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Season Preview: League Discipline

How's DPS going to look now?

"You left that job for this one?"
"You left that job for this one?"
Bruce Bennett

The NHL announced on Monday that former defenseman Stephane Quintal would take over Brendan Shanahan's job as Senior Vice President of Player Safety. Quintal had been the interim man in the position since April when Shanahan accepted a position with the Toronto Maple Leafs. What can we expect from Mr. Quintal in his new permanent position?

The first thing to understand is that Quintal first started with the Department of Player Safety (DPS) when Shanahan did back for the 2011-12 season. Shanahan replaced the embattled Colin Campbell, and in his first preseason as league disciplinarian, Shanahan was not shy about dishing out punishment. The term "Shanaban" was born precisely because of suspensions like Brendan Smith getting eight games for a hit in a preseason game on Ben Smith.

One particular suspension changed the entire course of Shanahan's tenure as league disciplinarian. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was given a two-game suspension for a slash to Matt Calvert that was originally intended to be a slash to the hands, but because of Calvert's re-direction, ended up hitting Calvert in the face. The reaction to the suspension was swift and merciless. DPS was starting to show some teeth under Shanahan, and then was promptly de-fanged, resulting in suspensions that really couldn't be differentiated from one another and caused DPS to revert to the same results achieved under Campbell with a new process video outlined under Shanahan.

Quintal has been present for if not all then most of Shanahan's discipline decisions for the last three seasons. He's seen the progression that started with trying to punish players severely enough to deter them from committing the same offenses again and also warn other players of the consequences of making hits to the head or checking opponents from behind, especially into the boards. His interview with Steve Mears on NHL.com published yesterday suggests nothing will change from the standpoint of supplemental discipline. We even have some further evidence from his work during this past season's Stanley Cup playoffs to gauge the kind of job he'll do.

Player Suspension Reason
John Moore 2 games Illegal Check to the Head
Brandon Prust 2 games Late hit
Brandon Bollig 2 games Boarding
Matt Cooke 7 games Kneeing
Brent Seabrook 3 games Illegal Check to the Head

None of these punishments show a propensity to toughen up league discipline, even accounting for the fact they were playoff games. These suspensions instead show habits ingrained from the Shanaban era. While this development is a discouraging sign for using supplemental discipline as an effective deterrent to certain behaviors on the ice, Quintal did mention two key points in his interview with Mears that should help legitimately improve player safety.

When talking about players adjusting to the enforcement of the rules, Quintal said he thought it was going great because of efforts made by DPS to clear issues up with players.

"Over the last three years, we're trying to educate the players as much as we can," Quintal said. "When a guy's close to getting suspended or borderline, we call him up, and we say, 'This hit was good, this one was good, but this one, make sure you don't leave your feet.' Players really appreciate that. They recognize now that if a player's in a vulnerable situation on the ice, step around or make sure he doesn't hit him in the numbers."

The disappointment over supplemental discipline still being relatively toothless means that it will not be the deterrent it could be to motivate players to adjust their behavior on the ice. Still, it's admirable Quintal will seek to continue to implement a system of alerting the players of certain behaviors before it turns into a suspension-worthy offense. If Quintal and DPS can nip these kinds of hits in the bud, it will help one more player avoid suffering a significant injury.

The second sign that DPS can legitimately say it's taking player safety seriously is that they're looking into other causes of players getting hurt on the ice. Quintal spoke about his greatest concern for player safety heading into next season by touching on a topic several people have brought up over the years.

"We're working very closely with the Players' Association to look at the equipment," Quintal said. "Shoulder pads, elbow pads: Guys are getting bigger, stronger, and faster. We have to make sure that the equipment is right."

The hope is that the DPS and the PA can find ways to reduce the potential of player protective equipment functioning as weaponry when delivering body checks, especially with the shoulder. In a check made at high speed, the lack of cushioning for the player being hit with a hard plastic shoulder pad or elbow pad makes an already dangerous check even more painful to bear. The more impactful way to address an issue like this is to make sure players don't throw hits like this in the first place; even with a cushion, getting hit in the head or with an elbow at high speed can cause a fair amount of pain. Still, it's a step in the right direction for a league office that has endured much criticism for not doing its job.

Quintal continues the work of his predecessor as the new figurehead in charge of league discipline. His experience as a former player can provide a wealth of insight into effectively managing discipline, much like Shanahan. Though he and DPS are turning their attention to other aspects of player safety, their most effective means of promoting it still lie with attempting to curb injurious behavior. If their punishments not only for hits that cause an injury but also for actions where the player hit is lucky to be unhurt continue to prove too lenient, all their other efforts will be merely for show.

*Though it occurred under Quintal, Dan Carcillo's suspension for Physical Abuse of Officials was not included in the suspension table as it was automatic per Rule 40.