NHL general managers think the game is all right, so they don’t want to go shaking things up.
So when it came time Tuesday to debate rule changes at their annual meeting, the consensus was to start small with minor alterations to overtime and faceoffs. Bigger things like expanded video review and three-on-three will require more discussion down the road.
“You can’t come to a three-day meeting and say, ‘Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, set in stone let’s move forward.’ You try and inch these things along,” Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues said. “You don’t want to come back two days later you’re talking to your coach about it ... and the ship has sailed and it’s in the rule book.”
There will be a few changes to that rule book, pending the approval of the competition committee and board of governors. General managers agreed to green-light teams switching ends in overtime to make for longer line changes and making faceoff violators move back 12 to 18 inches instead of getting tossed from the circle, along with pushing players on the outside further apart.
Those are not going to drastically alter play in the league, but that’s OK with the GMs.
“We feel, for the most part, most of us, that we have a good product,” Bryan Murray of the Ottawa Senators said. “We’ve made some changes in the past years and the game in itself is real good. We obviously would like to have more games decided if there’s an overtime at that time, so that’s why they’re talking about flipping the ends and doing a variety of things.
“But we like our game. We think that, for the most part, it’s in good order.”
Good order but certainly not perfect because no sports league is ever that. In a perfect world, GMs, players, coaches and fans would like to see more games decided in overtime before a shootout is necessary, but as the NHLPA’s Mathieu Schneider put it, there’s not a “great sense of urgency” to overhaul things in that department.
So that means no more time added beyond the five-minute overtime already in place and no implementation of three-on-three play. Instead, the group got on board with the long change like in the second period with the hope that’ll lead to more OT goals.
“Year after year after year there is a higher percentage of goals scored in the second period, where there is a long change,” director of player safety Brendan Shanahan said. “And there are more penalties in the second period. It’s tough to get off the ice. Sometimes you get caught out there. Sometimes you have to take penalties. Sometimes you make mistakes. It just takes four-on-four overtime and makes it a little bit more difficult to coach and a little bit more difficult to play.”
One item that’s yet to be resolved is whether there will be a dry scrape or shovelling of the ice prior to overtime and whether the league will go back to having two minutes after the third period instead of one.
With plenty of concerns about games taking longer, there was little momentum for longer overtimes. That included the players not wanting it.
“It becomes very difficult when there is a travel involve and you are going city to city and playing back-to-back games,” said Schneider, the NHLPA’s special assistant to the executive director. “It becomes more taxing on the top guys and who are out there more often and getting a couple of extra minutes per night.”
The goal at this general managers meeting was not to make games longer but improve the quality and integrity of play.
That’s why Armstrong’s suggestion of moving players three feet away from each other on the outside of faceoff circles quickly gained support. Already in place in international play, it’s supposed to eliminate scrums along the boards so that the puck can move quicker and more scoring chances can be created.
The other faceoff rule change, which makes a violating centre move back instead of getting tossed out, could have the same result. Two violations would still be a two-minute minor penalty.
“You don’t have to put two centremen on to take a draw at the end of a game, because you know the first guy is going to take the faceoff,” Armstrong said. “And, if your faceoff percentage is going to be the one getting hit, there might be more integrity of the first faceoff.”
One other change that earned support from the group was to allow for a more liberal definition on kicked-in goals, something that does not need competition committee or board of governors approval. Having a skate blade on the ice while directing a puck into the net would count instead of being disallowed.
“That is a recommendation in terms of creating a little more leeway in terms of what a distinct kicking motion is, and the blade on the ice was one of the elements that was factored in there,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
Much more debate is needed on other topics, such as giving the situation room in Toronto more opportunities to rule on goals and putting television monitors in the penalty boxes so that officials can take a second look at goaltender interference situations.
Change in those departments may be wanted, but it won’t come easy.
“I think it’s a very complicated thing, video review,” Shanahan said. “You can pick out one or two very easy examples that video review would have helped, but it’s difficult to know where to stop.”
As part of the players’ portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Schneider broached slowing the game down a bit to protect defencemen and possibly changes to reduce shot-blocking to create more offence.
Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke and many of his colleagues believe the game has never been faster. But that also means there’s no rush to mess with too much.
“This process seems sometimes like you’re just grinding through it,” Burke said. “Some of it is small stuff, some of it is big stuff — but you just grind through it, try to reach a consensus and make a recommendation. Some of the things will lead to further study by the league or formation of a committee to look at something.
“But the overwhelming sense is this game is in pretty good shape and we have to move slowly if we’re going to make changes.”