Comparing Neal and Torres: A Detailed Look at Supplemental Discipline in the NHL

Comparing Neal and Torres: A Detailed Look at Supplemental Discipline in the NHL

There is really very little that separates James Neal's hit on Sean Couturier from Raffi Torres' hit on Marian Hossa in terms of the acts of the aggressors on each play.
In both instances, neither Couturier nor Hossa had the puck and both, given their position, could be considered defenseless. Likewise, the player who made the hit was guilty, in both cases, of three penalties: interference, charging and a blow to head.
The three separate penalties are stressed above because they are likewise emphasized by NHL Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan in his video suspending Phoenix's Torres for 25 games.
Neal, of course, received no penalty or discipline whatsoever for his hit on Couturier and was suspended one game for charging after making contact with Claude Giroux's head only 42 seconds later.
So, what are the differences between the plays themselves? [videos below]
The PlaysNeal:
A PrefaceThis site is, of course, Philadelphia-based and covers and supports the city's local teams. That said, this comparison between the hits on Couturier and Hossa is in no way motivated by Couturier's status as a Flyer nor Neal's as a Penguin.
Similarly, the Flyers' playoff series with the Penguins is of no consequence. The intent of this piece is to point out the ways in which the NHL assesses foul play and administers supplemental discipline on a case by case basis. The examples used below serve only to illustrate the central issue.
The Given ExplanationsThe most glaring difference between the two scenarios would be that Couturier was not injured on the play. Though he remained face down for many moments, he was eventually helped off the ice, but was able to skate under his own power, and later return to the bench. Couturier has not missed any time as a result of the hit. 
Hossa, on the other hand, left the arena on a stretcher, was diagnosed with a concussion, has not participated in a game since and may not for the remainder of the playoffs.
As for a history of this kind of behavior, a frequent point of focus for Shanahan and the league, both Neal and Torres have been previously fined and suspended for illegal hits. In just this last season, Neal was fined by the league and warned by the Department of Player Safety twice. He was also suspended by the league three years ago for making contact with a player from behind.
Torres, separately, has an even longer history of infractions and, as Shanahan put it, "reckless" behavior. He's been suspended five times for blows specifically to the head. This suspension makes his sixth.
Inconsistency and Improper FocusFrankly, after six suspensions for hits to the head dating back to 2007, Torres' suspension is not outrageous. If the NHL is serious about cleaning up its game and removing plays and players like this, then 25 games for a now-six-time repeat offender is an honest step in that direction.
That said, the league needs to seriously re-evaluate its position on weighing the result of a illegal play. Injury should play little part in the determination of a suspension. It is only by sheer luck that Couturier did not wind up as badly injured as Hossa. The result of a play should have little or no bearing in determining the illegality of a hit. Torres and Neal participated in highly similar acts, and those acts should be the focus of the league, not the severity of injury, which has been shown just in these two instances to be a matter of chance.
Moreover, it is gravely disappointing that Shanahan would go through such explicit steps to break down the event of the Torres incident while accepting the explanation of Neal for his. In both instances, as mentioned at the top, neither player who was hit had possession of the puck. Additionally, both players had lost the puck in such a fashion that caused the play to shift in the opposite direction, causing both Torres and Neal to alter their courses in relation to the puck.
Starting with Neal, he peeled back into the zone from neutral ice and found Couturier in his path. In the video above, Shanahan states that he accepts Neal's explanation that the forward was bracing himself for an unintended collision with Couturier.
But with Torres, Shanahan goes moment by moment to show how Hossa had released the puck, like Couturier, was no longer part of the play, like Couturier, and was defenseless, like Couturier. Unlike with Neal, Shanahan does not consider that Torres could have been similarly "bracing himself," despite specifically mentioning how Torres had previously attempted to make a play on the puck.
If Neal's explanation for his hit on Couturier is acceptable than there is only a willful decision not to see Torres' hit on Hossa hit from the same perspective. Frankly, one could make the argument that Torres was moving toward Hossa when Hossa had the puck, that Torres then reached backwards to play the puck while still skating in the direction of Hossa, and then braced for contact by jumping. In both instances, the speed of the game and the apparent inclination to jump in an attempt to brace oneself could be used to defend the actions of both Neal and Torres.
Those explanations can either be accepted or not accepted on the whole, but it is unreasonable to ascribe to Neal's version of events while picking apart the Torres in specifics. Both events should be viewed in the same manner as the acts were perpetrated&n
bsp;in the same manner. Granted, Torres has a longer history of reckless play, but, again, Neal was already fined and warned twice such behavior just this year. Just as it was irresponsible for Neal and Torres to leave their feet, it is irresponsible for the league to classify one of these events and self-defense while condemning the other in such detail as three separate penalties.
Does Precedent Play a Role?Most arguments about inconsistency related to supplemental discipline, other than the separate point raised below, focus on comparing one incident to another, as was done above.
The most obvious point of contention in this regard was Shea Weber's smashing of Henrik Zetterberg's head into the boards in Game 1 of Nashville's first round series with Detroit. The league has made a specific point this year to eliminate blows to the head -- not including fighting, of course -- and yet Weber was fined just $2,500 dollars for a blatant violation of the NHL's directives. He was not suspended.
That said, others have been suspended since the Weber incident and it's often a common reaction from fans and writers alike to compare suspensions in order to piece together some determination of consistency or inconsistency, fairness or unfairness on the part of the league. For example, well if Weber was only fined $2,500, why was player X suspended for Y games?
And although that's the common response, it doesn't seem like a response with which the league is concerned, nor does precedent seem to play any role in their decisions when it comes cases not immediately relevant to the player in question. For example, although the Neal and Torres appear responsible for the same (three) infraction(s), Torres has a separate disciplinary history from Neal, just as he does from every other player in the league.
So while it does make sense to compare these incidents based on a desire for consistency, the league, it appears, judges individuals acts on their own, and not in accordance with the acts or prior or even future suspension of others, no matter how similar the infractions may be.
A Double-Standard?Complicating matters is Neal's value to his team versus Torres' value to his. Neal scored 40 goals and dished out 41 assists for 81 points in over 19 minutes per game in the regular season. Torres, meanwhile, has scored a combined 86 points over the course of the last three seasons and was on the ice for an average of 11 minutes per night this year. Also worthy of mention is Hossa's recognition as one of the elite players in the world compared to Couturier's status as a highly-successful, but less-publicized rookie.
One will also notice in the Torres video above that the forward's first suspension in 2007 was similar to Evgeni Malkin's blindside pick on Couturier during Friday night's Game 5 in Pittsburgh. That play came just one game after Malkin, again from the blindside, initiated elbow-to-head contact with Flyer Nicklas Grossmann. Grossmann missed Game 5 with what has been reported, but not officially announced, as a concussion. Malkin was penalized for the hit on Couturier, but not for his elbow on Grossmann. He was issued additional discipline in neither case.
The scoring champion's behavior aside, though it exists in this article to raise a very specific point about the league's most talented players, there is no doubt that Neal is more valuable to his team than Torres to his. As context for why that's relevant, this article from ESPN insider Neil Greenberg argues that "punishments have been levied against stars and grinders alike, but the severity of the suspensions has varied" and that the league's "track record shows non-star players tend to be banned longer."
Whether or not a double-standard actually exists in the league office, there is at the very least a public perception, as demonstrated by both the Greenberg piece and articles like it, that indicates such as the case. It's that perception of favoritism that only makes comparisons between cases like Neal and Torres -- cases in which both players participated in nearly identical acts -- all the more frustrating.

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Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook's triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook's 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA's leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state (see full recap).

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The Knicks took a 21-point lead in the first half, gave up 18 consecutive points in the third quarter but outplayed the Kings down the stretch to win their third straight overall and improve to 9-3 at home.

Brandon Jennings added 19 points for New York and Kristaps Porzingis finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points and 12 rebounds for the Kings, but shot just 9 for 30 and looked fatigued while struggling late while playing the entire second half (see full recap).

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Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Magic.

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit's first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

On Jackson's first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play -- he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead (see full recap).

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Max Pacioretty had two goals and an assist for the Canadiens, who won for just the second time in seven road games. Montreal had only one win in its previous 11 games in California before scoring three times in the four-round shootout.

Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw also scored and Carey Price made 27 saves for the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens.

Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty had a goal and an assist apiece for the Kings, who lost for only the second time in eight games. Peter Budaj stopped 26 shots (see full recap).

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Mike Green scored twice and Henrik Zetterberg had a goal and assist for Detroit, which improved to 4-1-2 in its last seven games. Peter Mrazek stopped 32 shots to improve to 3-0-2 in his past five starts.

Anders Lee, Johnny Boychuk and Josh Bailey scored for New York, which had won a season-high three straight. Jaroslav Halak finished with 30 saves.

Detroit's Frans Nielsen had an assist while facing his former team for the first time since leaving the Islanders for a six-year, $31.5 million deal with the Red Wings last summer. The 32-year-old Danish center was selected by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 draft and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York (see full recap).

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Copp beat Scott Darling on the stick side with a shot from the right circle that slipped just inside the left post.

Chicago's Artemi Panarin scored with 6:54 remaining to tie it at 1, moments after Copp hit the post, to spoil Connor Hellebuyck's bid for a second shutout against Chicago in less than a month. Panarin completed a give-and-go with Patrick Kane, beating Hellebuyck to the glove side.

Hellebuyck finished with 25 saves and outdueled Darling, who started his second straight game for the Blackhawks in place of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford. Darling made 30 saves, including three on breakaways.

Little's power-play goal with 43.4 seconds left in the second period was his fourth point in four games since missing 23 with a lower-body injury (see full recap)