NEW YORK – The NHL has decided to dispense with its annual research and development camp in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intent on improving the game. Quite to the contrary in fact, because what comes out of this summer might be the most dramatic examination of the game since the lockout.
At least we can hope that’s the case.
Instead of doing the R&D sessions on the ice, the league has decided to invite a group of GMs, coaches, players and officials to Toronto in August to discuss where the standard of play is and whether or not it needs to be reinforced. Senior vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell acknowledged at the league’s GM meetings Wednesday that it’s probably time to recalibrate, much the way the league did when it overhauled its standard on hooking, holding and interference during the lockout. He said about “85 percent” of the feedback he’s getting is on interference on the forecheck.
“So what can they do, is it two steamboats, is it three steamboats?” Campbell said. “Now it will be easier to re-jig. Now it’s a case of, ‘You guys tell us what you want.’ ”
And one of the most refreshing things about the process is that there is a segment of hockey’s power brokers who have genuine concern about where the game is going and want to do something about it. There was a time when these meetings would produce a chorus of voices declaring the game is in terrific shape and that making changes would not be necessary. And even though the league is notorious for often paying lip service to these kinds of things and doing nothing, the sense is the examination of the game will be thorough and there will be thought given to tightening the standards once again.
They also, as a group, acknowledged part of the battle involves coaches who immediately try to devise ways to get around rules that are in place. The question is, can the league legislate anything to encourage offense or will recalibrating the standard on obstruction be enough?
“No matter what you come up with, you have to understand you’re going to have to adjust to coaches’ adjustments to stay one step ahead of them,” said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “I truly believe that our jobs as general managers is to look at the big picture and the coaches to do whatever wins that night. They’re not always married together. If you ask (Glen Sather) or John Tortorella, ‘Do you like the way the game is played? Are you playing the way that helps you win today?’ And I think you can probably guess what the answer will be.”
If that’s a shot against the New York Rangers, so be it. They play a turgid style of defensive hockey that is terrible for the game, but great for them. Sometimes it’s up to teams to find a way to beat that kind of hockey, but there might be some systematic changes that can be made to force the Rangers to not bore people to death.
“My perspective is I want offense in the game and I want to see scoring opportunities and I think a lot of people feel the same way,” said Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis. “But coaches are coaches. They’re coaching to survive. What I’ve seen is the lowering of scoring opportunities. You don’t see many odd-man rushes at all and collapsing around your own net to block shots and not challenge the point men.”
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman made an interesting observation concerning one of the unintended consequences of moving out the bluelines to shrink the neutral zone, the place where during the lockout the game went to die. That was done to create more offense, but Yzerman believes it might be having the opposite effect.
“It’s ironic and a good lesson moving forward when we do make rule changes,” Yzerman said. “We moved the bluelines out to create more offense and more seams for cross-ice passes, particularly on the power play. And it’s almost worked in reverse. Instead of teams defensively getting caught out at the points, everybody just retreats to the goal and you see five guys in front of the net blocking shots and clogging things up.”
In other news, there is still an appetite for hybrid icing to prevent injuries, but the GMs don’t seem quite as eager to implement it as they had been previously. The crux of the matter is measuring the excitement and scoring chances they create against the danger for defensemen. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said there was only one injury because of an icing race this season. As a result, the rule will be tested in the American League –pending approval by the AHL’s competition committee and board of governors – next season to see what effect it has on the game.
“I think the players are reacting to the safety issues of chasing to the end boards on an icing call and they’re adjusting their play around it,” Gillis said. “If suspensions are severe enough, they’ll continue to adjust.”
The GMs also had a discussion on what they referred to as a “travelling penalty,” a concept that would see the time remaining on either a major or minor penalty carry over to the next game in the playoffs if it is incurred in the final two minutes of a game.
“Obviously it’s radical to carry something from one game into another game,” Holland said. “But when you get into a playoff series and at the end of the game things happen, those things in the grey area, that aren’t worthy of a suspension but there’s message sending going on, is it something we should push to the next game in a playoff series?”