Philadelphia, PA – The first night of the Stanley Cup playoffs gave Brendan Shanahan and the NHL two chances to suspend players for violent acts, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who closely follows the league that it opted to ban a lesser-known player while letting one of its stars walk away with a fine.
Shanahan, the NHL's senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations, has a seemingly thankless job that only draws attention when a possible suspension is in the offing. However, he deserves all the grief he gets this time around for letting Nashville defenseman Shea Weber get away with a $2,500 fine for a senseless act of aggression against Detroit star Henrik Zetterberg.
In the closing seconds of Nashville's 3-2 win over the Red Wings in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday, Weber became incensed with Zetterberg for taking a run at him in the corner. Weber threw a punch at the back of Zetterberg's head, but when that didn't connect squarely enough, the All-Star grabbed the Detroit forward by the helmet and smashed his head into the glass.
Shanahan called it a "reckless and reactionary play" on Weber's part and said that "this play and the fine that addressed it will be significant factors in assessing any incidents involving Shea Weber throughout the remainder of the playoffs."
As always, the NHL's discipline czar took into account the fact that Zetterberg was not injured on the play, but that really shouldn't matter in this case. What Weber did to Zetterberg had nothing at all to do with hockey and everything to do with injuring an opposing player. The fact that Zetterberg wasn't hurt and passed a base-line concussion test is fortunate, but it doesn't excuse the intent on Weber's part.
Weber has never been suspended by the league and does not have a reputation as a dirty player, but he was already fined earlier this season for a boarding incident. That previous fine already should have served as his warning, but Shanahan decided to give Weber another free pass.
The fact that the $2,500 fine is the maximum amount allowed under the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement should have told Shanahan that he needed to do more to send a message. After all, Weber, who was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2010-11 and is one of the top defensemen in the league, collected a $7.5 million salary this season. It's hard to believe Weber could have learned any kind of lesson after having such a small amount of his personal wealth taken away.
The sad thing is that all the NHL needed to do to send a strong message in this case was suspend Weber for one game, although the act itself probably warranted more than that.
Still, forcing one of the best players in the league to sit for even a single playoff game would set the tone for the rest of the postseason. Instead, the message sent is that star players can get away with more than the rest of the league, even when the violence being committed is against a star player like Zetterberg, who himself is a former Conn Smythe winner.
Another disciplinary situation, one that didn't involve a star player, wound up with Vancouver grinder Byron Bitz being suspended for two games. Bitz, who played in just 10 games for the Canucks during the regular season, boarded Kyle Clifford of Los Angeles after taking a long run at the Kings forward. The play happened in the second period of L.A.'s 4-2 win and Bitz was assessed a five-minute major for boarding as well as a game misconduct. Weber received only a two-minute roughing minor for his penalty, another oversight by NHL on- ice officials.
Clifford suffered an upper-body injury on the play and that's one of the reasons Bitz earned a stronger penalty than Weber. It was the right decision, considering Bitz's blind-side hit is one of the dangerous plays the league is trying to eliminate in its quest to reduce head injuries. However, it was also an easy choice to make since Bitz is not a key to Vancouver's success like Weber is for Nashville.
Most people realize that Shanahan's job is a difficult one, but he won't lessen his burden by taking the easy way out when it comes to disciplining star players.
Although he won't admit it, even Weber has to feel he got away with one for his mindless act of rage. He should know that he has no business playing in Friday night's Game 2, but, unfortunately, Shanahan's blunder will allow him to do just that.