NHL: Shawn Thornton, James Neal Suspensions Show Disciplinary Inconsistency

Christopher LeoneSenior Analyst IDecember 14, 2013

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 07: Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins lays on the ice in the first period after being kneed in the head by James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at TD Garden on December 7, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It's official: The NHL announced that Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton will be suspended 15 games for his brutal attack on the Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik in a Dec. 7 matchup between the two teams. It was the second suspension handed out due to actions committed in this game, after James Neal received a five-game ban for delivering a knee to the prone Brad Marchand's head.

The good news: The NHL got Thornton's suspension right. By receiving 15 games, they made a proper example of Boston's enforcer by showing just how harshly the Department of Player Safety will come down on malicious on-ice attacks.

The bad news: Looking at the results, the two suspensions were judged so differently that issues of inconsistency once again plague the league.

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 07:  Brooks Orpik #44 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is tended to by the medical staff on the ice in the first period after an altercation with Shawn Thornton #22 of the Boston Bruins in the first period during the game at TD Garden on D
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Of course, Thornton's decision to grab Orpik from behind and throw him to the ice before punching him twice deserved a fair and lengthy review before announcing a ruling. It was certainly given that, judging by the lengthy gap between the incident and the ruling itself. Taking a week to consider all of the implications of Thornton's suspension and the precedent it sets gave the NHL every opportunity to get its call right, and it did it.

Here's the problem: The NHL had already set a completely different precedent with its decision to only give Neal five games.

It's hard to compare Neal's action to Thornton's, as one happened within the context of game play and one did not. But the two actions did have the following similarities: They were not hockey plays, they were malicious with the intent to injure and most importantly, both were completely avoidable.

As such, they should have been judged on the same standards by the league. They were not.

There is, perhaps, an argument to be made that Thornton's clean disciplinary history in 11 seasons of NHL play preceding last week's incident should have been considered more intently. Perhaps it was; perhaps a repeat offender would have received 20 games or more for the same act. That doesn't seem out of character for the NHL, which gave both Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley 20-plus games for similarly needless incidents in years long past.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 08:  James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins checks Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers in an NHL hockey game at Wells Fargo Center on December 8, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty I
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

But maybe the problem isn't that Thornton wasn't judged as a first-time offender. Maybe the problem is that Neal, despite having earned two previous suspensions in his career (including one for intent to injure Claude Giroux in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs), wasn't judged as harshly for having a history of questionable play. The terms of the current collective bargaining agreement do not require the league to factor in suspensions from more than 18 months prior when dealing with a repeat offender, but maybe they should.

Or maybe the problem is that nobody considered the relationship between both incidents. If Neal doesn't knee Marchand in the head, the scrum in which Thornton finally grabs Orpik doesn't happen.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 9:  Shawn Thornton #22 of the Boston Bruins walks out of the locker room prior to a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the TD Garden on November 9, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Who knows if Thornton, who had already tried to fight Orpik in the game, gets another opportunity to go after the Penguins defenseman?

Who knows if Thornton and Orpik ever share the ice for the rest of the game?

And if Neal doesn't immediately skate off the ice after delivering his knee to Marchand's head—probably the most egregious of his actions from the standpoint of integrity—who knows which player Thornton focuses his frustration on.

Either way, given Neal's lengthier disciplinary history, the direct relationship between the two incidents and especially the needless malice of both, how is there more than a five game difference between the players' respective bans?

By deciding to suspend Neal for five games and Thornton for 15, the NHL seemed to bow more to public pressure to make an example of misconduct than to be consistent in its discipline. The league had set a precedent with its ruling against Neal as to how it would deal with needlessly malicious conduct, and then it set a different precedent with its ruling against Thornton for an act with the same injurious motivation behind it. Even though Thornton's 15 games are a fair ruling standing on their own, they look ridiculously high compared to the very different standard that the league had set with Neal just days earlier.

There should be a single, universal standard for those types of actions on the ice, whether they happen before or after the whistle.

There is not.

Chris Leone has written for Bleacher Report since 2008 in multiple capacities. Follow him on Twitter @christopherlion.