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NHL sets precedent with Shawn Thornton suspension, but 15 games isn't enough

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Fifteen games. Is that enough for premeditated assault? Is that enough for the Boston Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, who hunted down the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brooks Orpik to retaliate for a hit on a teammate? Is that enough for sneaking up from behind, slew-footing someone and punching him in the head twice with a gloved fist as he lay on the ice?

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Shawn Thornton's 15-game suspension is longest regular-season ban of Brendan Shanahan's tenure. (AP)

In this system? Yes.

Ideally? No.

Shanahan had never suspended anyone for more than 10 games in the regular season until he suspended Thornton for 15 games on Saturday.

Since taking over as the NHL’s disciplinarian in 2011-12, Shanahan has said that his job is not to send messages, but to change behavior. He has not had a mandate to give long suspensions – except to repeat offenders. He has maintained that if an act rises to the level of supplemental discipline, history and injury can make the suspension longer.

Shanahan went too light on the Penguins’ James Neal when he gave him five games for a knee to the head of the Bruins’ Brad Marchand last Saturday night, seconds before the Thornton-Orpik incident. Neal had been fined and suspended before, had a history of sneaky-dirty hits to the head, and clearly intended to injure Marchand – and he lied about it afterward, showing no remorse, showing he had not learned his lesson. Neal was lucky, too. Had Marchand been injured, the suspension would have been longer.

[Related: Shawn Thornton suspended 15 games for attack on Brooks Orpik]

Thornton had never been fined or suspended before. He had no history of this type of incident, even though he is a fighter. He said afterward he had made a mistake. In that context, 15 games was heavy and Shanahan put a lot of emphasis on the act, not just the injury.

Orpik was knocked unconscious, went off on a stretcher, suffered a concussion and is still suffering symptoms. Thornton might be lucky that Orpik has resumed skating. But consider that almost every other act that has caused a concussion has resulted in fewer games.

Only twice before has Shanahan suspended someone longer than 10 games:

– He gave the Columbus Blue Jackets’ James Wisniewski 12 games in September 2011 for an illegal check to the head. But that was in the preseason, and the suspension was for four preseason games and eight regular-season games. That also was in Shanahan’s first month on the job when he was being aggressive (and before he was reportedly told to tone it down).

– He gave Raffi Torres 25 games for an illegal check to the head in April 2012. But that was in the playoffs, and that was a specific circumstance. Torres had a history of that type of hit, and he appeared to have knocked the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa out for the playoffs with a concussion. The idea was to knock Torres out for the playoffs, too. Torres was playing for Phoenix at the time, and the Coyotes had a maximum of 25 games left. Torres’ suspension was reduced to 21 games by commissioner Gary Bettman on appeal.

Thornton could appeal this one via the NHL Players’ Association, and under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, he can take it to the neutral discipline arbitrator if Bettman were to uphold six games or more. We haven’t had an appeal to the neutral arbitrator yet. The Buffalo Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta appealed a 10-game suspension for an illegal check to the head earlier this season. Bettman upheld it, and it didn’t go further.

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Orpik has resumed skating, but is still suffering concussion symptoms. (Getty)

The NHLPA’s role in this scenario is to make sure the process works properly and the right decision is reached. The union could argue that the suspension was too long because Thornton was not a repeat offender, and it could cite one precedent to show Thornton should have gotten less. In 2012, Shanahan suspended the Ottawa Senators’ Matt Carkner one playoff game for pummeling an unwilling combatant, the New York Rangers’ Brian Boyle. But there were some differences – Carkner had a history, Boyle was not injured and Boyle saw Carkner coming – and come on. This should set a precedent. If Bettman (unlikely) or the neutral arbitrator (who knows?) were to reduce the suspension, that might help Thornton, but it would hurt the league and the rest of the players.

In the big picture, 15 games for this type of act is still not enough, even for a first offense. Long suspensions aren’t going to stop everything, because people lose their minds sometimes no matter what. But Thornton did not lose his mind. He cannot plead temporary insanity.

Thornton was put out against Orpik by Bruins coach Claude Julien, after Orpik drilled Loui Eriksson with a shoulder to the chest – a nasty hit, but nothing more than interference under the rules – sending Eriksson off with a concussion. Thornton tried to get Orpik to fight once and failed, earning a roughing penalty. Thornton approached Orpik after Neal kneed Marchand and had plenty of time to think while Orpik stood still in a scrum.

As Shanahan pointed out in his suspension video, what Thornton did was not a split-second decision or a hockey play. It was calculated. It was outside of any kind of code. The result could have been even worse.

Thornton did this once, and hopefully this punishment will help ensure he never does it again. But the punishment has to be enough to get everyone’s attention. It has to be enough so the next enforcer – or the next coach who sends a guy out to get someone – remembers the potential penalty and decides it just isn’t worth it.

That’s not up to Shanahan. That’s up to the general managers. That’s up to the players and their union. That’s up to the competition committee and ultimately the board of governors.

Shanahan did more than he has ever done before in this case, but he needs to be given the mandate to do even more.

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