Off-ice issues create tough decisions for Bettman

It was about a year ago when the NFL started down the rabbit hole over the Ray Rice situation and commissioner Roger Goodell's efforts to "clean up" the league fell out of focus.

There were those who wondered at the time if the NHL would somehow try to take advantage of the situation, to try to juxtapose the NHL's more or less squeaky-clean image against the NFL's ongoing legal issues off the field and embarrassing incidents on the field.

As appealing as it might have been for NHL types to have played that card -- "hey, look, mom, no cops" -- it didn't play out that way; in large part because it's a mug's game to try to raise yourself up at the expense of someone else. Or put another way, karma always has a way of biting you in the butt.

This summer the NHL has its plate more than a little full with off-ice issues that will require more than a little deft stickhandling from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

The NHL has already decided that there will be no further sanctions against former Los Angeles Kings forward Jarret Stoll, who was charged with felony cocaine possession after being caught with drugs at a Las Vegas resort pool in April. Stoll, an unrestricted free agent, pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges relating to the incident and was sentenced to probation and community service.

The league is also waiting for Stoll's former teammate Slava Voynov to complete his sentence after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor domestic abuse charge relating to an incident involving his wife last October. The defenseman is serving a 90-day sentence. He was also sentenced to three years' probation.

In another Kings-related situation, the NHL is aware of the information the team used in deciding to terminate the contract of Mike Richards after an incident at the Canada/U.S. border earlier this summer. The league simply considers Richards an unrestricted free agent. The NHLPA still has time to appeal the team's decision and the league still has the latitude to deliver further discipline should the facts warrant it.

Finally, the league is also awaiting the resolution of the case involving new Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly, who responded to being awarded the richest contract in team history by allegedly drunkenly driving a vintage pickup truck into a Tim Hortons coffee shop near London, Ontario, in the middle of the night and then fleeing the scene.

At the end of the day, there are lots of potential disciplinary balls in the air for Bettman and the league to consider, and the decisions as to whether or not further sanctions are imposed will be impacted by what broader message will be sent.

Bettman most certainly possesses the power to punish those who don't conform to the league's idea of correct behavior when it comes to disciplining his constituents. But it's one thing to have the power and another to know when and how to use it.

The NFL has found that punishing its players and coaches to get them to conform to an arbitrarily set of guidelines determining right and wrong always creates a ripple effect.

For instance, the season-long suspensions initially handed down by Goodell to New Orleans Saints players and officials back in 2012 for levying bounties on opposing players look shockingly heavy-handed when compared to Goodell's initial two-game suspension of Rice after the former Baltimore Ravens running back knocked out his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator.

The fact a number of the Saints' suspensions were subsequently overturned was another blow to the league's credibility and its role as moral arbiter.

Bettman has to know that whatever sanctions he imposes on Voynov, for instance, will stand as a benchmark for other potential domestic abuse issues. There will be few who oppose a lengthy ban on Voynov and the league's swift movement to suspend Voynov immediately after the incident was widely hailed as proactive, especially when juxtaposed against the NFL's wishy-washy handling of players charged in domestic abuse situations.

It will be no surprise if Voynov is banned from the league for the coming season at the least. If that's the kind of supplemental discipline imposed by Bettman, the expectation will be that similar events will be dealt with in a similarly harsh manner. As it should be.

The other incidents are a little trickier, though.

There is no doubt a public appetite for justice when pro athletes run afoul of the law.

Or maybe it's less justice -- whatever that is -- and more a public appetite for a pound of flesh.

Certainly the public can wonder how a player like Stoll could make this kind of potentially career-altering decision and be allowed to carry on almost seamlessly from such an egregious mistake.

But -- and perhaps this is part of the mitigating factor in the league's decision -- the criminal charges do not relate to activities that could be considered dangerous to others.

Stoll's punishment may indeed fit the crime. Teams who may have been interested in his services will certainly be circumspect; his value on the open market, already questionable, will certainly have taken a hit. He has been publicly embarrassed and we can only imagine the damage done to his reputation and private life.

And maybe there's something to be said for contrition and the community service work Stoll has agreed to undertake.

The O'Reilly case provides a different dynamic as the drunk driving charges speak to more recklessness and represent a significant potential to harm others.

The fact there were apparently no injuries related to the O'Reilly incident is obviously good news for him and the public at large, but the potential was there and it will surely be a factor for the league to consider after the criminal proceedings are sorted out.

In 2007, Bettman handed down a 15-game suspension for then Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell after he pleaded no contest to drunk driving and hit and run after crashing into a vehicle stopped at a stop sign and injuring the driver.

Others, like Winnipeg Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec, who was convicted of drunk driving in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2012 after his involvement in a traffic accident, and former netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who pleaded guilty to drunk driving and speeding in the Phoenix area in February 2010 after recording a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, escaped additional league sanctions.

At the end of the day, perhaps only Voynov will feel the wrath of the league in terms of additional punishment.

Is that a sign of weakness from the league or perhaps simply knowing when to use its significant power?

Invariably players who run afoul of the law in a serious manner find themselves in the jointly administered substance abuse and behavioral health program, so it's not as though these players simply disappear from the league's radar.

And while we have consistently believed (and complained) that the NHL has shied away from adequately punishing its players for on-ice recklessness, shouldn't the commissioner be wielding the off-ice disciplinary stick solely for actions that threaten to impugn the credibility of the game as opposed to piling on individuals who are already being punished in other arenas?

Maybe it's not about being soft in terms of discipline but judicious, which might not be such a bad thing after all.