Nearly two months into the NHL season, and the players appear to be getting it.
That, according to NHL senior vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, in an interview with Bryan Hayes on TSN Radio.
"I can say that with all the games we have been watching, there was a lot of confusion early in the season and in the preseason. In the preseason, you've got a lineup littered with probably 60 or 70 per cent regular NHL players and the rest are not quite at that level, or trying to get the attention of a general manager or a coach, sort of playing outside of his boundaries or what he's capable of doing. So we had a lot of suspensions and lot of illegal plays in the preseason, (to go along with the) new rules," Shanahan said. "I had hoped when the lineups were more purely made of NHL players – they're the most talented hockey players in the world – they would adapt. I almost immediately saw great effort. Almost to the point now where there is an illegal play it really stands out. I think that the players deserve a lot of credit for that. And I see them making a great effort. It makes my job a little bit easier."
Since the start of the preseason, Shanahan has had to dole out 15 suspensions - but of those, six have happened during the regular season (three in October, and three thus far in November).
That number might be tested Wednesday night, when the Bruins and Sabres meet for the first time since Bruins forward Milan Lucic crashed into Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who had left his crease to play the puck. Miller was diagnosed with a concussion, while Lucic was not handed any further discipline than a two minute minor from the game.
Shanahan said that the league is aware of the possibility for retribution, and his team will be watching that game from their video room in New York.
"I called the general managers of both teams, simply to say there's a heightened awareness and sensitivity to this one. I think they're going to talk to their teams," he said. "It's hockey. It's a physical game. I think you expect sometimes for certain responses. But they have to be measured.
The rules for the Buffalo-Boston game are no different than any other game. I think they need to remember they can't get caught up with the emotions and they have to be in check, and that the game will be watched closely."
Like almost every hockey fan, Shanahan watched the return of Sidney Crosby to the Penguins lineup on Monday night.
"I think anytime a player is returning from a significant injury or time away, you're always concerned for that player. You think about issues like timing … that's probably the one thing that takes a while for most people to get," Shanahan said. "But he was so thorough with his comeback. Probably in the past, with the less that we knew – especially recovering from head injuries – other people might have rushed back to the lineup.
There's so much more education now, that he really proved he obviously did it the correct way."
Despite the loss of the league's best player for a substantial amount of time, Shanahan said that the league would not protect stars like Crosby any more than they would any other player.
"I feel all players should be protected within the rules. I think there's obviously a rule book. It's my job to determine what level of punishment should fit any situation that is outside of the legal playing rules," he said. "I would argue that whether you are our best player or our most marketable player, I still feel that whoever you would determine in our league to be our least talented player, or our least marketable player, (that player) still has a career, still has rights, still has a mother and a father and a wife and kids and still deserves that exact same.
"My argument would be that the same sort of eye that I would view any player in the NHL, I think they all deserve from me to look at a play with the intention of following the rules that are in the rule book protecting everybody."
And while much of the spotlight has been on Crosby, Shanahan has also been impressed with one of his teammates, Matt Cooke, who has thus far kept his play within the rules.
"I think Matt deserves credit for what he's done so far this year. I think he also recognizes the two words 'so far'. This is a process for him, part of a long term goal for him to change the way he played," he said. "He and I had a really good conversation. He came into New York and we met in the office. He told me he really meant it, that he was going to make better decisions and better choices. The last time he was suspended he really saw the light.
"It's never a good feeling to take a player away from his team, or to suspend a guy. You certainly want to have those success stories where people say 'he can't do it', but a player is actually doing it. I think it's something he's working on, and he's got to continue to work on that."