elbow -- Keith was hit in the head with a shoulder from Daniel Sedin. That would seem to present an argument in Keith's favor, but in reality it could wind up establishing motive for his hit on Daniel.

The only thing Keith has going for him in the sentencing is that he has never been suspended and is therefore not considered a "repeat offender." However, in a high-profile case such as this one, that will probably only succeed in keeping Keith's sanction under double-digit games.

As always, Shanahan will not be able to please everyone when he delivers a punishment for Keith. If he decides Keith should only miss five games, then he'll likely get accused of not taking hits to the head seriously. But if he delivers a penalty in the 10- to 15-game range, Shanahan could get called out for taking illegal hits delivered on star players more seriously than ones on lesser players.

Because Chicago's first game after Wednesday's controversial contest doesn't happen until Sunday, Shanahan was given plenty of time to mull over his decision. That's a good thing because even if he keeps this job for 20 years, Shanny may never face a decision with bigger implications for the outcome of an entire season than he does with this one.