Register Sunday | December 8 | 2019

How to Save the NHL, Part One

The Flawed Logic Behind the League’s New Rules

There are so many hockey storylines playing out this summer, it’s tough to choose which one to follow because everything is up in the air:

1. The World Hockey Association (WHA) held its inaugural draft two weekends ago, but North American hockey is still being coy with the new league.

2. Dany Heatley was indicted for his role in the car crash that killed his teammate Dan Snyder, but the exact dates of the trial have not yet been set.

3. Todd Bertuzzi’s arraignment date (notice how easily hockey writers become experts in law terminology?) has been set, but it won’t be until August 10.

4. The NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) have met to try to reach a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) agreement for next season. The players have asked for more information on the owners’ newly-tabled six proposals, but they won’t reconvene until August 4.

5. The World Cup is fast approaching, but between the naming of the teams months ago and the start of the tournament on August 31, there’s not much to talk about, at least not until the Canadian team deals with the legal problems of its star players Heatley and Bertuzzi.

One issue that is making some headway, however, is that of potential rule changes. Last February, NHL general managers put forth proposals designed to encourage more offence in the game—proposals discussed recently when a group of “hockey experts” met in New York. While it’s nice to see players and management types get together (Mario Lemieux, Scotty Bowman, Martin Brodeur, Gary Roberts, referee Stephen Walkom and Islanders owner Charles Wang among them), the changes they are examining are not the kind of radical change the NHL needs. Let’s review:

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1. Forbidding goaltenders from handling the puck behind the goal line

2. Reducing the width of goaltenders’ pads from twelve inches to ten Managers are complaining that there is just not enough goal-scoring in the NHL, and both of these proposed changes are designed to attack this problem at the source. The first is an affront to goaltenders’ recently developed puck-handling skills, which have allowed the more talented among them to act as a third defencemen, quickly clearing the puck out of the zone on a dump-in. There is no reason the league should pass a rule that punishes keepers for their skill. While it is true that keeping them in their crease would create more offensive opportunities, this would also create more opportunities for bloodshed. Consider the size and speed of players today; a forward bearing down on a defenceman who is behind the net with his back turned is a recipe for injury.

An alternative to this rule might be to create a zone, behind the net and a few feet wide on each side, where goaltenders are allowed to play the puck unchallenged. They may also play the puck when they are outside of this zone, although they would then be fair game for hard-nosed wingers looking to score a big hit. As it stands, making all but the most incidental contact with the goalie will result in a minor penalty. Of course, the GMs would never agree to this option, as it would put their prized goalies in danger, but it seems to me that if the keepers want to play defence, they should have to deal with all aspects of that job.
Changing the size of the pads is a better idea because it allows goalies the dignity of determining their own fate, thus demonstrating that it is talent, not oversized equipment, that keeps pucks out of the net. Unfortunately, the players’ union has filed a grievance against the NHL for proposing this rule without consulting them first. The league subsequently withdrew this idea. So, you can see how things get done around there.

3. Reinstate the tag-up offside rule This rule allows players who were offside on a shoot-in (i.e., offside, but their team doesn’t have the puck) to skate out of the zone and avoid a whistle. The point of this rule is to keep the play going, avoid whistles and generate more offence on the fly. The reason they got rid of it in the mid-1980s was to avoid long dump-ins and try to encourage more offence on the fly. Hmm. Obviously changing this rule hasn’t helped, and it works well in international hockey, so going back to the old rule seems like a good idea.

4. Move nets and blue lines three feet closer to the end boards This change is intended to spread out the defence, giving offensive players more room in front of the net to create scoring chances, while still leaving the area beyond the icing line big enough for skilled players—like Mike Ribeiro, say—to work from their “office.”

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The rule changes that are scheduled to be implemented in the NHL next season (if there is a season) imply a certain nostalgic streak in the GMs, which is maybe just a nice way of saying that they fucked up in the first place. The changes affecting goaltenders are an attempt to make Martin Brodeur look like Grant Fuhr, maybe with the hope that Brodeur’s goals-against average will mirror Fuhr’s.

In the coming season, the NHL will also ask the American Hockey League (AHL) to try out some of other proposed new rules in order to get some hard data about their effects. These are:

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5. Three points to be awarded for a win in regulation time If the purpose is to make the game more exciting, then this change is not going to work. For one thing, changing the point system will only make comparisons to past seasons more confusing. Current point totals are already inflated because of the recent rule change giving teams an extra point for losing in overtime. The purpose of the “value-added” win would be to make the regulation victory worth more, which is supposed to result in teams trying to win in the later stages of the game instead of taking the guaranteed point that you get for a game that goes to overtime.
If the NHL hadn’t started giving out points for losing, they wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place. The reason the overtime loss (OTL) column started appearing in the standings was the perception that teams were afraid to lose, so, in overtime, they would play for a tie. I’m not sure the current solution is working, because now you have teams playing for a tie in the third period, which is worse. Instead of making regulation wins worth more, why not make overtime losses worth less? Now there’s some nostalgia that might actually be worth looking into.

And how about this for nostalgia: if last season’s standings hadn’t included points for overtime losses, Toronto and Montreal would have faced-off in the first round of the post-season. Ah? Ah? What do you think of that? (Edmonton still wouldn’t have made the playoffs, though.)

6. The centre ice line and the blue lines to be expanded from twelve to twenty-four inches wide. Let’s be honest: widening the lines will only make the ice look funny. The purpose of this rule change is to add flow to the game by giving the players a little more room to manoeuvre at the lines, thus eliminating a few whistles on offside and icing calls. Essentially, what they are saying is that players aren’t skilled enough to make those cuts, so they’re going to make it easier. Right. Anyway, it’s a half-measure that won’t change much.

7. Tie games to be decided by a shootout The shootouts, on the other hand, are a different story. I’ll tackle them in my column two weeks from now, when I will also unveil my surefire plan to save the NHL from itself. Stay tuned!