There's a widespread perception that the league's system of supplementary justice is inconsistent at best, and perhaps even outright biased towards protecting certain franchises or star players.
Personally, I think it's a lot more consistent than people give it credit for. I watched the explanatory videos for all 22 suspensions so far this season, and think the process can be summed up in just a few rules:
If there's no danger to the player's head, it's probably not a suspension. Every one of this year's 22 suspensions involved either a hit to the head or a boarding infraction. Illegal check to the head (eight offenses) and boarding (eight offenses) were particularly common. But to be clear, the question isn't whether the hit was called an illegal check to the head on the ice, but whether on video review the hit was deemed to violate the illegal check to the head rule.
The decision to suspend does not hinge on whether an injury actually occurs or whether it is a first-time offense. The NHL says this in their explanatory video, and there's nothing in the data that contradicts that -- half of the suspensions doled out this year were on plays where no injury occurred, and seven of those 11 were also first-time offenders.
Injury and repeat offender status do impact the length of the suspension. Six out of seven suspensions for first offenses with no injury were two games, and one was three games. Suspensions that involved either an injury or a repeat offense broke down as follows: 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 7, 10, and 15 games. And repeat offender status isn't just a yes-or-no question; they made specific note of how Patrick Kaleta's many offenses included a very recent one or how Brad Stuart's previous offense was over a decade ago and for a different infraction.
Some other common themes in the videos:
- They often note that the person making the hit was not being pushed or ridden; presumably they tend to show lenience when the player is not in complete control of the play
- They take into account whether the person being hit changed direction immediately prior to or simultaneous with the hit, noting both whether the hitter had time to adjust and whether the change impacted the severity of the hit
- They look closely at the player's skates for whether there is an attempt to stop, slow down, or change direction; presumably they tend to show lenience when the player is trying to let up
- They typically point out what the player had to do differently to make his check legal, or whether the situation meant he had to avoid hitting the opponent at all
So when you're trying to guess whether a player will be suspended, don't just consider the severity of the hit -- also look for whether there is the potential for head injury, whether the player had the chance to lessen the impact, whether he let up at all.
So how does all of this shake out for Joffrey Lupul's cross-check on Patrick Eaves in the Winter Classic?:
Lupul's past history and the fact that Eaves was shaken up shouldn't have any bearing on the decision of whether to issue a suspension. The hit was to the head/neck area and there was nothing causing that except Lupul's own free will, so it's a plausible candidate for suspension.
However, suspensions are much more common on violent checks like boarding and illegal check to the head, plays where concussions are reasonably common. This would be the first suspension of the year for a cross-check or high-stick, and I have a hard time believing it's the most egregious stick foul of the year.
I'd be surprised if there was a suspension on the play.