NHL Player Safety boss on smaller suspensions and 'clean' Tom Wilson

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

George Parros says running the NHL's Department of Player Safety has made him a more superstitious man.

He doesn't want to be too content when the league goes weeks without a significant suspension. He never wants to be absolutely convinced that a repeat offender won't offend again, or repeatedly. The minute Parros exhales is the minute a player does something reckless that requires a hearing.

Yet this season hasn't produced the same mammoth suspensions to repeat offenders as previous seasons -- with one notable exception. "There are players who were repeat offenders that have been controlling of their game and taken it to a level where they stay out of our hair," Parros told ESPN last week.

He then dropped his knuckles on the conference table in front of him, twice. "And now, I'll knock on wood."

Outside of Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson's arbitration-reduced 14-game suspension, the Department of Player Safety has suspended only three players for three or more regular-season games in 2018-19: Mark Borowiecki of Ottawa, David Backes of Boston and Paul Byron of Montreal. By the end of the postseason in the 2017-18 season, there had been 11 such suspensions, including massive 10-game bans for repeat offenders Alex Burrows and Radko Gudas.

(Keep in mind this doesn't include suspensions handed down from NHL hockey operations for "unacceptable off-ice conduct" or things like skipping the All-Star Game.)

What's interesting about this season for Parros' department: Not only is the number of lengthy suspensions down, but the average length of all suspensions is as well.

The average suspension length through 25 bans involving regular-season games -- ending with last week's two-game suspension to Yanni Gourde of Tampa Bay after his illegal hit to the head of Carolina's Jordan Staal -- is 2.32 games. Take out Wilson's suspension, and it's 1.83 games per suspension. Last season, in 26 player-safety suspensions, the average length was 2.80 games per suspension. Even removing the 10-game bans to Burrows and Gudas, the average was still 2.20 games per suspension.

Parros said that he doesn't track suspension length from year to year because the department "deals with these things as they come," rather than making comparisons with previous seasons. "The game in general is getting cleaner. There's less goofy stuff happening that would lead to longer suspensions. That's a good thing," he said. "I don't think we've changed anything on our end. I wouldn't be quick to say it was for any one reason."

There is one theory about the shorter suspensions that Parros endorses: that the type of player who has been suspended in 2018-19 is of a different type -- and many would say a different "quality" as well -- than suspended players in previous seasons.

Among the stars suspended this season: Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Johansen, Jakub Voracek and Mark Giordano. None for more than two games.

"Yeah, but that doesn't have to do with the fact that they're higher-end players," Parros said. "That has to do with the fact that they are first-time offenders. Just in general, as we approach these hearings, we don't take into account the player's history, or any injury on the play for that matter, until we follow through with a suspension. But that we have these skill guys, and they have been for the most part non-repeat offenders with very little history, that's a decent theory."

Two of these suspensions led to awkward rulings for the Department of Player Safety. Voracek, a veteran forward for the Flyers, was banned for two games on March 10 for interference against Johnny Boychuk of the Islanders, and made the rare move of appealing a short suspension through the NHLPA. Commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the ruling.

Is Parros concerned this could set a new precedent, with players fighting smaller suspensions?

"It's part of the rules. The players have a right to do so. He's a passionate guy and it was crunch time for Philly. There's no concern on my end," Parros said.

Then there was Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins star, who was suspended one game for a wild stick swing that glanced off of Flyers forward Michael Raffl's head. Some felt there shouldn't have been a suspension on a play in which little to no contact was made, involving a player who hadn't been previously suspended.

Parros admitted it was a difficult one to rule on.

"The ones without precedent are always going to be tricky. We've seen stick swings in the past that have resulted in long suspensions if they land and cause injury. And there are stick swings on non-dangerous places that go unpunished by our department. So this one was a tricky one," he said.

"It's clearly something we don't want in the game, but there was no injury. This stick swing was wild enough. Intent is something that's tricky. I try not to get too deep into it when I'm judging a play. But if a video shows something clearly that I can act on, if necessary ... that was one that was clearly intentional. Above and beyond your normal missed slash."

In the end, these suspensions track back to the NHL Department of Player Safety's mandate: attempting to enforce the rules on a supplemental basis, but also trying to correct the behavior of injurious players.

Which brings us back to Tom Wilson.

The Department of Player Safety hit the Capitals forward with a 20-game suspension on Oct. 3, 2018, for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in a preseason game. He was a repeat, repeat offender: The suspension was his fourth in his past 105 games played. Wilson and the NHLPA appealed the ruling, and a neutral arbitrator eventually cut down the ban to 14 games.

Parros has monitored Wilson as this season has progressed. He likes what he's seen.

"I think Tom has figured out how to play the game and stay off our radar. I hope it stays that way," Parros said. "It's been evident in the way he's played this season. We've seen clips of him delivering good clean hits and laying off hits that might have gotten him in trouble before."

But this is why Parros finds himself feeling superstitious this time of year. Last season, Wilson was suspended on Sept. 22 and Oct. 1, 2017. Then he "wasn't on our radar too much," said Parros, until he appeared on it again by getting suspended for three playoff games after breaking the jaw of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese with a hit the following May.

Does Parros believe that Wilson has changed his ways, knowing the next suspension could be a massive one?

"I'm not going to put myself in his head," Parros said. "He certainly doesn't want to be suspended anymore, and I certainly don't want to suspend him anymore. We both share the same goal."

Knock on wood.