Comparing James Neal's hit on Sean Couturier with Raffi Torres' on Marian Hossa to illustrate the inconsistencies in the NHL's issuing of supplemental discipline.
There is really very little that separates James Neal’s hit on Sean Couturier from Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa in terms of the acts of the aggressors on each play.
In both instances, neither Couturier nor Hossa had the puck and both, given their position, could be considered defenseless. Likewise, the player who made the hit was guilty, in both cases, of three penalties: interference, charging and a blow to head.
The three separate penalties are stressed above because they are likewise emphasized by NHL Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan in his video suspending Phoenix’s Torres for 25 games.
Neal, of course, received no penalty or discipline whatsoever for his hit on Couturier and was suspended one game for charging after making contact with Claude Giroux’s head only 42 seconds later.
So, what are the differences between the plays themselves? [videos below]
This site is, of course, Philadelphia-based and covers and supports the city’s local teams. That said, this comparison between the hits on Couturier and Hossa is in no way motivated by Couturier’s status as a Flyer nor Neal’s as a Penguin.
Similarly, the Flyers’ playoff series with the Penguins is of no consequence. The intent of this piece is to point out the ways in which the NHL assesses foul play and administers supplemental discipline on a case by case basis. The examples used below serve only to illustrate the central issue.
The Given Explanations
The most glaring difference between the two scenarios would be that Couturier was not injured on the play. Though he remained face down for many moments, he was eventually helped off the ice, but was able to skate under his own power, and later return to the bench. Couturier has not missed any time as a result of the hit.
Hossa, on the other hand, left the arena on a stretcher, was diagnosed with a concussion, has not participated in a game since and may not for the remainder of the playoffs.
As for a history of this kind of behavior, a frequent point of focus for Shanahan and the league, both Neal and Torres have been previously fined and suspended for illegal hits. In just this last season, Neal was fined by the league and warned by the Department of Player Safety twice. He was also suspended by the league three years ago for making contact with a player from behind.
Torres, separately, has an even longer history of infractions and, as Shanahan put it, “reckless” behavior. He’s been suspended five times for blows specifically to the head. This suspension makes his sixth.
Inconsistency and Improper Focus
Frankly, after six suspensions for hits to the head dating back to 2007, Torres’ suspension is not outrageous. If the NHL is serious about cleaning up its game and removing plays and players like this, then 25 games for a now-six-time repeat offender is an honest step in that direction.
That said, the league needs to seriously re-evaluate its position on weighing the result of a illegal play. Injury should play little part in the determination of a suspension. It is only by sheer luck that Couturier did not wind up as badly injured as Hossa. The result of a play should have little or no bearing in determining the illegality of a hit. Torres and Neal participated in highly similar acts, and those acts should be the focus of the league, not the severity of injury, which has been shown just in these two instances to be a matter of chance.
Moreover, it is gravely disappointing that Shanahan would go through such explicit steps to break down the event of the Torres incident while accepting the explanation of Neal for his. In both instances, as mentioned at the top, neither player who was hit had possession of the puck. Additionally, both players had lost the puck in such a fashion that caused the play to shift in the opposite direction, causing both Torres and Neal to alter their courses in relation to the puck.
Starting with Neal, he peeled back into the zone from neutral ice and found Couturier in his path. In the video above, Shanahan states that he accepts Neal’s explanation that the forward was bracing himself for an unintended collision with Couturier.
But with Torres, Shanahan goes moment by moment to show how Hossa had released the puck, like Couturier, was no longer part of the play, like Couturier, and was defenseless, like Couturier. Unlike with Neal, Shanahan does not consider that Torres could have been similarly “bracing himself,” despite specifically mentioning how Torres had previously attempted to make a play on the puck.
If Neal’s explanation for his hit on Couturier is acceptable than there is only a willful decision not to see Torres’ hit on Hossa hit from the same perspective. Frankly, one could make the argument that Torres was moving toward Hossa when Hossa had the puck, that Torres then reached backwards to play the puck while still skating in the direction of Hossa, and then braced for contact by jumping. In both instances, the speed of the game and the apparent inclination to jump in an attempt to brace oneself could be used to defend the actions of both Neal and Torres.
Those explanations can either be accepted or not accepted on the whole, but it is unreasonable to ascribe to Neal’s version of events while picking apart the Torres in specifics. Both events should be viewed in the same manner as the acts were perpetrated&n
bsp;in the same manner. Granted, Torres has a longer history of reckless play, but, again, Neal was already fined and warned twice such behavior just this year. Just as it was irresponsible for Neal and Torres to leave their feet, it is irresponsible for the league to classify one of these events and self-defense while condemning the other in such detail as three separate penalties.
Does Precedent Play a Role?
Most arguments about inconsistency related to supplemental discipline, other than the separate point raised below, focus on comparing one incident to another, as was done above.
The most obvious point of contention in this regard was Shea Weber’s smashing of Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards in Game 1 of Nashville’s first round series with Detroit. The league has made a specific point this year to eliminate blows to the head — not including fighting, of course — and yet Weber was fined just $2,500 dollars for a blatant violation of the NHL’s directives. He was not suspended.
That said, others have been suspended since the Weber incident and it’s often a common reaction from fans and writers alike to compare suspensions in order to piece together some determination of consistency or inconsistency, fairness or unfairness on the part of the league. For example, well if Weber was only fined $2,500, why was player X suspended for Y games?
And although that’s the common response, it doesn’t seem like a response with which the league is concerned, nor does precedent seem to play any role in their decisions when it comes cases not immediately relevant to the player in question. For example, although the Neal and Torres appear responsible for the same (three) infraction(s), Torres has a separate disciplinary history from Neal, just as he does from every other player in the league.
So while it does make sense to compare these incidents based on a desire for consistency, the league, it appears, judges individuals acts on their own, and not in accordance with the acts or prior or even future suspension of others, no matter how similar the infractions may be.
Complicating matters is Neal’s value to his team versus Torres’ value to his. Neal scored 40 goals and dished out 41 assists for 81 points in over 19 minutes per game in the regular season. Torres, meanwhile, has scored a combined 86 points over the course of the last three seasons and was on the ice for an average of 11 minutes per night this year. Also worthy of mention is Hossa’s recognition as one of the elite players in the world compared to Couturier’s status as a highly-successful, but less-publicized rookie.
One will also notice in the Torres video above that the forward’s first suspension in 2007 was similar to Evgeni Malkin’s blindside pick on Couturier during Friday night’s Game 5 in Pittsburgh. That play came just one game after Malkin, again from the blindside, initiated elbow-to-head contact with Flyer Nicklas Grossmann. Grossmann missed Game 5 with what has been reported, but not officially announced, as a concussion. Malkin was penalized for the hit on Couturier, but not for his elbow on Grossmann. He was issued additional discipline in neither case.
The scoring champion’s behavior aside, though it exists in this article to raise a very specific point about the league’s most talented players, there is no doubt that Neal is more valuable to his team than Torres to his. As context for why that’s relevant, this article from ESPN insider Neil Greenberg argues that ”punishments have been levied against stars and grinders alike, but the severity of the suspensions has varied” and that the league’s “track record shows non-star players tend to be banned longer.”
Whether or not a double-standard actually exists in the league office, there is at the very least a public perception, as demonstrated by both the Greenberg piece and articles like it, that indicates such as the case. It’s that perception of favoritism that only makes comparisons between cases like Neal and Torres — cases in which both players participated in nearly identical acts — all the more frustrating.