This year, many hockey fans, including myself, heralded the arrival of Brendan Shannahan as that of a straight shooting U.S. Marshal, not unlike Raylan Givens from Justified. He blew in from another department, six-shooters loaded and ready to be drawn at the first time of trouble.
Initially, that's what we got. Or at least, that's what I thought at the time.
Shannahan's supplementary discipline started strong- relative to the reign of Colin Campbell, at least. With Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Jody Shelley receiving five and ten games respectively for boarding plays, and Wisniewski getting twelve for a head to the head of Cal Clutterbuck, Shannahan was full of fire, aiming at taking down dirty plays in the NHL.
It didn't last. And it probably wasn't good enough to begin with.
After September had an average suspension of 6.67 games, October was 2.75, November was 3.25, December was 3, January got up to 4.14, February ended at 1.5, and March isn't over so I'm not including it (though I don't expect that number to be over 3). In total, after a strong start, the league's suspension average dropped by over half from Septembers average: from 6.67 to 3.07.
Of course, the league homer (also the same sort of person who thinks staged fights rock and Kronwall doesn't jump into his hits) argues "Clearly the suspensions in September worked because now Shannahan doesn't need to suspend players as long!"
That person is an idiot.
I'm not going to fall into the trap of comparing dozens of individual hits, given the size and unreliability of such a study, instead I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. Suspension length has fallen by more than half. There are, to be sure, a few reasons that cause this other than Shannahan going "soft", but the impact should be minimal.
Players like PL3 play significantly more in the pre-season than the regular season, giving them more opportunities to perform dirty plays. But I can't imagine that would have a major impact, especially given the highest suspension this year (including pre-season games) was given to James Wisniewski- not a noted thug- for his hit to the head of Cal Clutterbuck.
There are few signs of improvement either: Duncan Keith received a mere five games for his particularly vicious elbow to the head of Daniel Sedin just this past week. Five games is not enough. Five games is a slap on the wrist. Imagine that happening in any other sport- it's simply inexcusable, and yet hockey gives a stern finger wag for all but the most heinous of crimes (Chris Simon's stomp on Ruutu, for example).
The fact is though, hits to the head- even the blatant and intentional ones- are regarded as lesser crimes than stomping on someone's leg. An action that can cause severe brain damage for a lifetime is a not as bad as something that might give you a limp.
Merely returning to the initial levels of punishment at the beginning of the year won't solve any problems either. An average of six games is hardly a motivator for most of the players- especially the ones who are frequent scratches anyways. No- if the NHL is serious about player safety, they need to start suspending players for chunks of seasons. Give players a real reason not to take advantage of vulnerable opponents. If you know a twenty game suspension is looming- rather than a quarter of that- you might find yourself putting the elbow down and veering away.