Jim Kelley
Thursday July 30th, 2009

From time to time (mostly in the summer when sources are all but unreachable and the news dribbles down to being as soft as the ice at Madison Square Garden), we hockey scribes tend to try and reflect a bit as to where the game is, where it's going and where it should be going.

With that in mind, we sometimes play the "New Rules" game. But unlike the screeds from Bill Maher, the sometimes X-rated host of Real Time on HBO, there's no need to send the children out of the room or -- unless you're a hockey purist -- even to recoil in adult horror at our dealings with "blue" lines.

For this edition, we consulted with long-time hockey coach, administrator, occasional equipment rep and friend Peter South for a look not so much at new rules that simply add to an already overburdened and only occasionally enforced NHL Rules book, but a tweaking of some existing rules with an eye toward making the game better, faster and, in terms of points at least, a little more palatable.

As currently structured, the NHL has what amounts to two-point games some of the time and three-point games the rest of the time. The result has been a mess regarding trying to figure out the standings in your local newspaper and some claims of "jury rigging" regarding the way the game is played in the third period when, especially late in the season, playing for a regulation tie to get a chance at two points in overtime or the extended skills competition known as a "shootout" becomes something akin to a norm.

In the most often used scenario, a team is accused of playing for one and then going for two via the specialty aspects of the game (the four-on-four or the shootout). It appears to be standard practice for teams comfortably ahead of certain opponents in the standings and it negates the win-at-all cost games so necessary for teams attempting to move up into a playoff position or teams attempting to get into the perceived home-ice advantage that a top-four conference finish can provide.

In short, the current system often skewers the true measure of measured success in the regular season prompting calls from everything from a return to two-points-a-win, one-point-a-tie structure of years gone by to variations of three, four and even five-point systems (three for a win in regulation, two for a win and one for a loss in extra time and zero for a regulation loss being an oft-proposed example.)

Our proposal: If a game is tied after the traditional 60 minutes, it is recorded as what it is: a tie. Should a team prevail with an extra goal in overtime or a shootout a team is awarded "bonus points," points that are noted as such in the standings. In that scenario, there would be no "Win" recorded in the standings or personal coaching or goalie stats for a victory in extra-session time.

The NHL points with pride to the fact there have been tight playoff races, but much of that comes from the inflated "win" stats from victories in OT and the shootout. These wins have given teams an edge in the standings over teams who have won more 60-minute games, yet find themselves skewered in the points column because of overtime or shootout points. Since "wins" are the first measure of division, conference and overall standings after total points, there have been occasions where a team with more wins in regular season is displaced in the standings by a team that collects more overtime or shootout wins or a combination of both.

Under our three-point system, this would be eliminated, as would the inflated coaching and goalie career-win totals. Try that on for size when you argue who has more goalie wins, Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur, or you want to calculate who should really surpass Scott Bowman as the winningest coach of all time.

What does it benefit a team to finish first in division, conference or overall? Sure, Detroit got the coveted home ice in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, but Pittsburgh, much farther down in the standings due to its poor start, won that game. Pittsburgh also beat the higher seeded Washington Capitals in a Game 7 Conference semifinal and that was on Washington's home ice, just as lower-seeded Carolina beat Northeast Division and Conference leader Boston in a Game 7 in Boston.

Hockey once dabbled with a 2-3-2 playoff format but, for much of its history, has used the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 format, supposedly for the perceived home-ice advantage to the higher seeded teams (higher seeds getting the first two at home). But high-seed upsets are not at all uncommon or even unusual in the NHL today, and teams that open on the road in a playoff series often talk openly about the advantages of opening away from home (less pressure to please the home fans, scrambles for tickets to appease friends, the inevitable and necessary demands from the marketing people and the hometown media for interview requests).

Our proposal: The higher seeds get a variety of options. It could be they retain the 2-2-1-1-1 format if they think it fits their travel plans or their view of what plays to the their strength (unbeatable at home or really good history of success after winning Game 1), or exploits an opponent's weakness (poor road record or possible fatigue from a closing kick that could cause problems with a long-trip to a quick series start).

If they like, the higher seed should be able to opt for a 2-3-2 format opening on the road but having three straight at home (a commanding advantage if it at least gets a split in the opening road games). Perhaps even a 2-3-1-1 where it opens on the road, plays three at home and then plays Game 6 on the road, knowing it has a Game 7 at home if it needs it.

In other words, the team that earns the high seed gets to dictate the terms of schedule. This would produce some complaints from the league's television partners, but it certainly would heighten interest with the fan bases in both cities as there would be endless debates regarding which way to go, even more so if it appears the wrong choices were made.

The NHL knows that nothing (short of a goon fight) slows the pace of a game like a close offside call. It also knows the two-referee system has far too many warts and shortfalls in relation to the number of years it's been in the rule book. The league also is aware there are still problems with making the right call down low around the goal cage, both in relation to whether or not the puck crossed the goal line or, seemingly more continuous these days, whether or not there was interference or various forms of untoward physical mayhem that not even two referees and four linesmen are able to spot.

Our proposals: Fatten and curve the blue lines; clear up ice clutter by having one of the referees making calls from an off-ice position (preferably from the space between the two benches were broadcasters have laid claim, but we can accept the opposite side or even a press box station); flipping the trapezoid behind the goal cages so that the goalie can play the puck not inside the painted box, but outside it.

Lot to digest there, so let's go one at a time: The NHL a few years ago came very close to accepting the idea of fatter blue lines, which would give players more room to make plays at the line, especially regarding keeping the puck in the zone which, of course, facilitates chances for more plays which can lead to more goals.

Curving the ends of the line into the zone would reduce the number of times wingers put themselves offside because they'd have at least one extra step before they went in ahead of say their center who might be attempting to carry the puck over the line in order to keep possession rather than having to shoot it in and go chase it. Either way or with both, the chance for offside interruptions are reduced.

Getting a referee off the ice has several advantages. For one, it reduces congestion in the attacking (or defending zones) and, given the size of players and officials today, that would be a good thing. More importantly, the on-ice referee would get help that he doesn't get now in that the off-ice referee would see even more of the ice surface than the down-low official can see, especially when he's behind the goal and concentrating on whether the puck is about to go over the goal line.

The off-ice referee would see even more of what goes on a goodly distance away from the point of action (where a great many fouls occur because players know there's a good chance they won't be seen). The off-ice official also can do a far better job of taking head counts for too-many-men on the ice (especially if he's stationed between or across from the benches) and he'd have a clean view as to whether or not offensive players are intentionally driving defending players into their own goalies in hopes of creating chaos -- and a goal -- while the down-low ref is repositioning himself to get out of the way or is at a poor angle to the play.

Flipping the trapezoid behind the net would do wonders for opening up the plays in that area. As it stands now, the goalie can play the puck only in the red-lined area behind the net. In our scheme, he can play the puck everywhere but in that same area.

Not only would fans be treated to the exploits of wandering goalies (especially along the boards) where, prior to the trapezoid rule, all kinds of adventurous things happened, but it would make shoot-ins, especially shoot-ins on a power play, wildly more effective. If the goalie can't go behind the net to play the puck, a defenseman has to do it, which opens the ice up in front for scoring opportunities.

It also eliminates the goalie as an obstructionist. We've all seen countless times when the goalie goes back behind the cage, leaves the puck there for a teammate and then "unintentionally" obstructs an opposing player who's trying to get around him and make a play behind the net.

This would also put an end to pong-like game of shoot-it-in, dump-it-out, that's coming back into play. If the goalie can't cut off pucks behind the net, the game opens up all without making any physical changes to the size of the ice surface.

That Jim Balsillie must be some kind of evil. Little more than two years after the NHL Board of Governors unanimously approved him as the possible new owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, they met again and unanimously rejected him as a potential owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.

The latest vote took place at a BoG meeting Wednesday in Chicago where, according to several sources and a report in the National Post in Toronto, Balsillie was vilified in a face-to-face showdown with Commissioner Gary Bettman and the board, a prerequisite to satisfying the judge in the Coyotes bankruptcy case who may still have to rule as to whether or not Balsillie's offer to buy the team out of bankruptcy court and move it to Hamilton, Ontario, is valid.

According to the reports, the Govs teed off on the co-founder of Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry communications device, and that Balsillie, at times, responded in kind. In the end, however, the board that had approved him before the deal to buy the Penguins fell apart (largely after the league tacked on a series of addendums assuring themselves that the potential new owner could not move the club) now chose to state that, under Article 3.5 of the their constitution and NHL By-Law 35 (which permits the BOG to reject a prospective buyer due to financial shortcomings or "deficit of character"), Balsillie would not be welcome in their club.

Since Balsillie has billions at his disposal, it would appear the "deficit of character" clause came into play this time. In light of the number of NHL owners and part-owners who have gone to jail or will soon be there, this may be difficult to sustain in front of the Judge in the bankruptcy case. Particularly when the league's newest inmate-to-be is William "Boots" Del Biaggio, a hand-picked savior by none other than the commissioner himself, who was supposed to rescue the Nashville Predators from financial distress only to have to turn around and admit to clients that he was guilty of wire and stock fraud and other federal charges in having fabricated documents to fund his share of the purchase of the team.

It also has something of a "whimsical nature" when you consider that one of Balsillie's toughest interrogators at the meeting was former Nashville owner Craig Leipold. Leipold, who loaned Del Biaggio some $10 million to complete the deal and created a firestorm of criticism and negative publicity for the league because he, along with Los Angeles Kings ownership, neglected to mention their combined loans to Del Biaggio to the Commissioner, is now the owner of the Minnesota Wild.

Not surprisingly, the league did unanimously approve the financial strength and character of Jerry Reinsdorf, who is attempting to buy the club out of bankruptcy court for some $63 million less than what Balsillie is offering but promises to keep it in Phoenix as long as he gets concessions from the city of Glendale regarding the Arena Lease and a promise of debt relief from some of the creditors. Reinsdorf, so far, at least, has been adamant that he will not put any of his own money into the deal, a distinction that should at least make it easier in regards doing due diligence on his finances.

Aside from the fireworks, however, it's difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether or not the approval of Reinsdorf and rejection of Balsillie matter. Still to be determined is whether or not Judge Redford T. Blum accepts Reinsdorf's bid. If he doesn't, or if another bidder willing to keep the team in Phoenix and acceptable to the judge doesn't emerge by Aug. 5, then a second auction will be held for bidders looking to buy and move the team. If that happens, a Balsillie spokesman said Balsillie intends to be there with checkbook in hand and, apparently, with or without the approval of the Board of Governors.

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