If you weren’t tuning into the NHL prior to start of the playoffs, I’d first like to ask why? Regardless of your reasons, you may have missed Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith taking a solid stick swing at the face of Wild forward Charlie Coyle.
The incident (or act) cost Keith the remaining five games of the regular season and Game 1 of the Hawks first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.
Now, some in the hockey world called for a harsher penalty seeing as the swing seems to have become part of Keith’s repertoire over the years. But, under the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Chicago blueliner isn’t considered a repeat offender and therefore only missed the appointed number of games.
After all, the rules are in place to avoid any grey areas when it comes to penalizing these types of acts – right?
Fast Forward to Kris Letang
With the start of the playoffs, came the beginning of a Metropolitan matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. Questions looming around the Penguins goalie situation and the health of Evgeni Malkin had the Rangers coming into the series as front-runners (for most) to take the series.
Yet, three games in the Rangers find themselves down two games to one in the series and looking to tie it with Game 4 in New York.
The Rangers, however, will still have one opponent lining up across from them that many people around hockey thought would be sitting out for Game 4. It was announced Wednesday that Kris Letang would not face supplemental discipline for his seemingly deliberate slash to the head of Rangers’ forward Viktor Stalberg.
While suspensions in the playoffs are much harder to come by, it comes as a surprise that a similar incident that landed Keith six games goes unpunished by the league’s Department of Player Safety only a couple of weeks later.
Letang vs. Keith: What’s Different?
Suspensions are in place by the league to offer a learning process for players who break the rules. It’s the same as an in-game penalty just with longer consequences. So why did Keith sit for six games (including one playoff meeting) while Letang will suit up for Game 4 of the Penguins’ playoff series against the Rangers?
For one, the time of year is likely taken into consideration. Yet, Flyers’ forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare received one game for his hit from behind on Dmitry Orlov. In other words, just because it’s playoff time doesn’t mean the league will refrain from suspending a player. So the question remains.
Now, Keith’s had a history of suspensions. He sat five games in 2012 for elbowing Daniel Sedin and one playoff game in 2013 for slashing the face of Jeff Carter. That was issued in the playoffs. So why is Letang’s situation different?
“The slash is so violent, so direct,” writes The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin. “He looked right at Stalberg, appeared to have a steady footing, wound up, and baseball-swung his stick into Stalberg’s head.
“But, even if his reputation doesn’t precede him, Letang did something extremely dangerous Tuesday night,” continues Larkin. “Even if we somehow decipher that his slash was accidental – it was still careless enough to be deplorable.”
And that’s why we have suspensions in any sport. To teach players when they do something that is considered to be unacceptable. Sure, Letang doesn’t have the reputation that some players have in the NHL, but that shouldn’t make him untouchable. Players need to be in control of their sticks at all times.
While it is the playoffs and the incident would’ve likely only rendered a one-game ban, the DOPS cannot let these actions fall by the wayside. It certainly isn’t the first time the department’s actions have been called into question and it won’t be the last. However, to have a situation so similar to one that landed a player a six-game suspension go essentially unnoticed simply because it’s the playoffs isn’t going to fly.
That’s the inconsistency by a department within the league’s head office that drives players to take things into their own hands – to police the game on the ice. And that’s something the league has worked so hard to remove from the game. So while it’s not an easy decision to make for the DOPS – to suspend a player during the playoffs (or at any point during the season) – they do need to find some kind of consistency in what is considered a disciplinary play.
If the Keith slash is worth suspending the player, so is the Letang play. Accidental or not, he had no control over his own stick and it knocked out three teeth of an opposing player. At the very least, it deserved to be reviewed and discussed. Instead, the inconsistency remains.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.