This half of the season has probably not been the best one for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They've played their way to second place in the Atlantic Division, and have given cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers a run for their money all year. They've had to do this without their top two centers and players, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who both have been lost to injury much of the second half of the season. It's been a frustrating time for the team, and they've had some rough games.
Unfortunately this season, regardless of how it ends for Pittsburgh, will be the Season of Headshots - both given to the team and given away by them. Crosby has been out since the Winter Classic thanks to a Dave Steckel check that could have made contact with his head. On February 12th, the Penguins and the New York Islanders were involved in a fairly rough game. After blowing the Penguins out of the water 9-3, the game disintegrated into a melee that the boxscore only partially shows. The brawl was started thanks to a hit to the head of Eric Tangradi by Trevor Gillies. Gillies would later argue, as would the Islanders organization, that the fight was retaliation for the fight that happened in these two teams' previous match-up. In that game, Pittsburgh goaltender Brent Johnson quite literally broke Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's face.
There was an outcry from the league and some fans regarding the brawl and various cheap shots that were thrown about. The Islanders organization was fined $100,000 and Gillies was suspended for nine games (forward Matt Martin was suspended for four games for a sucker punch on Max Talbot). It seemed a strong message-sending punishment by the league.
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux disagreed, and voiced his concern in a very well publicized letter to the NHL and press. Lemieux decried the violence in the game and the apparent lack of consistency in punishment. It was a valid argument against a system that has prompted a mock "wheel of justice" interactive website. Headshots like Steckel's were considered part of the game and unintentional. Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty earned no suspension despite the major and game misconduct Chara received for the hit. Fans threw their hands up in the air and wondered why the league throws darts at a board when it comes to punishment.
Lemieux's argument came under fire immediately. It came under fire not because he was incorrect, but because the Penguins employ Matt Cooke, who is widely regarded as a major cheap shot artist by fans, players, and even members of his own team. Cooke has been suspended three times in his career, including once this season for a check from behind on Columbus Blue Jackets forward Fedor Tyutin. Cooke was given a four game suspension.
Of course, Cooke is also known for his hit on Marc Savard that knocked the Bruins forward out for most of the second half of the 2009-2010 season. Savard's concussion symptoms have returned and he played a very truncated season this year. Many argue that Cooke's hit was legal and that Savard was in a position that left himself vulnerable - that Cooke didn't lead with his elbow and that it was ok. Like Chara, he was given a game misconduct for the hit, probably based on the injury and the chance for retaliation.
Cooke's managed a few other questionable hits throughout his career, such as a hit that eliminated Andrei Markov from the playoffs last season. The hit was deemed "clean," but it was still second guessed and watched repeatedly because of who did it. Yesterday afternoon's hit, however, didn't need repeated re-watching. It was bad. It was an elbow to the head, and Cooke deserved to sit - he deserves to be suspended.
The real question here isn't around the hit, but how Colin Campbell will handle the discipline on it. Hits to the head and modifying the headshot rules pop up seemingly every year at GM meetings, and every year very little is done. A head-shot is a suspend-able offense (former Atlanta Thrasher Dany Heatley was suspended last week for two games due to a hit to the head of Steve Ott).
The question is: what determines a headshot, and how much previous discipline and "reputation" goes into that punishment? There're no guidelines on steps to increase the punishment for repeat offenders. Campbell and Hockey Operations arbitrarily can choose the length. Sometimes, like Heatley's, they're fair. Sometimes, like the no suspension on Chara, they appear to be extremely unfair (Chara's was not decided by Campbell). They'll take Cooke's previous suspensions and penalties in consideration when determining the length. The length, though, isn't the issue. The issue is if they're punishing Cooke for being Cooke, or if they're punishing for the headshot. Where do you draw the line? If Campbell goes strictly for the latter on such a flagrant elbow, the term of suspension will become a standard for an offender who has been accused and guilty of hits causing injury to others.
If the suspension is too short - say, five to seven games - what message does that send? If it's the rest of the Penguins season, will that be decried as "too much?" Probably not. This is Campbell's chance to restore a little bit of faith in the league's disciplinary process. Whether he will or not - whether he'll come down on Cooke like he came down on Gillies - remains to be seen.