In more than two years on the job as the NHL's disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan has handed out a lot of suspensions.
But none have been longer in the regular season than the 15 games given to Boston Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton on Saturday for punching and injuring an unsuspecting player, in this case Brooks Orpik. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman remains out with a concussion, while the man who knocked him unconscious Dec. 7 won't be able to play again until Jan. 11.
After the league's board of governors meeting earlier in the week, the common theme was that Shanahan was doing so well at setting new standards for what's legal and illegal. This was a new standard for suspensions because, as Shanahan put it, what Thornton did "cannot be described as a hockey play that went bad."
It was not a crime of passion, so to speak, because Thornton tried to get to Orpik in response to his hit on Bruins winger Loui Eriksson earlier in the game. Thornton's strong reputation and lack of disciplinary history played in his favour, but what he did—slew-footing Orpik to the ice and delivering a couple of gloved punches to his face—was not to be tolerated.
"(Shanahan) made a ruling, I think, that says volumes about getting that kind of play out of the game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told reporters in Detroit on Saturday afternoon. "I think it's a pretty strong message."
Strong messages have become the name of the game for Shanahan and the NHL's department of player safety, and it's an evolving process. Jokes about the league's so-called wheel of justice are gone, replaced by more comprehensive explanations about why a player is getting a certain number of games.
Not a single suspension this season has been for fewer than two games. Toronto winger David Clarkson was sentenced to two games earlier Saturday for his head shot on St. Louis forward Vladimir Sobotka, and Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was given two games earlier in the week for boarding Bruins defenceman Kevan Miller.
One game doesn't seem to be enough, anymore. And the belief is that Shanahan's punishments are serving as a deterrent.
"I think Brendan was able to demonstrate to the board that players as a group are starting to change behaviour, and behaviour is getting better than when he first took this job," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday. "I think the board was very comfortable that we're making progress in this area."
That includes Thornton, who showed remorse for his actions after the eventful game between the Bruins and Penguins. Even if that didn't shave a single game off his suspension, it might be the start of his own progression in light of the new standard of conduct.
"I know he's probably going to think a lot about how he handles stuff," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Tuesday. "Brad Marchand, in our case, he had been down the path a couple of times and he's had to change his game a bit. ... People are reacting, and I think at the end of the day it's a good thing."
It's a good thing if fewer injuries come as a result of changing player behaviour. New Jersey Devils general manger Lou Lamoriello pointed out that injuries have always been a part of the game and always will be, and he doesn't expect Shanahan, Patrick Burke, Brian Leetch and the rest of the department of player safety to do everything.
"The responsibility has to be on the players, also," Lamoriello said Monday night. "This is their game, as well as anybody else's game, and they have to have respect for each other."
Around the NHL, there's no shortage of respect for Thornton. Until assaulting Orpik, he had a sterling reputation as a tough guy who did his job but didn't cross the line.
"Shawn Thornton, he seems to be a stand-up guy, always seems to play his role really well," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said Tuesday. "He's already said he made a mistake."
Bylsma similarly called Thornton a "pretty honest hockey player who made a mistake." That "mistake" could have long-term effects on the Penguins and even the U.S. Olympic team, which almost undoubtedly will have Orpik on its roster when it's released Jan. 1.
When Orpik can play again is a mystery. In the meantime, Thornton will do his time as part of a suspension that, in Shanahan's tenure, trails only what turned out to be a 21-game sentence for Raffi Torres after his illegal hit on Marian Hossa during the 2012 playoffs.
"We don't see these types of plays very often, luckily," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero told reporters in Detroit. "I don't think that's what he intended to actually have happen, and it did, though, and he certainly has to face the consequence of that."
Shanahan said there was no edict from the NHL's board of governors to make punishments more severe. But Chiarelli thinks longer suspensions are coming as part of natural evolution.
"I believe it is happening," Chiarelli said. "Whether there'll be really long ones, it would probably trend that way. I think obviously when you get past a certain number there's more legal proceedings and rights of appeal and whatnot. We'll get to that point some day. I don't know if it's this year, but I think it's trending that way."
Thornton's suspension may just be the start of that.
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.
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