By Stu Hackel
Amidst all the CBA talk, there are still real hockey issues to discuss and one largely forgotten event takes place on Tuesday August 21 and Wednesday Aug. 22 in Toronto. A planned mini-summit of general managers, coaches, players, on-ice officials and the NHL's Hockey Operations Department will convene to discuss some significant rules, specifically whether the standards of obstruction -- an essential part of the "new rules" introduced after the 2004-05 lockout to speed up the game -- have slipped in recent years.
"I think it’s time to review it," NHL Senior VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell told Red Light on Friday. "I don’t think it’s broken, but I don’t think it’s perfect either. I think we have accepted a little bit of retraction on the penalty calls. It’s time to take a hard look at it again after eight years and re-gauge it."
The meeting grew out of the GMs gathering in March during which some expressed concern that the league had softened its resolve to restrict interference, hooking and holding. That perception had also been circulating in the media, and while it wasn't part of the GMs' complaints, the fact is that with goal scoring having declined annually since the post-lockout rules were implemented, the return of clutching and grabbing was blamed. Teams averaged 6.16 goals per game in 2005-06. Last season, it was 5.32 per game, on a par with the Dead Puck Era just prior to the lockout.
The Hockey Operations Department asked teams to submit video examples of what they saw as problematic. "We got eight or ten teams sending things in after that March meeting," Campbell said. "Mostly we got examples of interference on the forecheck, running the gauntlet, holding up guys. We didn’t’ get any examples of hooking or holding, but we’re still going to ask the questions."
Among those who will be in Toronto to help answer those questions are Predators coach Barry Trotz, Sabres GM Darcy Regier, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Penguins GM Ray Shero, Bruins coach Claude Julien, Canucks GM Mike Gillis, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. Director of Officiating Terry Gregson and Manager of Officiating Bill McCreary, both former refs, will attend along with a few active referees and linesmen. Campbell declined to identify the players who will join them because not all are confirmed as attending, but he said the group includes both forwards and defensemen.
This August meeting, which will be at the NHL Toronto office, was set at the GMs' meeting in June, where the videos submitted by the clubs were reviewed and the managers discussed what they saw. "I think the standard did slip a little bit, but I think it is as much the strategy combined with that that equals how teams are successful," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told NHL.com at the time. "It is always been our goal to clarify how we want the game played."
There was some disagreement on what should and shouldn't be penalized, so Campbell suggested the summer meeting to chew over the problem and make recommendations to the larger group of GMs. The Hockey Operations staff has collected a great deal of examples from games as the raw material to which the group will respond.
"We’ll show a lot of video," Campbell said. "We’ll map it out. We’ll show lots of calls and non-calls, calls that we thought were wrongly called. And the question we’ll ask the managers, players, and coaches is, 'In your mind, should this have been called or not called?"
This mini-summit replaces the league's Research and Development camp conducted during the last two summers in which draft eligible players experimented by playing games that tested all manner of rule changes.
While the discussions starting Tuesday won't be limited to one area, the biggest concern seems to be with interference by defenders on the forecheck who are preventing forwards from chasing the puck.
"We’re going to go over tons of tape and clips we’ve collected that we’re ready to show on Tuesday," said Campbell. "For example, on interference, we want to establish how long can you hold up a guy? Is the defenseman allowed one-and-a-half 'steamboats,' or is it one or two 'steamboats?'" referring to the time interval it takes to say that two-syllable word.
"On a defensive zone face-off, what’s allowable? How much interference positioning can you use to stop the forward from going after the D on a lost draw? Or vice versa: How much interference positioning can a defenseman use on the board-side winger to prevent him from going after a draw won by the defensive zone team? One D goes back to get it and the winger chases him.
"It’s boring stuff, but this is what we kinda have to walk through, step by step, play by play and understand how much we’ve slipped if we have and where we’ve slipped. We have different opinions from managers."
Actually, hardly boring during an offseason that has been consumed by talk of salary caps and revenue sharing. It's the little details like that which permit the flow of the game to proceed. And it is possible that the discussion could grow into something about more than obstruction, perhaps extending to the current defensive vogue of shotblocking and how it has blunted NHL offenses.
Coming out of the June meeting, Yzerman told NHL.com he though shotblocking was "worthy of discussion. Lots of different things -- I think the extreme is not going down to block shots, and I don't agree with that. I think shot-blocking is a skill and a talent that shouldn't be taken out of the game. I think it is worthy of discussion to what can be done to change it. Basketball has an illegal-defense rule. We really haven't had any serious discussions, but I think it is worth looking into further how we can generate and get shots through, create more offense in the game and create more scoring chances through skill and nice plays. But defense wins."
"We got to be careful," Campbell cautions. "When you sit down and talk hockey you can go all over the place. We’re trying to target this area of obstruction. We want to free up people so they can get a shot on net and get a chance to score. Now, having said that, if you allow the forward to get the puck back to the point, but the point man can’t get the puck though, then we have other issues. And trying to stay on course is important, but if we don’t branch out too far and get to discussions like that, I think we have a strong enough group to give us some direction to take to the larger group of managers and say, ‘You know, we had a real think-tank session and the group came to the conclusion that we should do this or should to that."
Hockey Operations conducted something similar, but on a broader scale during the lost lockout season to help redesign the game. "The last time we really did this, really did this, was when we weren't playing games so we had a lot of time to think on it," Wilson said in June. A lot of work back then was done on the ice, where GMs and others could observe and tweak how the new rules might work. The details were a main part of that first effort as well.
"Last time," Campbell recalled, "we actually had to walk through the specifics of hooking, holding, interference positioning on the ice, what you're allowed to do. We really went at it from the ground floor, the grass-roots. We were taking part of the game that had become the standard and totally changing it. And coming out of the chute, we knew there’d be a learning curve, even for the referees. The calls were going to be all over the map. And it was all foreign to the players.
"These were subtle things – one little hold in the corner by a defenseman, grabbing an offensive player just briefly who had beaten him, could nullify a quick pass to a guy in the slot. Or the guy in the slot, one little grab, one little push by the stick blade to the crook in the arm could stop a goal from being scored. The standard was no longer, 'Did it have to be a big hold? Did it have to haul the guy down to the ice?'
"Before '04-05, it was how many hooks before you were called. Was it two tugs or three tugs? With the puck or without the puck? There used to be a terminology, especially when you were scouting a young player back then, 'Can he play away from the puck?' and that meant, how big and strong was the guy on the far side, on the far wing, and could he just lock a guy down by taking his two hands on the stick and just clamping him so he couldn’t just drive to the net? That was what was meant by 'playing away from the puck.' So all that stuff had to be revisited. And interference, the stick between your legs, the corkscrew, the hold-ups – two steamboats or five steamboats? Waterskiing – we used to ask, 'Was it the forward or the opposite D who was allowed to interfere with the forechecking winger so the one D could go back?"
All that changed after the lockout and the game flourished, although there admittedly were growing pains. "If I made one mistake before," Campbell acknowledges, "it was probably not engaging the officials in our original meeting totally. We had three referees there eight years ago and I think to get them involved this time plus all our administrative staff and talk this thing through so if and when we apply any changes that are necessary, it will be a smoother transition. Our officials are always getting killed for making or not making calls and they should be part of this. They’ve got to call it. We just delivered it to them last time. They weren’t part of it and they had to learn understand and apply it. Having said that, the fact is, there was a much bigger curve before. We had new rules, we had the shootout, we had a lot of things."
This time, the league is considering merely an adjustment, but it's one that could turn a forward loose and make the game a bit more free.
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