Does Keith's punishment fit the crime?

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
8:46
PM ET
This is the sound of one hand clapping in the wake of the NHL’s decision to suspend Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith for five games for his flagrant elbow to the head of Vancouver Canucks leading scorer Daniel Sedin.

The other hand?

Scratching our head in puzzlement, as is often the case when it comes to supplemental discipline.

Does the Keith punishment fit the crime?

First, let’s say that if you’ve come here looking for justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.

No one knows when Sedin, who left the team and returned to Vancouver for further medical tests after being laid low by Keith in the first period of Wednesday’s game, will return to the ice, so justice as it relates to punishing Keith is a relative thing.

But five games is something.

It’s more than three, two, one.

It’s less than the seven that remain in the Blackhawks’ regular-season schedule.

It is not nothing.

It’s the space of time it could take Chicago to lose out on home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It’s the kind of suspension that could cost his team several million dollars in playoff revenues.

In his video explanation of the suspension released late Friday, the NHL’s lord of discipline, Brendan Shanahan, discounts Keith’s assertion that he was merely trying to impede Sedin’s progress when he nailed him outside the Chicago blue line, saying the hit was “dangerous, reckless and caused injury.”

What’s more curious about this case and what sets it apart from the many other examples of dangerous plays isn’t so much the number Shanahan settled upon, but the journey he traveled in getting there.

As late as Thursday afternoon, multiple sources told ESPN.com that Keith’s supplemental discipline would be handled by phone, an informal hearing that guaranteed a suspension of five games or fewer, per language in the collective bargaining agreement.

That wasn’t all that surprising given that earlier this week, Shanahan suspended Phoenix captain Shane Doan for three games for a blatant elbow to the head of Dallas Stars star forward Jamie Benn.

The two incidents were relatively similar; in fact, we would argue that based on the hit itself, Doan’s was more egregious.

Both involved high-profile players on the giving and receiving ends of reckless, dangerous hits, although Doan has a history of supplemental discipline and Keith does not (he had been fined once in his career).

Given the dispensation of the Doan matter, it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary for Shanahan to follow a similar pattern.

But Thursday night, the landscape began to shift.

After preparing for a phone interview, the league shifted gears and asked for and received the NHLPA’s permission to approach Keith about either attending an in-person hearing or waiving that right for a phone interview that would allow Shanahan greater latitude in assessing a suspension.

A source familiar with supplemental discipline said that as far as he knows, this is the first time the league has requested such a change in protocol once the supplemental discipline process has begun.

Multiple sources have told ESPN.com that this was simply a function of Shanahan changing his mind and wanting more latitude as he decided how to deal with the situation. By asking for the in-person interview, Shanahan allowed himself a full range of penalties from zero games and upward.

The fact that Shanahan ultimately settled on five games reinforces the notion that this was about weighing all the options before settling on a punishment.

Let’s hope this was the case. Let’s hope this wasn’t a case of external pressure being brought to bear on Shanahan to deliver a different kind of penalty.

To be sure, these are uneasy times when it comes to the league and its handling of discipline.

There was the ugly line brawl that marked the beginning of a game earlier this week between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, an incident for which the league had no response in terms of sanctions.

The Washington Capitals are still without their best player, Nicklas Backstrom, who hasn’t played since being elbowed in the head by repeat offender Rene Bourque in early January. Bourque earned a five-game suspension, one that seems laughably light given the damage done to a Capitals team scrambling for a playoff berth.

Then, in the space of 24 hours, two top players in Benn and Sedin, a finalist for the Hart trophy and the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ MVP last season, respectively, were targeted by dangerous hits. That both hits came courtesy of quality, character players in Doan and Keith put Shanahan and the league in a position to be able to make a statement about such plays.

Was such a message sent?

Like the question of justice, there is no way to say with certainty one way or the other.

In the case of Benn, he returned to action for the Stars, and Doan’s three-game suspension could very well cost the Coyotes a playoff berth.

Keith’s five-game suspension won’t have the same potentially ruinous effect on the Blackhawks, who are pretty much locked into a postseason berth, but it could cost them financially.

Could it have been more?

In our book, plays such as this could always warrant more.

As the days wind down to the playoffs and the postseason begins, these incidents become magnified, as does the response by the league.

If you’re the Vancouver Canucks now contemplating starting a playoff run without your top goal scorer, perhaps you’d like to see Keith take a seat for the rest of the regular season or into the first round of the playoffs a la Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins a year ago.

We are firmly of the mind that until players learn not to behave as Keith and Doan did this week, the problem will persist. Shanahan insisted at the recent GMs meetings in Florida that he’s in the business of changing behavior, not in the business of punishment.

In this case, the hits he dealt with this week could have long-term effects on the playoffs. The suspensions could as well.

Maybe that’s all you can ask for. Maybe, in the end, that’s enough.

Maybe.

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