Philadelphia, PA – After a relatively slow start to the season, Brendan Shanahan was busy handing out his two biggest suspensions of the year over the past week.
Shanahan, the NHL's head disciplinarian, slapped Philadelphia's Harry Zolnierczyk with a four-game suspension on Sunday and the next day handed Patrick Kaleta of Buffalo a five-game ban. Prior to those sanctions, Shanahan had suspended six players for a combined total of 11 games this season.
It's probably not an accident the suspensions have increased as the shortened season nears the midway point. As we get closer and closer to the playoffs, the stakes are higher and the intensity within games can lead to players doing more careless things on the ice.
There's also a chance Shanahan, the only player in NHL history with over 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes, honestly doesn't want to eliminate physical play from the sport entirely. As a former NHL tough guy, maybe Shanahan wants to give the players a bit of leeway to begin his second season in charge before stepping in with big statement suspensions.
Of course, it was different in 2011-12 when Shanny effectively announced the arrival of a new sheriff in town by handing out five suspensions of more than five games during the preseason alone. He gave out only three bans of that length once the regular season began and one of them was the 25-game suspension he dropped on Phoenix enforcer Raffi Torres during the 2012 playoffs.
Shanahan's job is largely a thankless role, but he's done an excellent job of setting the right tone since taking over for Colin Campbell as the league's discipline czar on June 1, 2011. The use of videos to explain his suspensions has become the subject of ridicule for snarky hockey bloggers everywhere, but the introduction of those short clips is a vast improvement over the days of Campbell. The previous disciplinarian instead issued his edicts via press releases which made little attempt at explaining the reasoning behind the suspensions and their lengths.
In his video releases, however, Shanahan at least tries to let the hockey- viewing public in on the nuances that factor into his decision making. You may not always agree with Shanahan's ruling, but at least there's a better effort from the league at explaining the process.
In the cases of Kaleta and Zolnierczyk, Shanahan chose the right time to tighten the noose as he disciplined a pair of players who seem to have problems respecting the opposition.
Zolnierczyk avoided Shanahan's ire despite getting a major penalty for kneeing on Feb. 27 against Washington. While most of the contact on that hit against Capitals centerman Mathieu Perreault was of the shoulder-to-chest variety, Zolnierczyk left himself with little wiggle room in Saturday's game against Ottawa.
The Flyers winger was given a major for charging and a game misconduct near the midway point of the first period after leaving his feet to issue a high and hard hit to Ottawa defenseman Mike Lundin. The vicious collision left Lundin with a concussion, but that wasn't enough for Zolnierczyk to see the error of his ways. Instead, Zolnierczyk complained about the state of hockey and how his head-hunting wouldn't have been an issue several years ago, like he was longing for the days when the league took head injuries less seriously.
"That is where we are right now in hockey," Zolnierczyk said. "You can say years ago maybe it wasn't a penalty, but right now, that is what we're calling. That's the way it is and that is the league's decision. I gotta live with it now."
That leads us to Kaleta, a repeat offender who received the third suspension of his career and second since Shanahan took over as disciplinarian. He's also been the recipient of fines for a few more of his questionable hits.
This time, Kaleta got himself in trouble for Sunday's boarding play on New York Rangers forward Brad Richards. Kaleta checked Richards from behind, sending him head-first into the boards from what Shanahan deemed "an extremely dangerous distance."
"Richards does not turn his back just prior or make any sudden movements that contribute to this illegal check," Shanahan added. "Kaleta is in full control of this play, and had ample opportunity to make a better decision."
The fact that Kaleta had "ample opportunity to make a better decision" and chose not to brings us to the notion of respect and how some players simply can't adapt to what Shanahan and the NHL are trying to bring to the game.
Rangers head coach John Tortorella summed it up best in his postgame reaction to Kaleta's hit.
"It's probably one of the most dangerous hits I've seen ... It's disgusting," Tortorella said. "It's a lack of respect. Each team wants to beat the other team, but you need to respect what's going on on the ice."
Unlike Zolnierczyk, Kaleta at least seemed to feel like he warranted suspension and even said he felt like a "bag of garbage" for the hit. But, when you have the history Kaleta has, it's not enough anymore to express remorse, there has to be a noticeable change in the way he plays the game. After all, respect is something that needs to be earned and Kaleta has a lot of earning to do in light of his latest transgression.
Kaleta has played in nearly 250 more games at the NHL level than Zolnierczyk, but one hopes he'll see the light sooner.
If not, he'll soon find himself on Shanahan's speed dial along with Kaleta and the rest of the guys who can't seem to learn the meaning of respect..