They haven’t yet dropped a puck at the NHL’s research and development camp, but already the event is a winner.
That’s because regardless of what transpires, the league has scored a PR victory, at the very least projecting the perception of openness to progress.
Based on their recent track record, however, you’ve got to believe this camp is about more than image-building. After the lockout of 2004-05, the NHL performed a similar project and subsequently introduced a series of measures that spawned mostly positive results and many rave reviews. Why wouldn’t the league follow the same formula?
The camp, set for Wednesday and Thursday in Toronto, will feature three two-hour scrimmages and one 90-minute session in which a host of experiments will be carried out, with new wrinkles added and subtracted for each game. The lab rats are top-end 2011 draft-eligible prospects.
Why kids instead of polished NHL vets?
“Someone said, ‘You want pros?’ And I said, ‘Ugh, I could just imagine how I’d feel if someone was asking me to give it hard with a bunch of new rules in the middle of August,” said NHL VP Brendan Shanahan, the man responsible for the camp. “I’d be thinking, ‘I’ve got the real deal coming up in two weeks here.’ ”
Conversely, with Shanahan and his NHL colleagues overseeing the proceedings, and veteran coaches Ken Hitchcock and Dave King guiding the players on the ice, the prospects will have extreme incentive to impress.
While none of the concepts are expected to find their way into play in 2010-11, there is a buzz about the event among the principals.
“Everyone’s excited to see how it turns out,” Hitchcock said. “It’s like anything else new. You’re curious and you’re not sure what the end product is going to look like, but you want to give it a go.”
Hitchcock said he’s most looking forward to the overtime alterations. Included is a nine-minute OT with three minutes of 4-on-4, three minutes of 3-on-3 and three minutes of 2-on-2. Some of the OT play will also mandate long line changes, as teams experience in second periods of games – a period in which gaffes are more frequent.
“Will all of a sudden the thing just get wild and wacky and kind of fun?” Hitchcock said. “Especially 3-on-3. Strategy plays a large role in 3-on-3 and I’m curious to see if the game really starts to open up.
“I’m a real proponent of as much continuous play as you can have. That’s when a lot of mistakes happen. With more continuous play, the game goes back into the players’ hands more.”
Shanahan, meantime, said he has received a lot of feedback from GMs about faceoff cheating. One potential solution: a draw controlled by a whistle, in which the linesman places the puck on the middle of the dot and the two combatants battle for it at the tweet of the whistle.
In another scrimmage, they’ll go back to the traditional faceoff, but after a violation, the opposing center can pick his new faceoff rival.
“If you get to choose the other team’s defenseman to take the draw,” Shanahan said, “not only are you getting a player who isn’t used to taking them, but you change a team’s structure off the faceoff.”
In still another scrimmage, faceoff dots in attacking zones will be moved from the corners of the rink to the slot in an attempt to make offenses more dangerous.
“It’s going to make a defending team awful nervous,” Hitchcock said. “It’s a little like a penalty kick – they’re right on top of you.”
Shanahan said there are several other modifications he’s keen to witness, but couldn’t this week either because time doesn’t permit or they couldn’t get the technology together for mid-August. Some, such as livelier kick-boards that would produce more active and less predictable bounces, may surface at future camps – assuming this one is a success.
“Whether or not we do it every year, I don’t know,” Shanahan said. “I know the players we’ve invited have all enthusiastically responded with a ‘yes’. ”
“The thought of this camp was to be more progressive. I don’t want anyone to think we’re doing this because we think there’s something wrong with the game. We think the game is great. They did one in 2005…and we want to keep doing them.”
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly.
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