The NHL is no stranger to criticism. It has routinely ignored its own rulebook for years, given minimal interest in dangerous plays with the potential to seriously injure, and shown no desire to address either issue. Mario Lemieux famously called the NHL a "garage league" in 1992, and it certainly hasn't gotten better since; if anything, it could be argued that things have further deteriorated. Save for a commitment to enforcing interference penalties coming out of the 2004-05 lockout that saw gameplay open up to levels not previously seen in years, clutching, grabbing, and other impediments have remained a routine part of watching NHL games. More troublesome is that other infractions seem to be increasingly ignored or randomly called. The NHL added a second referee in 1999 - at this point they could double that number and likely still have an issue.
And the refusal to call the penalties in the rulebook is absolutely harming the game. Scoring is down again in the league this season. If the rate continues, it'll be the lowest scoring rate since the 2003-04 season and would actually be lower than some of the seasons of the late 90's and early 2000's. Failure to call penalties obviously limits the number of power plays in a game, but it also suppresses scoring at even strength. Calling infractions leads to defenders taking fewer liberties, which gives offensive players more room to make plays. And fans aren't paying to see teams dump the puck into the corner and blindly clear the puck up ice off the glass. They want to see elite players make elite plays. Unfortunately, it's not only scoring that is negatively affected; things are often able to fester to the point that player safety is at stake.
The Department of Player Safety is clearly a misnomer; it should probably be called the Department of Barely Giving a Shit. Brendan Shanahan briefly tried putting things right at the start of his tenure as Senior VP of Player Safety, but after issuing stiff punishments he was neutered by owners that didn't want to see the players they were paying be sidelined by suspension, and it's that type of asinine mindset that belies the problem. Owners made it clear that they would rather lose players to serious injuries than lose players to suspensions. They paid lip service to head injuries as the concussion lawsuits started knocking on their doors, but the big hits, the controversy, and the outrage are elements that the league and owners would seem to view as critical to their success. How else to explain their continued place in the game?
And the problem isn't only that a game or three suspension isn't a sufficient deterrent to questionable hits. Players clearly have a lack of respect for their opponents. Being apart of the small fraternity that is NHL players isn't stopping players from jeopardizing another player's ability to draw a paycheck or lead a relatively healthy life. Just look at a player like Kris Letang, who has a history of concussions, become a target in back to back games after coming back from injury. Watch Brad Marchand, a repeat offender, deliver a hit on an unsuspecting Matt Borowiecki that could have caused a serious injury and only receive a three game suspension. Sidney Crosby's neck has become the target of players like Brandon Dubinsky and Marc Staal with barely a notice or care of anyone on or off the ice.
The NHL has referees on the ice and disciplinarians in the front office, and more often than not they beg the question of what purpose they actually serve. Their inaction has led to a more boring, more dangerous league. The league certainly doesn't need injured stars to accomplish their goal of further suppressing scoring. The league has rules on the book; it needs to enforce them. The league has players endangering the safety of others with hits that have no place in the NHL; it needs to hand out punishments that actually deter this behavior. The league has a problem on their hands; their actions can only be interpreted as them not caring about player safety or goal scoring. Because in the end, this isn't a garage league - it's a shit show, and the NHL needs to solve this mess.