Blackhawks News

Chicago Blackhawks: Keith’s Ban Shows NHL’s Poor Standards

By Colin Likas
Mar 12, 2016; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers right wing Zack Kassian (44) during the face off against the Arizona Coyotes during the third period at Rexall Place. Arizona Coyotes won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2016; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers right wing Zack Kassian (44) during the face off against the Arizona Coyotes during the third period at Rexall Place. Arizona Coyotes won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

Right before Friday’s puck drop in Winnipeg, the Chicago Blackhawks learned the fate of their star defenseman. Duncan Keith was banned six games — five regular-season contests and one playoff game — for hitting Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle in the face with his stick Tuesday.

Most Blackhawks fans probably breathed a sigh of relief, and Keith’s suspension could have been much worse. If he was forced to miss an extended postseason period, that, along with the uncertainty surrounding Corey Crawford’s health, probably would have sank the Blackhawks in the opening round.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t have been surprised at the length of Keith’s suspension. The NHL has proven in the past it has little idea how to consistently enforce suspensions, and it proved that once more with Keith. The league had a chance to throw the book at a repeat offender and star player, but failed miserably.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy as a Blackhawks fan that Keith’s suspension was relatively light. The Blackhawks are pretty close to locked in to their current postseason spot, so the real concern regarding his absence is just that one playoff game. But from a “fan of NHL hockey” perspective, this suspension is another embarrassing reminder the league is clueless when it comes to dishing out punishment.

I pulled up some past plays, not necessarily of comparable offense, but more so of comparable suspension length. Let’s take a look at those and compare the resulting suspensions to Keith’s most recent ban.

Sept. 21, 2013: Vancouver’s Zack Kassian on Edmonton’s Sam Gagner — 8 games (3 preseason, 5 regular season)

Dec. 7, 2011: Edmonton’s Andy Sutton on Carolina’s Alexei Ponikarovsky — 8 games

Oct. 19, 2010: Vancouver’s Rick Rypien — 6 games

March 10, 2010: Anaheim’s James Wisniewski on Brent Seabrook — 8 games

Let’s start from the top and work our way down. On the surface, Kassian’s suspension seems more severe than that of Keith. But you have to remember, Keith is out six games of importance, while Kassian missed just five games of importance. However, does it make sense that Keith is out just one more important game than Kassian was? Keith’s high stick on Coyle was clearly intentional and could easily be construed as meant to harm. Kassian’s was reckless as all get out, but could you say with 100 percent certainty he intentional tried to strike Gagner in the face? It was a dumb play, but not one that was clearly premeditated.

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So why did the suspensions wind up being comparable? It’s where we come across two big issues with the league’s suspension policies. For starters, Kassian is nowhere near a star player, so the league has no problem making an example of him. And second, Gagner suffered a broken jaw on the play, while Coyle just needed some stitches. The “did the play cause an injury or not” portion of the NHL’s suspension protocol is pretty insane, considering one player could totally intend to injure someone and just fail at it, thus netting a shorter ban, while another could accidentally do something, injure his opponent and get banned for a large number of games as a result.

Next, Sutton’s head hunting on Ponikarovsky. Clearly, that hit was dangerous and could have been avoided. Sutton had a history of high hits during his 15-year career, so that certainly factored into him getting eight games. But isn’t Keith a repeat offender as well, specifically with regard to hitting people with his stick?

It happened one other time, as you can see above in the June 4, 2013, Western Conference finals game against Los Angeles. It was a vicious and seemingly random action, and Keith somehow was banned just one playoff game for it. So, again, we come back to star power. Sutton won’t be remembered in the league for much other than his big (sometimes illegal) hits, while Keith has a history of star power to back him up. Hence, the league saw fit to ban a repeat offender in Sutton for eight games while a repeat offender in Keith got six.

We can pretty much say the same thing for Wisniewski’s hit on Seabrook, as Wisniewski had a history of suspect behavior while not necessarily being a star player. Plus, Seabrook being actively knocked out by Wisniewski’s hit made the NHL want to make sure the cause of that blackout was noticeably punished. Meanwhile, a play that easily could have knocked out an opposing player (or worse), Keith hitting an opponent in the head with his stick, gets a sort of shrug from the league.

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Now, the fourth video up there is not an on-ice hit. Instead, it’s the late Rypien going after a Minnesota fan at Xcel Energy Center. Rypien wound up with six games, the same number as Keith (disregarding one is a playoff game for Keith). Now, this is a really interesting case, because Rypien was not a star player and had a history of being a hard-hitting, on-the-edge guy. So how does actively assailing a fan net someone the same suspension as hitting an opponent with your stick … but also a lesser suspension than some high hits? And also a lesser suspension than Dennis Wideman’s initial 20-game ban for striking a referee earlier this season?

This is what I’m trying to get at. I’m certainly not upset as a Blackhawks fan that Keith didn’t get a double-digit-game suspension. I think his action would’ve been fitting of one, but it didn’t happen, and that helps the team I root for. But it was just another example of the NHL totally failing at properly assessing a dangerous situation. The league’s inability to properly address dangerous on-ice activity is among the reasons casual fans and others refuse to take it seriously, and we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon.