The NHL suspended Edmonton Oilers defenceman Andrew Ference for three games Monday, culminating a bad week on the supplementary discipline front for players who seemed to be figuring out the limits of what they could and couldn't do on the ice before backsliding in a big way.
Ference's suspension, for an illegal check to the head of the Vancouver Canucks' Zack Kassian, brought to six the number of players who've been called on the carpet in front of disciplinary czar Stéphane Quintal in a seven-day span, starting the previous Monday when that cheery recidivist, 6-foot-8 John Scott, got dinged for two games for leaving the bench on a legal line change to fight the Anaheim Ducks' Tim Jackman.
Naturally, there is a temptation here to focus on the snapshot, when the reality paints an entirely different picture.
Up until Scott went predictably postal, the NHL had played 105 exhibition games and 119 regular-season games without a suspension for supplementary discipline, the longest stretch in the player-safety-department era.
Consider that last year there were seven suspensions in the exhibition season alone (totalling 38 games) and nine more for another 42 games up to and including Nov. 1. Some of the offences were particularly memorable and egregious.
Scott, for example, received seven games for a brutal elbow to the head of the Boston Bruins' Loui Eriksson; the Buffalo Sabres' Patrick Kaleta got 10 for a dangerous hit to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson. It was nasty stuff – and didn't even include a trio of five-game sentences handed out to Maxim Lapierre for boarding Dan Boyle, Ryan Garbutt for charging Dustin Penner and Cody McLeod for boarding Niklas Kronwall. None of those was pretty either.
In short, a year-over-year comparison shows that suspensions are way down – 16 handed out by Nov. 1 of last year compared to just three this year (to Scott, the New York Rangers' John Moore and the Vancouver Canucks' Alex Burrows). Of course, there have been three more since the start of the month – Ference, plus two games for the Los Angeles Kings' Jordan Nolan and four for the Nashville Predators' Anton Volchenkov.
Volchenkov's play on Calgary's Michael Ferland illustrates the grainy distinction that may always exist between a legal and an illegal hit. Replays showed that Ferland slipped, fell or ducked just as the two players were about to collide, making the primary point of contact Volchenkov's elbow and Ferland's head.
Volchenkov was adamant that it was purely an accident – he was in the middle of lining up his check when Ferland's body position shifted and Volchenkov couldn't stop his momentum. That can happen when the game is played at today's superfast pace. It is a fair point by Volchenkov, except to note that players need to keep their sticks under control. Intent (or the lack thereof) is not a defence the department of player safety readily accepts. It shouldn't for head shots either.
The recent past suggests suspensions can be weirdly and unpredictably cyclical. Last year, following the rash of early-season suspensions, there was a 39-day period of grace, between Nov. 2 and Dec. 8, in which only three suspensions were handed out – to Jesse Winchester, Kevin Westgarth and Nazem Kadri.
Things looked as if they had cooled off nicely, until James Neal exacted revenge on superpest Brad Marchand in a Dec. 9 game between Pittsburgh and Boston that exuded bad blood and resulted in a five-game ban for the Penguins forward. The Neal penalty opened the floodgates again for a time, resulting in nine suspensions in nine days, including a significant one – 15 games against Shawn Thornton, then with Boston, for punching an unsuspecting Brooks Orpik, then with Pittsburgh. Yes, those teams again.
Things settled down again and there was nothing deemed suspension-worthy until early January. Maybe everyone was just in a good mood because of Christmas. Maybe the message started to sink in. Maybe right now the NHL player-safety department is trying to find a new identity amid all the off-season departures and changes (Brendan Shanahan and Brian Leetch out; Quintal, Chris Pronger and others in). Maybe the precipitous decline in fighting majors has weaned many one-dimensional players, the Kaletas and Westgarths, out of the game, making it safer for all.
Maybe it's all of the above. As long as body contact is an integral part of the game, the lines will always be occasionally crossed. It doesn't alter the fact that the league and the player-safety department need to remain ever vigilant to ensure things stay on course. The good news is that players without any real talent are going the way of the dodo and the net result is in the big picture: bad behaviour significantly reduced year over year.