By Stu Hackel
It's quite possible that for this coming season, the NHL's goal nets could be more shallow with less netting, the stanchions supporting the glass by the players' benches could be less dangerous and a couple of additional lines may be added on the ice to help verify goals. Those seem to be the most immediate benefits of the league's Research, Development and Orientation Camp that ran this week in Toronto.
Most of the various playing rules tried at the camp, using two teams of top 17-year-old players coached by NHLers Dan Bylsma and Dave Tippett, got mixed reactions. But judging by the comments coming from various observers of the two-day RDO Camp, the experiments to improve the playing surface's geography proved quite popular.
The experimental nets tested this week are still six-feet by four-feet in height and width, but the depth shrinks from 44 inches to 40 inches. "It gives you more room behind the net," former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider told host Mitch Melnick over Montreal's Radio Team 990 (audio) on Thursday. Schneider is now with the NHLPA and sits on the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee. "I think I would have liked that as a defenseman. They're more narrow on the side so the net doesn't bow out as much on the side so you'd be able to pass out from behind the net at a better angle. I think that would create a little more offense and it would help for wraparounds, guys getting around the net quicker."
The new goals also have some of the netting removed on the top, replaced by a clear plastic strip running from post to post, plus thinner mesh and a built-in high definition camera. The netting at the lower corners was also replaced by plastic. These alterations are designed to assist the league's video review process.
Darren Dreger reported on TSN's "That's Hockey," (video) that it's uncertain whether these changes to the net constitute a rule change or not. If it does-- and the structure of the net is something that is defined in the NHL Rule Book (in fact, it's Rule 2) -- they will require approval by the NHLPA and cannot be unilaterally adopted by the league. "And we know, based on history, that can drag on a bit," Dreger commented, although Schneider's endorsement would indicate this might not be as much of an obstacle as Dreger fears.
Another potential alteration would be a "verification line," painted green, that runs parallel to the goal line three inches behind it. That would be used to determine if a puck, which is three inches in diameter, completely crosses the goal line. If it touches the green line, it's a good goal. “I think the verification line is a really good idea that doesn’t affect the game and how it’s played in any way other than it will be of great assistance to hockey operations on certain goal reviews,” the NHL's vice president of hockey and business development Brendan Shanahan said. Shanahan is the organizer of the RDO Camp.
A third potential modification is a safety measure that may not require any NHLPA action is the installation of curved plexiglass where the glass stops along the boards for the benches. This would prevent more serious injuries resulting from the sort of "turnbuckle" incidents like the one last March where Boston's Zdeno Chara directed Montreal's Max Pacioretty's head into the upright next to the Canadiens bench. "I think that's going to help make a safer environment out there," Schneider said.
"We all agree that the curved glass makes it safer," Shanahan said. "We want to have it in the game. But in a camp like this, it allows us to shoot pucks off it and determine whether the puck is in play or is it out of play."
As for the experimental rules (and we listed them all here earlier this week), Schneider said, "It's extremely difficult to look at kids playing for two days, three scrimmages, to get a feel of what would work well in the NHL, how coaches would handle it throughout the season, how they would use it to their advantage or get around the rule. ... But the one thing you take out of it is you see what absolutely won't work and what's harebrained a little bit."
And that is why some of them -- like having a penalized player serve his entire two minutes on a minor penalty regardless of how many goals are scored -- didn't get much traction. Still, some others might be tried in training camp and some might be used in the AHL for a season.
There was lots of interest in adding a 3-on-3 segment to overtime before proceeding to a shootout if the five minute 4-on-4 overtime period didn't settle matters. "I prefer 3-on-3 to the shootout myself," Florida GM Dale Tallon said in an often comedic interview with Bob McCown and Damien Cox on Toronto Radio's Fan 590 Thursday (audio). "It's as exciting, more exciting than the shootout. ... You've got three skill guys against three skill guys. It's fun. ... A lot of my friends that are general managers are in favor of it," Tallon said, adding "I don't know about the guys I don't like."
One of the most publicized proposals has been the "bear hug" rule suggested by Toronto GM Brian Burke, in which a player can wrap his arms around an opponent and take him into the boards, ostensibly a safety measure to prevent dangerous collisions. Schneider was not a fan after seeing it in action. "First of all, it needs another name because it's a hold. It's holding. And where would you start to call it? Would you start to call when you're against the boards, would ou call it two feet from the boards? Would it be two strides from the boards? It's so subjective I think it would be very difficult for the referees to call that."
Tippett told reporters that the scrimmage in which the "bear hug" was permitted turned into too much clutch and grab hockey (video), but Burke defended the concept, saying that NHL referees are trained well enough to make the proper differentiation between what would be holding and what would be legal. But Burke added, “I wouldn’t vote for it based on what I saw today. I’d want to see more.”
It seems there was little consensus when it came to another highly publicized experiment, hybrid icing. Under the current NHL rule the offending team can negate an icing call by touching the puck below the goal line before the opponent; but these can turn into races for the puck that are sometimes really not in doubt, and have led to some unnecessary collisions resulting in injury. The hybrid icing is a proposed safety measure that marries the current NHL rule with the European, NCAA and OHL no-touch icing rule that stops play when the iced puck crosses the goal line without anyone having to touch it. Few in the NHL favor that. Under the hybrid icing, however, the linesman has the option to use the no-touch call if he believes the offending team won't win the race for the puck when the opposition player coming back reaches the hashmarks of the faceoff circle in the defensive zone. Otherwise, he can let the race go on.
"I've heard guys say it's a good idea, but I'm not a proponent of the hybrid icing," said Schneider. "I think that's just too confusing. I think it's too confusing for the fans, especially in the U.S. where they're already having trouble figuring out offsides and icing as it is. You get the hybrid icing that they're talking about, which is essentially a race to the hashmarks, I think that would be even more confusing, and I know a lot of guys in the league have basically said they wouldn't want it, I'd say an overwhelming majority."
Bylsma was among those who told Dan Rosen of NHL.com they felt hybrid icing could cause problems for the linesmen. "We've talked about situations where if that was a meaningful game and it was the third period and the linesman made a judgment call," Bylsma said. "The puck has to go all the way to the other end and you couldn't change, so you'd see some pretty red faces from coaches and it would be a factor in the game."
Captials Coach Bruce Boudreau agreed. "I always like when you can take the discretionary element out of the call because then it's easier for the officials and the teams to understand," he said.
But some see value in hybrid icing. "I'm in the camp that one injury because of the icing the way it currently is, is one too many," Nashville GM David Poile told Rosen. "So I think (hybrid icing) is a good compromise. It's a safety issue. We're doing a lot of things to protect the players and this would be another one."
Tallon is also a proponent of the rule's safety features, as he noted on Fan 590 Thursday. Cox expressed surprise Tallon favored hybrid icing, but Tallon said, "It's still better than the guy getting hammered into the end boards and ruining his career or losing a guy for four months. I'd rather take that risk. What's the worst that can happen? It's a faceoff in your end. We still have to protect out players. There's so many injuries in the last few years because of that kind of play. I'd rather be safe than sorry."
All the discussion among GMs, coaches, NHL execs and the media may be less significant that what the players think. A trio current players who serve on the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee -- Mike Cammalleri, Dan Winnik and Chris Campoli -- were in attendance to view the experiments. "That's where you get the best feedback from," said Schneider. "I don't care if you're out of the game for six years of six months. Once you're out, you're out, and you kinda lose a feel for what goes the ice."