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Bolts Beat: Decisions on player safety are confounding

Published: April 6, 2014

TAMPA — The NHL wheel of justice spins and spins and spins. Nobody really knows where it stops.

That was supposed to change. The standards were supposed to be more strict, the penalties more severe.

Yet, here we are, left to wonder if the punishment fits the crime. Or if it still goes into the spinning wheel that goes around and around, only allowed to stop in certain areas based on a predetermined set of criteria.

There have even been satirical (we think) “Top Secret” flow charts to determine how long a suspension will be for a player who commits an act worthy of a hearing with the league.

These thoughts and discussions were supposed to no longer be in the vernacular around NHL circles in the age of Brendan Shanahan, who has been at the helm of the NHL Department of Player Safety since 2009-10.

Not in the age of the Shana-ban.

But it seems little has changes, or one might say things have reverted slowly back to the way they used to be.

Montreal defenseman Douglas Murray received a three-game suspension this week for a vicious elbow delivered directly to the chin of Tampa Bay’s Mike Kostka that knocked the Lightning blue-liner out cold.

Though Kostka was able to get up and leave the ice under his own power, he is out for an indefinite period after being diagnosed with a concussion.

Murray was handed a match penalty for an illegal hit to the head, which carries an automatic suspension pending a review, which came two days later.

During that time, there was much debate about how many games Murray would get, and that’s when the old “Top Secret’’ flow chart came into use to consider what the suspension would be.

Questions such as “Does the player play for an Original Six franchise?”

“Was the offending player a star player?’’

“Was the injured player a star player?’’

“Is the offending player considered a goon?’’

And on and on.

What doesn’t fit here is that the punishment should be based on the act, independent of everything else, including if the player has never come under the scrutiny of the NHL Department of Player Safety.

That leaves me to wonder whether the “Flow Chart’’ came in to play regarding Murray’s suspension. Three games does not seem nearly enough for the elbow Murray delivered, which is among the most blatant and vicious I have witnessed in my 13 years covering the NHL. And to me, a three-game suspension for that hit, even for a player with no history of supplemental discipline, is not serving as a deterrent for others.

Since Shanahan took control of player safety, there have been 180 suspensions handed out, including preseason and postseason games.

Of those suspensions, 60 have been either for elbowing or illegal contact to the head (34 percent of all suspensions). And of those 60 head-contact suspensions, 19 (31.7 percent) have been for more than three games, but only six of those 19 (31.5 percent) have been handed out since the 2013 lockout season began.

So as the league continues to beat the drum of trying to reduce the number of head injuries — they will never be eliminated in such a fast-paced game — the question has to be asked: Is enough is being done?

One could make the argument that perhaps the number of suspensions are actually down because of how Sheriff Shanahan dispensed his justice in the early going.

Or you could say the player safety department has been more lenient.

But either way, the inconsistency of how suspensions are doled out is a bit confounding. Murray’s elbow was as dirty as I’ve ever seen, yet it somehow was deemed worthy of only one more game on the sideline than Richard Panik received for a push from behind to Washington’s Karl Alzner in December.

So if Panik’s hit was worth two games, shouldn’t an elbow to the head, no matter who the offender is or who took the hit, be worth more than three games?

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