By Jacob Messing
In 2016-17, the NHL had its lowest numbers of suspensions since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season.
The number of suspensions, cumulative games lost, and number of NHL teams that had a player suspended were all meaningfully lower than the previous three seasons.
While there are clearly fewer suspensions than in past years, there is a belief that some of the numbers are skewed due to the NHL’s initiative to clean up the league and eliminate dangerous play.
For instance, some of you are reading this and already have a handful of incidents running through your head that failed to warrant a suspension this past season -- or even past seasons.
One such play is Capitals winger Tom Wilson’s hit from behind on Devils defenseman John Moore on December 31, which went undisciplined.
There are not many clear-cut instances that demand suspensions, but this one comes pretty close. No fan wants to see hockey eliminate body-checking, but hits from behind, such as the one above, have never been legal.
The NHL continues to insist it is erasing danger from the league, and while I’m not arguing that, there could be a better solution to further prove it.
NHL players are worth millions -- their contracts and league revenue say so. While there will always be more players waiting to step up in another’s absence, there isn’t a new Sidney Crosby waiting on the sidelines.
Though he’s one of those players who is either cherished or loathed by fans, the 30-year-old Crosby has suffered a string of concussions during his career, and his long-term health should be growing concern of the NHL’s front office.
Rather than continually handing repeat offenders -- in the true sense of the words, not the NHL’s intricate definition -- varying amounts of time off, the league should filter them out by threatening the teams that own their contracts.
Imagine if the NHL put a system in place that threatened a club’s ability to draft players or spend to the maximum level of the salary cap -- not necessarily altogether but in a way that forced the club to consider the players it signs and for how long.
Of course, every front office already takes this into account, but what if the NHL was to announce that any team with a total of five players suspended or a cumulative total of 20 games suspended in a given season is subject to forfeit its fourth-round draft pick or face a salary cap penalty of $2 million for the following season?
The details would need to be hammered out and a chart of exponentially growing penalties would likely need to be made, but it’s a start.
It would further filter out dangerous players and plays and could even act as a scapegoat for some managers to argue that a certain player is a high risk given his suspension history.
However, the opposing side would say that there are star players who are repeat offenders, but there will always be hard-nosed players who are worth the risk.
One such player is Bruins forward Brad Marchand, who has been suspended four times for 12 games during his eight-year career but has posted superstar numbers over the past two seasons. He was even able to avoid suspension after a dangerous slew-foot on Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall this past season.
Front offices would arguably take a longer look at filling out the roster with other suspension-prone players if they happen to hold an all-star who is already known to cross the line at times.
And naturally, there will always be star players who make borderline plays. But if this radical solution can help weed out fringe players and continue to decrease the short list of goons who remain in the NHL, the league will be a safer place with continually declining suspension numbers.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.