This past week in the National Hockey League has been a very interesting one to say the least, and Tom Wilson once again drew the ire of the NHL fan base, outside of Washington that is. However, one has to ask. Is Tom Wilson really the problem, or is he a symptom to a bigger problem that needs to be addressed within not only with the NHL, but also within the NHL Players Association?
Starting off with the brouhaha between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers that would see public enemy number one in the NHL Tom Wilson get involved in a scrum that would see him punch Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head, and then lead to both Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin to jump in to make the scrum a bigger ruckus. As a result of this Wilson would essentially rag doll Panarin.
Out of all of this Wilson would get 14 minutes in penalties, and a $5000 fine from the Department of Player Safety the next day. A punishment that the Rangers organization found unacceptable.
On Wednesday the Rangers and Capitals would face each other for the last time during the 2020-21 season, and as everyone expected, it would start off with a bang.
The moment the opening puck dropped we would see an old fashioned line brawl that would see three fights take place. Then 49 seconds later Brendan Smith would challenge Wilson for the fourth fight of the game.
Two more fights would ensue shortly after, and the first period would see a combined 100 penalty minutes by the time it was over. In the second period Wilson would not return to the game after the Capitals public relations team announced that he would miss the rest of the game due to an “Upper Body Injury”. In reality the team pulled him from the game so the game can settle down. However, that wouldn’t stop Buchnevich though as he would high stick Anthony Mantha in the face to get ejected from the game.
The aftermath from Tuesday night’s statement from the Rangers, and from Wednesday night’s game would see the League dole out some punishment the Rangers way. First the League would announce a $250,000 fine against the Rangers for their statement. Then the Department of Player Safety would announce that Buchnevich would be suspended for one game for his high sticking of Mantha.
So as we can see, this past week was a crazy one, and that’s not including Rangers owner James Dolan firing John Davidson and Jeff Gorton as President and General Manager respectively, and promoting Chris Drury to President and General Manager on Wednesday.
The Symptom – Tom Wilson
Since coming into the League Wilson has always played with an edge, and has towed the line quite too often. However, he’s not the real problem here. Sure Wilson is a big, strong player who has the talent to be a top six forward, and a potential 30 to 40 goal scorer, but he’s also the new definition of what today’s power forward is. Too many people the way Wilson plays is a problem, and that everything he does needs to be scrutinized. That’s both fair, and not fair at the same time and here’s why. Tom Wilson is really the symptom to a much bigger problem and that problem is that everything that comes to discipline in the NHL is all ARBITRARY. There is no set standard or true system for how punishment is to be doled out.
Look at Monday night with Wilson and Panarin, and then look at Tuesday night between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. On Monday night Wilson and Panarin were involved in a scrum. Panarin jumped on Wilson’s back, and Wilson responded with slamming him to the ice. On Tuesday night Sidney Crosby and Travis Konecny were both involved in a scrum that would see both men wrestle each other to the ice and then Crosby getting on top of Konecny and grabbing his head and slamming it into the ice 3 to 4 times. Wilson received four minutes for roughing and a 10 minute misconduct, which would then be followed up with the $5000 fine the next day. Panarin would be given two minutes for roughing. Konecny and Crosby both received two minutes each for roughing, and Crosby never had a hearing for slamming Konecny’s head into the ice multiple times.
This notion that Wilson is the problem is wrong, because in reality he is a symptom to the real problem.
The Problem – The Disciplinary System
As I said earlier, the disciplinary system in the NHL is 100 percent arbitrary, and that’s a huge issue. It’s a huge issue because players know that if they do one thing one day it could be a suspension one day, and then someone else can do the exact same thing, but not get a hearing at all or just get a fine. It’s all over the place, and it needs to be reigned in and have checks and balances put in place. We need a real system that has a tiered system that can’t be appealed or brought to an arbitrator after a certain point.
In 2011 Brendan Shanahan created the Department of Player Safety with the intentions to change player behavior and help make the game safer while keeping the game physical. Shanahan in the beginning was aggressive with his efforts, and was giving significant suspensions for hits were capable of causing head injuries. The problem though is that the general managers undercut Shanahan because of their displeasure with the lengthy suspensions. As a result of this suspensions became shorter and discipline became more arbitrary. The scary thing to think about in regards to that, is that everyone is ok with that. They may speak publicly about how it’s a joke, but behind closed doors no one is fighting to change it.
The Factors – The NHLPA and the NHL
Let’s face reality. If anything were to really change, and change for the better, both the NHL and the NHLPA need to come to the table and negotiate a new agreement when it comes to player safety and for how discipline needs to be handed out. However, neither side is going to truly do that because neither side truly wants it. The NHL doesn’t want it because they don’t want to see players, especially star players like Crosby or Connor McDavid, missing games due to suspensions. While on the other side of the coin the PA doesn’t want it because then the players lose out on money that they’d be owed for the games that they would’ve played. Plus the agents of the players don’t want it either because if their client gets suspended, then their client doesn’t get paid, and if the client doesn’t get paid, then the agent doesn’t get paid. So there is a lot riding on this. Also for the PA, with how things are now, they are the biggest hypocrites because whenever there is a big suspension (Wilson’s from October 2018) they always appeal it, and they also make the players who were on the receiving end of the action that was a result of the suspension look bad. Seriously. Go read the first appeal for Wilson’s October 2018 suspension. The PA put some of the onus on the St. Louis Blues player for getting hit. That’s disgusting in it’s own right.
The Solution – A Tiered Disciplinary System
The ultimate solution to fixing this problem is that the NHL and the NHLPA need to come to terms with the fact that they need to accept a tiered system that is more direct and straight forward like the way it is currently for NHL Rule 64 (Diving/Embellishment). Rule 64 is a tiered system for how discipline is handed to players, and sometime coaches.
As you can see for Rule 64 it is all fine based as Diving/Embellishment is not about doing a potentially dangerous, but being unsportsmanlike in an effort to draw a penalty. But imagine having something like this for Rule 48 (Head Hits), or maybe making it for penalties specific like Charging, Boarding, Roughing, and High Sticking. Have the first citation be a fine, then the second citation be a suspension of 5 games, and then 15 games for a third citation. Have it continually increase with every time the player does that infraction. Also fine the coaches after a certain point too. It can be done.
The NHL and the NHLPA also need to give up the constant need for appeals and arbitration to try to have these penalties reduced. It devalues the process and makes it come off as if no matter what, we’ll do whatever it takes to have it shortened or rescinded. It sends the wrong message.
Say what you want about Tom Wilson. Love him or hate him, every team wants a player like him on their team. More importantly, it’s time to stop the full blown hating on him. It’s time to direct that anger towards the League and the Players Association because they are the ones that need to lead the charge in making those changes and making player safety a true priority by putting a more serious and direct to the point disciplinary system in place. Until that happens, Wilson will still play his game and be a difference maker for the Capitals, but one has to ask. If Shanahan never got undercut by the general managers when he did, would Wilson still be in the NHL today?
(H/T to Daniel Wagner of VancouverIsAwesome.com – Their decision on Tom Wilson shows it’s time to abolish the NHL’s Department of Player Safety)
Editor’s Note: Please keep all comments respectful. I understand a lot of people do not like Tom Wilson and wish him out of the League, but comments are to remain respectful and we encourage more constructive conversations on this topic.