By Stu Hackel
March 18, 2013
Concerns about officiating are common, but refs have been taking more heat than usual this season.
Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI

When NHL general managers conduct their in-season meetings -- one usually in November and the other in March --- they often discuss new ideas about how the league might improve its product, mull rule changes, and clarify how games might be officiated. But don't expect too much of that sort of talk in Toronto on Wednesday.

Part of the reason is that this meeting at the league office will be much shorter than normal -- only about seven hours compared to the two-day get-togethers the GMs usually attend, which also include an informal gathering the night before things get under way.

Another reason is, according to one league source, that the agenda may be stocked with discussion of the new CBA and its consequences on how the GMs do their jobs. The new agreement gets pretty complicated even for the lawyers who negotiated it -- as revealed by the potential waiver claim on Ryan O'Reilly had Calgary's offer sheet not been matched by Colorado. The men who have to work within its borders every day need to master it, and the final version has yet to be fully written. That discussion itself could take up most of the day.

There may also be an update on NHL Olympic participation and insurance issues.

Additionally, there will no doubt be trade talk and you can expect the rumor mill will be churning, although much of the gossip you hear is just that: gossip. It's fun and entertaining for the armchair GMs in the hockey world to speculate on deals, but you really can't know which players, if any, will change teams until they actually do.

Still, when it comes to the game on the ice, enough hints have been dropped by some GMs during the course of this squeezed season that they believe a few things need attention. We don't know as of this writing what's on the agenda, but here's a quick summary of topics that might be touched upon, including various ideas that managers have discussed in the media.

Officiating. A few hockey observers have said they've heard more complaints about the work of the officials this year than in the past. What's that? GM's complaining about officiating? Shocking!

If there's any significant difference this year, it's that the officials had no real training camp, didn't work elsewhere, and pretty much came in cold at the start of the season. Sure, there have been mistakes. There always are -- and when evaluating the performance of the officials, one must keep in mind that the exhausting schedule hasn't just been compressed for players, it's been compressed for refs and linesmen, too.

However, errors like the one that led to Matt Duchene's February 18th goal for the Avalanche against the Predators even though he was clearly offside...

...have accentuated the calls for some kind of coach's challenge.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon proposed instituting that sort of provision at the November 2010 GMs meeting, but it got little support. Tallon told last month that he'd reintroduce the idea at this meeting and a few more managers have expressed support, including Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who told The Globe and Mail in February, "I'm more open than I was when Dale Tallon brought it. The big thing in our game is goals, so we have to try to make sure goals are right, that we're not scoring goals on offsides or maybe goalie interference."

If the GMs decide to explore this, you can expect the idea to get some refining. "Sure, I think that there is a real possibility it could happen," NHL VP of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy told, "but you'd have to sit down with a group of smart people and you'd have to go through just about every type of play you'd want to allow a challenge for. It can't be used as a tactic (to slow down the game). That's a concern. It has to be a legitimate play that has been defined into the coach's challenge rule. Mainly, it's goals."

Another area of officiating that came up for discussion over the weekend on Hockey Night In Canada's "Satellite Hotstove" segment is embellishment by players who exaggerate hits from behind and draw boarding penalties. Glenn Healy said he was told by a number of GMs that they are concerned about this issue and would raise it on Wednesday. Interestingly, diving was a call that the league already asked the officials to crack down on going into this season, the result of an August mini-summit of GMs, coaches, players, on-ice officials and the NHL's Hockey Operations Department. And we have seen a much stricter standard on it, with diving calls more than doubling this year compared to the same point last season. Through 421 games, there have been 25 diving calls made, compared to only 12 at the same point a season ago.

If the GMs want more attention paid to players who are specifically overselling boarding calls, that's fine, but the real solution is for checkers to learn how to approach the puck carrier differently. Sadly, some still haven't figured out there's a safer, legal and more effective way to check a player who is shielding the puck along the boards with his body, and that it to come at him more from the side, not directly at his back. The better defensive players in the NHL know how to do that --- watch Marian Hossa, who in that situation is adept at just clipping his opponent's shoulder and putting him off balance, then stealing the puck.

The emphasis on boarding calls over the last two years is aimed at trying to encourage that sort of play rather than the potentially dangerous act of ramming a puck-carrier head-first into the boards. If checkers didn't hit guys in the numbers in the first place, it would be harder for the guy who is shielding the puck to fool the ref into a drawing a boarding penalty.

According to the Hotstove panel, there also may be some complaints among the GMs about the number of players who are being thrown out of the face-off circle but, as Healy said, "For the referees, in defense of them: In March, the general managers meet, they say this is the way we want the game called, this is the way we want the puck dropped, and they're doing it. Now they don't like it. They want science, right? Black and white. This isn't science."

Of course, it's easier to complain than change behavior, and that's why the league told the refs to not stand for too much guff this season. So they've doled out a lot more unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, too -- 114 through 421 games, compared to only 63 at that point last season.

Hybrid icing. A safety measure that the AHL experimented with for its first 564 games of the season but voted to discontinue when the NHL lockout ended so the two leagues would be playing under the same set of rules. "We believe that 564 games has been a sufficient test period for 'hybrid icing,' and that the application of the rule has been positive for the most part," AHL president Dave Andrews said in a January statement.

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, a proponent of this long-debated blend between the current NHL race for the puck and no-touch icing, told The New York Times that he expected there would be some discussion about it this week.

Overtime and shootout. Holland has been a leading proponent of changing this part of the game, but he said during the local Detroit telecast of Saturday night's Red Wings-Oilers game that he had not submitted this idea for discussion on Wednesday, but would do so for the GMs meeting during the summer.

Still, OT and the shootout have become major concerns because fully 57 percent of all games that go past regulation end up in a skills competition, and that total was 60 percent last season. That's higher than many envisioned when the shootout was instituted and, with the game-ending gimmick increasingly turning into a trick shot competition, it's not the way that some hockey people want games decided. After Ottawa's Kaspars Daugavins attempted his toe-of-the-stick-blade stunt against the Bruins last week, noted hockey writer Gare Joyce tweeted, "NHL GMs to discuss tweaks to shoot-out: Next season look for 'artistic interpretation' and 'degree of difficulty.' "

Holland, however, was less amused. "I think the shootout is so critical as to who's going to make (the playoffs) and who's not," he told the NHL Home Ice satellite radio audience last week. "I'd like to have a little longer overtime. I'd like to see us play four-on-four for four or five minutes and three-on-three for four or five minutes. I'd like to have more games decided playing hockey. I have no problem going to the shootout if you play a (longer) period of time."

It's an idea that Holland brought up at a GMs meeting last year, but it went nowhere. Look for it to be revived during the summer.

Another suggestion that the GMs discussed is aimed at ending more games in overtime, namely for clubs to switch ends after the third period. The thinking is that the long change will result in more scoring opportunities, which is how things often transpire in the second period.

"I would support that 100 percent," Devils manager Lou Lamoriello said on the same satellite radio show last week. "That's something that's been brought up and I think it really has to be looked at."

The funny thing about this idea is that when overtime was first re-introduced to the NHL 30 years ago, the teams did originally change ends. But soon one nefarious goalie started to carve up the ice in front of the net before switching ends, leaving the crease scarred in front of the goal that the other team would defend, and that practice threatened to go viral. The next season, the NHL decided to keep the goalies where they were. If this idea gets adopted some time down the road, that would be something to guard against.

Goaltenders. It's unknown whether either of these items will be discussed, but Lamoriello has also said that he favors eliminating the trapezoid and allowing goalies to handle the puck anywhere on the ice. He also wants to see a reduction in the size of goalie equipment to help boost scoring. The width of goalie pads was shrunk by an inch a few years ago, but length remains problematic as does the size of the rest of the gear. This shrinkage has been attempted before, and but it was thwarted by goaltenders -- who claim their safety would be compromised -- through the NHLPA.

"I think the equipment has gotten to the point, I think it's just a little over the top right now," Lamoriello said. "I think you can see it just by watching," and he added that if it is not cut back, he might be forced to advocate making the nets larger, something "I never thought I would think."

Safety measures. The Achilles injury suffered by Erik Karlsson of the Senators and Marc Staal's eye injury renewed calls for increased use of Kevlar socks as well as making visors mandatory. All safety equipment issues are subject to NHLPA approval and the union maintains that many of these measures should be up to the individual player and not mandated by the league. There is some thought that the GMs might make an official recommendation anyway.

Of course, whatever comes out of the meeting with regard to rule changes must go to the NHLPA, the competition committee, and the NHL Board of Governors for approval. And with so little time and so many other pressing issues raised by the CBA, it could be that few, if any, of these items move ahead after Wednesday's gathering.

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