During a pre-season game in the fall of 2005, when the NHL was emerging from a lockout and had decided to crack down on obstruction penalties, a team executive was watching the conga line to the penalty box. He pulled me aside between periods and was furious. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said at the time, “but it’s not this.”
It turns out that answer was exactly that. Thanks in part to the crackdown and the energy and offense it helped inspire, the league came back stronger than ever despite the fact it had just come off locking out its players out the season prior and depriving its fans of its product for the entire season. It was wildly popular and energized the game, returned it to its skill players and made it a lot more fun to watch. And the most important thing about it was the players adapted, that was until the league allowed the standard to slide to the product we’re seeing today.
There seems to be a lot of same hue and cry over the league’s crackdowns on slashing and faceoff violations. There were eight pre-season games on the docket Monday night and in those games, there were 49 slashing minors handed out and 10 penalties called for faceoff violations. In the game between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, referees Jon McIsaac and Francois St-Laurent called nine slashing penalties. One of the Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers split squad games saw seven slashing penalties, as did the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. In the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, three faceoff violation penalties were handed out.
And this is all a good thing. A very good thing. The league and the GMs made the absolute right call this summer when they decided to target slashing. And they saw faceoff violations as an important matter to address, which given the importance of puck possession in today’s game makes it of vital importance. So instead of ruminating and navel gazing and talking in circles about doing something about it, the league instead has decided to actually call the rulebook as it is written.
There might have been some grumbling from fans and broadcasters, but it seemed there was little pushback from coaches and players. For the most part, they reported that the new crackdown was communicated to them clearly and the onus is on them to adapt to the way the game is being called. “The rule has always been there, we just didn’t call it,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after his team’s game. “This will get cleaned up because you’re not going to the box for that.”
In fact, both crackdowns have the potential to change the game in a very positive way. The crackdown on faceoff violations will not only urge faceoff cheats to adapt – and it will be interesting to see which players who were once demons in the faceoff circle see their efficiency dip – but it should also speed up the game. If players come into the dot with the mindset they can’t cheat, it will almost certainly lead to fewer players being kicked out of the faceoff circle and all but eliminate those infuriating draws where linesmen are waiting out two jostling centers while everyone watching screams for the official to simply drop the puck.
The slashing standard, as evidenced by the fact there were an average of more than six minors per game Monday night, might take a little longer. That’s because the casual slash – that lazy, unimaginative play where defenders use their stick on skill players as a first resort – has reached epidemic proportions. When the GMs were considering what to do about slashing at their meeting during the draft, the league broke down the number of slashes from four playoff games, the Memorial Cup game and the NCAA championship final. They found a low of 60 slashes and a high of 110 in those games.
Think about that for a minute. There’s no reason why a full-on crackdown on slashing can’t cut that number down significantly, perhaps even virtually eliminate it. Think about what that will do for game flow, for the quality of play and for the mindset of skill players who will be able to wear low-cuff gloves and skate through the neutral zone with the puck without fear of having their wrists or fingers broken.
And those who are up in arms about all of this should probably realize it’s the pre-season here. If the league is going to use any games as a petri dish, it should be these ones. The real measure of what the league is doing will, of course, be measured when the games are most important. Will a referee be willing call a casual slash in overtime of Game 7 in a playoff series? Will linesmen be as vigilant on faceoff cheaters knowing their actions could change the outcome of a series?
We can only hope. More importantly, we can only hope it doesn’t come to that because after 1,271 games, players will have been conditioned to play the game the right way. We can also hold aspirations that after these two aspects of the game get cleaned up, the league then targets the crosscheck to the back that eliminates scoring chances and gives bad players and defenders an unfair tool for stopping skill players. But these things take time.
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