If the NHL waits for the legal process to play out before lifting Slava Voynov’s indefinite suspension, he will almost certainly end up serving one of the longer bans in league history.
Consider: The Los Angeles Kings are scheduled to play 18 times before the defenceman is even due in court on Dec. 1 — and that could be just the beginning if domestic abuse charges are pursued against him in California. Some cases drag on for years.
Absent a quick legal resolution, the NHL is left in an unenviable spot. How can it fairly be expected to serve as judge, jury and executioner?
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That task is further complicated by the fact the case will be closely monitored by every major sports league, not to mention interested parties from across North America. The NHL is treading new ground here, starting with Monday’s decision to suspend Voynov before he had even posted $50,000 US bail.
Gary Bettman’s quick reaction was widely hailed, including in this corner, but the NHL commissioner may also have unlocked Pandora’s box in the process. He arguably had no choice.
A key aspect of the suspension is that Voynov will continue to be paid during the NHL investigation, which leaves the impression he’s being presumed innocent while the league collects more facts.
However, it also keeps his $4.167-million annual salary cap hit on the Kings books.
Right now that is probably the least of the team’s worries, but concern will grow quickly if Voynov stays in cap limbo for long. Los Angeles is currently operating within $500,000 of the upper limit and will be severely hamstrung when it comes to roster juggling without one of its top defencemen.
At least one source believes that Voynov’s suspension could be changed to an unpaid one if the NHL’s investigation uncovers any wrongdoing. That would allow the Kings to claim a contract violation stemming from an off-ice incident, just as the Minnesota Wild did when goaltender Josh Harding injured himself by kicking a wall in frustration before training camp.
However, what if that happened and no guilt was ever proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court? Would Voynov be owed the backpay? Would the Kings be in violation of the cap (assuming they used the space such a move would free up)?
The potential issues are everywhere you look, which is why pro sports leagues used to proceed with caution. But we’ve entered a new era. Not only one of heightened sensitivity, but also one with hard salary caps and complex rules.
“There are so many things,” Kings GM Dean Lombardi told reporters in Los Angeles. “Slava certainly has his rights. Then you have the process that the police and their investigation, and then you’ve got the league investigation, then you’ve got the issues about ‘OK, how long does this go?’
“So we’re kind of in limbo until this process plays out.”
There is clearly risk involved with deciding anything before the courts do. There is also the question of how long the NHL is willing to wait.
On Tuesday, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet that it was “too early to say” if a disciplinary hearing could be held for Voynov before the legal process plays itself out. The other affected parties seemed to be waiting to get a sense of how the league will proceed.
There has been a united front throughout the hockey world since Voynov was arrested early Monday morning at a Redondo Beach hospital where a woman was being treated for injuries. Kings coach Darryl Sutter said that the NHL’s suspension was “appropriate” and the NHL Players’ Association is believed to have supported it as well.
Cracks may come with time.
As much as everyone can agree on the gravity of the situation and the need to act quickly, the cart is currently out front of the horse. The legal system inches along with caution. The hockey world races through a season at break-neck speed.
In the middle of all that, the NHL wants to be proactive but also needs to be fair.
There are some that believe the league was fortunate to encounter this situation after the NFL’s mishandling of the Ray Rice case because it offered a roadmap of how not to do things.
However, what’s quickly become clear is that the NHL finds itself alone in a changed sporting landscape and doesn’t have much firm ground to walk on while trying to do the right thing.