NHL 2012-2013: Rethinking the Shanaban

Here's the scene: It’s game four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have frustrated the Flyers for two and a half games now, stifling the high flying attack that dismissed the favored Penguins in six games.

New Jersey leads this seven game series two games to one. 

Much of the Devils' success has stemmed from their ability to limit the effectiveness of the Flyers’ star centerman Claude Giroux. He had 14 points against the Penguins. He had 1 in the first three games of this series. 

Late in the second period of this game four, the Flyers dump the puck in deep. Future Hall of Fame net-minder Martin Brodeur, as he so often does, ventures away from his net to play it. Under pressure from Giroux, he illegally clears the puck from outside the trapezoid area. 

Giroux spots the infraction immediately. The referees do not. 

The visibly frustrated Flyer stages an emphatic protest before chasing down the puck carrier Dainus Zubrus. Just after the Lithuanian born Devil crosses the red line, Giroux launches a vicious shoulder check into his target's head. 

The Devil falls limp to the ice. It is just the type of play that the NHL has attempted to remove from the game in recent years: a clear head shot to a somewhat defenseless player. 

Although Giroux is a first time offender, the NHL’s Head of the Department of Players Safety Brendan Shananan, aka the Sheriff of Shanahan who hands out Shanabans, suspends the Flyers' star for a pivotal game five. 

Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette fills his center’s vacant roster spot with volatile winger Zac Rinaldo. During the regular season Rinaldo racked up 232 penalty minutes, good enough for second in the league despite only playing in 66 games. 

The young winger is despised beyond his years. At 22 years old, Rinaldo’s often reckless play draws the ire of some of the league’s most respected players. 

A memorable moment in HBO’s 24/7 series catches Rangers veteran Mike Rupp telling Flyers enforcer Jody Shelley that "He," Rinaldo, is “acting like a f____ idiot” out there. 

In game five of the Devils series, the idiot does not disappoint. 

In the first period he lines up New Jersey d-man Anton Volchenkov from across the ice. Rinaldo takes several strides before launching into the vulnerable defenseman, who has just cleared the puck up the boards. 

The Russian crumples to the ice. Although Rinaldo clearly left his feet to make the hit, by definition a charging penalty, the referees let the play continue before stopping for Volchenkov's injury. 

Luckily he, and Zubrus, are healthy enough to finish the playoffs. 
 
Rinaldo continues to throw himself into Devils for the rest of the night. No matter, New Jersey would win the game and the series. 

The extended incident- Giroux’s suspension coupled with Rinaldo’s replacement play- highlights some of the faults of the current disciplinary system. 

While Giroux’s suspension was certainly justified, few would argue that his presence on the ice would be more “dangerous” for lack of a better word than Zac Rinaldo’s. 

This isn’t to say that skilled players should be exempt from suspensions, they shouldn’t, but rather that their roster spot should be suspended along with the player. 

The inherent problem in allowing teams to replace suspended players is that more often than not the players they have in reserve are fourth line agitators like Rinaldo. 

In many cases this results in a like player being substituted for a like player. But in cases like Giroux’s or James Neal’s suspension, a player more known for his aggression comes in for a skill player. 

Ultimately, teams can choose who plays on a nightly basis. The rules don’t forbid them from playing a Rinaldo, or a Zenon Konopka, or a Raffi Torres-These men will still get their ice time. 

However, if organizations risk losing not only a player but also a roster spot for an extended period of time they might think twice about sending out an enforcer type. 

They can tell their fourth liners to clean up their games or get lost, as the Penguins did with Matt Cooke. After a suspension filled 2010-2011 season, Cooke served 85 fewer penalty minutes in 2011-2012 while still playing a hard-nosed game. Players can change. 

Hockey is a physical game. Hitting will continue. But the sport is most aesthetically pleasing when the hitting is clean and the skill is abundant.  

An increase in the severity of punishments will ensure the safety of the players while maintaining the integrity of the game. The NHL needs to find a happy medium between physical and healthy.

This would help, and it may save some important careers along the way.

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