The most interesting thing about Shawn Thornton’s suspension – a stiff 15-game sentence – is what happens next.
Will Thornton accept the penalty (handed to the Boston Bruins forward by NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan on the weekend), do his time and return to the lineup as scheduled on Jan. 11, against the San Jose Sharks?
Or, with the help of the NHL Players’ Association, will he file an appeal to get the suspension for his attack on Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik reduced?
Logically, you’d have to suspect it’ll be the latter – and if so, this may finally be first test of the revamped NHL disciplinary process negotiated in January, coming out of the lockout.
Under terms of the new collective agreement, players were granted the right to appeal any suspension of six games or longer – first, to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and, if that wasn’t successful, to an independent arbitrator.
The NHLPA wanted the system amended because of its belief Bettman shouldn’t be the final word on NHL discipline – and concern he wasn’t likely to meaningfully alter suspensions handed out by the league’s hockey operations department.
Ever since the NHLPA won that right, people have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is as if the sides had been warily circling each other through the first one-third of the season, trying to determine when might be the correct time to engage.
For its part, the NHL has been suspending players left and right.
Winnipeg Jets forward Anthony Peluso was the latest target – dinged for three games Sunday for boarding Alex Goligoski.
Peluso’s marked the 20th suspension of the 2013-14 season, but tellingly, only three have been for five games or more.
The only two suspensions that could have been appealed were handed to the Buffalo Sabres twin terrors, Patrick Kaleta and John Scott. Kaleta received 10 games for an illegal hit to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Jack Johnson; Scott seven games for doing the same to the luckless Loui Eriksson, the Bruins forward who was injured on a hit by Orpik that ultimately set off Thornton’s rage.
But there was no general outrage about the Kaleta or Scott penalties from the NHL’s rank and file, nor the public at large. Both were repeat offenders. In the end, both accepted their sentences and moved on.
Thornton, however, represents a different sort of transgressor.
He is not considered a cheap-shot artist. Even those on the other side, such as Penguins general manager Ray Shero, acknowledge that.
“Shawn Thornton has been a player throughout his career, through the minors and the NHL, I believe, that has been an honest player,” Shero said last Saturday. “He’s never been suspended before; plays a tough role. I don’t think what happened is what he intended to happen.”
Moreover, Thornton issued an immediate and what sounded like a heartfelt mea culpa – as opposed to the empty, unapologetic apologies some players issue because they feel they have to in the immediate aftermath of doing something stupid.
The Bruins issued a statement following Shanahan’s ruling to the effect that they would support whatever decision Thornton makes, and that Thornton would, in conjunction with the players’ association, consider all his options.
Shanahan, for his part, was unequivocal in his ruling, noting Thornton punched an unsuspecting opponent and caused a serious injury.
“He grabs him by the collar, kicks his feet out and proceeds to throw two short punches at Orpik while he is lying on his back,” Shanahan said in a video explaining his ruling. “This cannot be described as a hockey play that went bad. Nor do we consider this a spontaneous reaction to an incident that just occurred. Rather, it is our view that this was an act of retribution for an incident that occurred earlier in the game.”
There is nothing wishy-washy about the NHL’s response or its interpretation of the matter. It considered it an egregious act and no amount of mitigating circumstances, or suggestions Thornton was sticking up for a teammate, excused his response.
By the usual standards of NHL discipline, this is a noteworthy, shot-across-the-bow statement – and not likely to be the end of the matter either.
THE OLYMPIC WATCH: That little scene late in Saturday night’s 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, in which Boston Bruins’ forward Brad Marchand mocked the Canucks’ bench by mimicking raising the Stanley Cup, is the latest in a long list of reasons why Marchand won’t make the 2014 Canadian men’s Olympic team, after earning an invitation to the summer orientation camp. Marchand isn’t playing well enough anyway, but the larger issue has to do with comportment overseas – and the need for the coaching staff to believe that every player in uniform can keep their cool if things start to go off the rails in a game. The Olympics features a round-robin prelim that comes for nothing other seeding and sorting out your team play, followed by a series of sudden-death, one-game, winner-take-all showdowns. There is no room for undisciplined play.
Canada doesn’t want to be embarrassed internationally, on the ice or off.
It’s a different matter when it comes to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Chris Kunitz, who plays hard but isn’t a disciplinary risk; has some chemistry with the Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby; and is putting up good numbers again, largely because of that partnership. Crosby is not an easy player to play with early because he does so many creative things, so Kunitz would have the advantage of that familiarity they’ve developed with each other, something that might be difficult for two players to achieve in the fortnight or less they’d be together.
The other advantage is that Kunitz also has a history with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who are having fabulous seasons with the Anaheim Ducks. If, for whatever reason, you wanted to play a couple of speedsters with Crosby – say Matt Duchesne and Martin St. Louis –you could still always play Kunitz with two of his former linemates in Anaheim. So you wouldn’t necessarily to be putting him on in one role and then be stuck if you wanted to try something different. I still think he’s not in the top 14 at the moment, but it’s because they have tentatively got Steve Stamkos still penciled in. If Stamkos proves to be too risky – or if he’s named and then unable to play because he isn’t 100 per cent healthy – Kunitz seems as if he’d be the perfect 11th hour addition.
MR. JONES AND ME: It’s hard not to hear the Counting Crows rattling around your brain whenever you watch the former Calgary Hitman goaltender Martin Jones play goal for the Los Angeles Kings these days. Even though Ben Scrivens had done a credible job playing in place of the injured Jonathan Quick, the Kings switched to Jones in mid-December, with startlingly good results. After patiently on the bench for the better part of three weeks waiting to play, Jones rattled off a 5-0-0 start to his NHL career, posting a 0.99 goals-against average, a .969 save percentage plus two shutouts in his first five NHL games. The Kings’ victory over the Senators Saturday made it six wins in a row and extended an amazing run in which they had not surrendered a first-period goal in 18 consecutive games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that had not happened since the 1927-28 season, when the original Ottawa Senators team managed the feat.
The streak came to an end Sunday night when the Chicago Blackhawks, smarting from that lopsided loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs the night before, scored three first-period goals against Scrivens, who was the given the start in place of Jones. Quick, currently out with a groin injury, is gingerly skating by himself in L.A., but likely isn’t going to be back until the New Year. At that point, the Kings may send Jones down just so he can play regularly for AHL Manchester and let Scrivens return to the backup job. But long term, the Kings have a lot of time and effort invested in Jones, so the organizational plan is to get him to the NHL full-time, likely for the start of the 2014-15 season, and have him share time with Quick. The pace of that plan could be expedited if the Kings get a decent offer for Scrivens at the trading deadline. Otherwise, they’ll try to move his rights at the draft and if they can’t, they’d be prepared to lose him as an unrestricted free agent.
THE INJURY REPORT: Good news for the Anaheim: former Ottawa Senators forward Jakob Silfverberg, who has been out since the last week of October recovering from a broken right hand, could be back by the end of the week. Silfverberg was the primary player going Anaheim’s way in the Bobby Ryan trade and he had put up decent numbers (seven points in 11 games) before getting injured … Also on the cusp of returning, two of the key Columbus Blue Jackets’ players, defenceman James Wisniewski and right winger Marian Gaborik. Wisniewski, who has been a key man on the power play, has missed two games because of an undisclosed upper-body problem, but Gaborik has been out close to a month because of a sprained left knee … The injury toll continues to mount in Pittsburgh, where Evgeni Malkin left Saturday’s game against Detroit early in the third, when he went crashing into the boards. Defenceman Kris Letang is muddling through an injury- filled season and missed the game too, joining fellow regular defencemen Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi on the shelf. One of the replacements, Engelland, is likely to miss significant time now too, and of course James Neal is still out, serving his five-game suspension for kneeing Marchand … Detroit is equally beat up, Abdelkader joining an injury list that includes Henrik Zetterberg, Stephen Weiss and Derek Helm, along with defenceman Danny DeKeyser and starting goalie Jimmy Howard … In Florida, Tim Thomas is out for the third time with a groin injury, a sign maybe that at age 39, you can’t take a year off and expect the body not to feel the effects of the lengthy layoff. The Chicago Blackhawks have learned that the hard way too – 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin is out indefinitely, so the team picked up Jason LaBarbera for futures from Edmonton to back-up Aanti Raanta until starter Corey Crawford is healthy, which will take another two weeks or so … It's been a feast-or-famine year for the Stars' Tyler Seguin, who is 15th in NHL scoring with 31 points in 29 games, but has had four games this season in which he has scored four or more points, which accounts for more than half this production ... Former Senators’ defenceman Sergei Gonchar had been a bust offensively for the Stars until Saturday, when he matched Seguin's output and unexpectedly reeled off a career-high four-assist night (after scoring just six points in his first 30 games). It made Gonchar only the second defenceman in NHL history to have his first four-point night after his 38th birthday. The first was that guy who played before he ever got into the doughnut business. You may have heard of him. Tim Horton.
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