Jim Kelley
Thursday December 27th, 2007

Does the NHL need an office dedicated to research and development?

The issue isn't front burner, but there are people in the game who think it should be. Sources say that sentiment has once again touched off a debate behind closed doors and at the league's highest levels.

Traditionalists (they also like to call themselves purists) will argue against it claiming (as they always do) that the game is fine the way it is and that it has, in fact, made too many changes in recent years, confusing longtime fans and newcomers alike.

Moderates (the league itself must be included in this group) say it already has a dedicated arm for improvement, the competition committee, and argue that the group is responsible for a number of recently adopted changes. Though it hasn't done much lately (including actually meeting), the committee keeps its collective finger on the pulse of the game and is merely waiting for the most recent changes to "settle" before it considers any more recommendations for change.

There is, however, a small but determined group that believes the game's forward progress has not only stalled, but is regressing. These people argue that a multi-billion dollar company needs to do more to keep the fan base it has and grow a larger one.

The movement appears to be centered in Buffalo, but that's merely where some of the most vocal advocates reside. Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn recently made an impassioned plea for a hockey equivalent of an R&D department at the most recent Board of Governors meeting in California, but many of the ideas put forth by the more forward thinkers have been around for years.

The problem is that they keep butting heads with the traditionalists. That group is a firm believer in a hockey axiom popularized by former NHL President John Ziegler: "if it ain't broke don't fix it." Current President and Commissioner Gary Bettman has progressed in some areas, but is often perceived to be in the traditionalist's camp largely because once he champions a proposal, he becomes so focused on "staying on message" that he seems incapable of embracing a different point of view.

In addition, Bettman also leaves many of the day-to-day on-ice issues and matters to his Senior Executive Vice President & Director of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, who has clearly sided with "traditional values" in issues of physicality and keeping on-ice direction in the hands of the coaches. It's that kind of thinking that gets advocates for change wound tighter than a playoff goalie's stomach.

"It's not about whether scoring is up or down or whether the equipment is too big or too small," said one GM-level advocate who was granted anonymity so that he might speak freely about his corporate and league masters.

"The whole idea of a department of research and development shouldn't be a hockey question; it should be a business mandate," he said. "The NHL is a $2.5 billion or whatever number they're using corporation and it should be run like one. As a league, the R&D operation should be a full-time operation that is always on the lookout for ways to make our product better.

"A lot of the things we do, we do for no good reason other than that's the way we've always done things. You don't see that in the best-run corporations. You don't see a drug company not investing time and effort in bringing new or improved products to market. You don't see Toyota or some of the other big car companies doing things the same way because they've always done them that way. Those companies compete and they're always looking for the best ways to improve and present their product."

What bothers advocates for change the most is that the game seems to be changing again, but not for the better. Goaltenders, defenses and defensive strategies, they argue, have again put a stranglehold on teams that adopted an up-tempo approach coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. It's happening despite the fact that the league came out of the lockout with a host of new rules designed to open up play, increase scoring (or at least scoring chances) and make the game more entertaining.

At the forefront of the progressive argument is the notion that the games have become too predictable and that just like before the lockout, teams that score first often end up the winner.

"With few exceptions, there haven't been enough lead changes," the source/critic said. "The idea centers on entertainment. The outcome of the game should be in doubt for as long as possible. If that's not happening, if people tend to know or can at least reasonably predict the outcome after the first goal is scored, they aren't going to be entertained for very long."

Intentional or not, the biggest improvement in the game coming out of the lockout was that omebacks, sometimes from as far back as two or three goals, were common as offensive-minded players took advantage of the new rules and defensive-minded players seemed confused about what they could and could not do. It made for wildly entertaining games, but defensive players, seemingly aided by rulings from Campbell on the limits on physical play, closed the gap last season and seem to have added to their stranglehold this season.

"Nowadays, it's not uncommon to see five players defending in front of the goal," the source said. "I have not seen a collapse like that in all my time in the game. It's prevalent because it's successful. The goalies are so good that teams have figured out that you're not going to score from 40 or 50 feet out. On top of that no one is afraid to block shots because the equipment is so good and even if they are [afraid] they have to do it anyway because it's become a part of the fabric of the game.

"Nothing maters more than preventing a goal. If you don't believe it, just look at the goaltending position. Quite often the goalie is the best athlete on the team and he's also the only one who has his own coach. Goalies have again become the dominant factor in the game, and combined with the defensive schemes they are driving up the save percentages again. It seems the only time you can score a goal is when they collapse (in front of the net) and someone makes a mistake and you get the puck and can get out before they (the collapsing forwards) can get back."

"Is that good for the game? I don't know for certain, but I know we're not doing much thinking about it and that's what we should be doing. We should have a department that works full time thinking about what we're doing, what our product is, and what it should be. We don't have that. You can't be a successful company doing business like that."

He may have a point. Getting the league to take his advice will be an entirely different matter.

Limits of loyalty

The Philadelphia Flyers have made some staggering commitments to some of their players with length of term contracts. The same cannot be said regarding their commitment to front office people.

The Flyers recently extended the contract of coach John Stevens, but only through the end of the 2008-09 season. That puts him on a par with general manager Paul Holmgren. Both are relatively new to their respective jobs and both follow in the footsteps of legends Bob Clarke and Ken Hitchcock, but the terms are relatively short. The thinking in Philadelphia seems to be that locking up what appear to be good young players (Mike Richards just got a 12-year deal) makes sense under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but keeping the coach and GM on a short leash makes sense as well given that you never know when someone more experienced might become available.

It seems to go against a pattern of front office loyalty, something the Flyers have shown for generations -- sometimes to their lasting regret -- but things are different in the NHL today and the contrast between Richards' deal and Stevens' is an obvious case in point.

The real deals

There are lots of big name trade rumors afloat, but most are happening because the names involved are heading for free agency and teams don't want to get stuck with players they might not be able to sign. Hence we hear rumors that Sergei Federov and even Vinny Lecavalier going all over the league. Those kinds of deals happen around the trade deadline, however.

As for the here and now, there's a buzz that the San Jose Sharks are looking for a play-making defenseman to anchor their power play. The unit was tops in the league for most of last season, but didn't do much in the playoffs last spring and has continued to be cold this season. Production from the points seems to be the biggest problem, thus the rumors. The Sharks have room under the cap and a player or two to dangle, but the fit is a tough one. Good point men who can also play a little defense and move the puck smartly out of their own end are always in short supply. Still, it's better to move early as the price becomes exorbitant come trade deadline time, a situation that adds further to the rumor mongering.

With the holiday trade freeze about to thaw, there will likely be a few deals in the next few weeks. Columbus is known to be scouting the New York Rangers and Rangers scouts have been seen at Blue Jackets games. The expectation is that the Rangers want to pull a veteran defenseman out of Columbus, likely Adam Foote, but Rostislav Klesla has also been mentioned as has veteran forward David Vyborny.

The Boston Bruins are said to be looking for some scoring help, but don't have a lot to give. The St. Louis Blues are known to be interested in some size and scoring ability up front. The Pittsburgh Penguins will still be looking for a linemate for Sidney Crosby and may go for one of the "name" unrestricted free agents in waiting in order to make a real playoff push.

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