The wheel of NHL justice spun again Tuesday, and this time, spit out a 10-game suspension for repeat offender and all around bad guy, Buffalo Sabres' forward Patrick Kaleta.
On some levels, it was an easy decision for the NHL's disciplinary chief, Brendan Shanahan, to throw the books at the likes of Kaleta. It was Kaleta's seventh trip onto the NHL disciplinary carpet. Three times, he'd been suspended and three other times, he'd been fined for a variety of misdeeds.
Kaleta had been summoned to New York for an in-person disciplinary hearing, required under terms of the collective bargaining agreement if the NHL was considering a suspension of six games or more. Kaleta had already missed two games since he made a beeline across the ice and put his shoulder into the chin of Jack Johnson, the Columbus Blue Jackets' defenceman, in a game last Thursday night. No penalty was called on the play, but Kaleta did earn a fighting major after he was challenged by the Blue Jackets' Jared Boll in the immediate aftermath of the hit.
The fact that Boll was there to administer his own form of justice is generally the most common explanation of why fighting belongs in the game by those who believe it does – so that the Columbus enforcer could protect the Columbus captain from a malicious assault. Except it doesn't seem to work that way. The knowledge that he has to fight most nights seemingly isn't acting as a meaningful deterrent to Kaleta – or his tendency to breech the NHL rule book.
As recently as last season, he got dinged five games for a hit from behind that dangerously propelled the New York Rangers' Brad Richards into the boards. Shanahan made a reference to that incident in his decision – how it had only been only a short time since the two exchanged pleasantries.
"It's important to note that no matter who delivered this hit, it would have resulted in supplemental discipline," said Shanahan. "However, the fact that it was delivered by a player who has been fined or suspended six times in the last four seasons - the last time, just 21 games ago – factors heavily into the severity of the decision."
You've had the sense that Shanahan is trying to send a clear signal to players this year about hits to the head. After a suspension-filled preseason that saw, among others, Vancouver Canucks' Zack Kassian banned for eight games, five of them in the regular season, Shanahan had already suspended two other far more skilled players for three-game bans.
The San Jose Sharks' Brad Stuart got his for a hit to the head of the New York Rangers' Rick Nash which has sidelined Nash ever since. Also the Kassian's teammate Alex Edler received three games for a head check on the San Jose Sharks' rookie sensation Tomas Hertl. Shanahan went to great lengths explain why the suspensions were levied against players not normally thought of as particularly dirty.
Eventually, it all boils down to one salient point – in the same way that NHL players are responsible for controlling their sticks, they're now also obliged to be wary of connecting with an opposing player's chin. Deliberate or not, it doesn't matter. The onus is on the hitter to make a proper and legal hit. The old defences – but I didn't mean it – don't hold water anymore because, thankfully, concussion awareness is on the rise.
But three games amounts to only a week away and no one ever changed their behaviour patterns because of a seven-day absence. It is only when suspensions of memorable lengths and durations occur that players do sit up and notice. In Kaleta's case, he should be down to his final life line. If he can't clean up his game the way Matt Cooke, Steve Downie, Brad Marchand and others have, then he doesn't belong in the NHL.
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