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Players cross the wider blue line tested during an on-ice session at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Aug. 18, 2010, in Toronto. (Matthew Manor/Matthew Manor/Getty Images)
Players cross the wider blue line tested during an on-ice session at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Aug. 18, 2010, in Toronto. (Matthew Manor/Matthew Manor/Getty Images)

NHL targets offence Add to ...

There was a running theme behind many of the potential rule changes the NHL rolled out at its research and development camp the past two days.



Bigger bluelines. No line changes for the offending team after being called offside. Short-handed teams whistled for icing the puck. Teams forced to clear the puck out of the zone, not just touch the puck, after taking a penalty. And even some 3-on-3 overtime.

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They're all small tweaks rather than radical reforms, but all are designed to increase offence.



That's far from a new endeavour for the NHL, not when the league's dreadful dead puck era isn't that far in the rear-view mirror.



Go back a dozen seasons, to 1997-98, and leading up to the 2004-05 lockout, goal scoring in the NHL hit all-time lows for the modern game. Over that span, the league averaged only 5.32 goals a game, sinking below 5.50 again and again after having stayed above that mark since the mid-1950s.



The goalies got better and better. So, too, did the neutral-zone trap.



Rule changes implemented during the lockout helped to boost scoring into the six-goals-a-game range, but there's been another downward trend ever since.



Last season's 5.53 mark was one of the lowest in the past 50 years. That lack of scoring led to more overtimes and shootouts, and more games than ever before - nearly 25 per cent - went beyond regulation.



The trend concerns some general managers at the camp.



"There always needs to be continuous, consistent work on finding ways to generate more offence," Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier said. "I think there is an ideal goal number - over a period of time, it's got to be somewhere between where we are, in the mid-fives, and the Gretzky era, of over eight.



"I was talking to [Edmonton Oilers executive]Kevin Lowe [who played in that Gretzky era]about this earlier, and it needs to be somewhere in between there. Somewhere closer to the seven range than the six range.



"But I certainly don't think it's something you want to jump to on a one-year basis. It would be wonderful if we could legitimately get to the six range and then re-evaluate. I think that's the work we have to do."



Some of that work was on display Wednesday and Thursday at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility, with two savvy veteran coaches in Ken Hitchcock and Dave King using 38 prospects as guinea pigs for various possible changes.



Both said they approved of several rules that would incrementally boost scoring. Hitchcock approved teams' switching ends in overtime to create "long change" situations. King gave the thumbs-up to putting more heat on teams that are called for penalties by making them clear the puck out of their zone to end the play.



"I think it will create more opportunities for power plays," King said. "You'll be able to get your goalie out and actually get a 6-on-5 going in the zone, so I think it's going to help a bit to create some offence."



For all the radical ideas and net modifications - including red mesh to supposedly allow shooters to more easily pick their spots - one change that wasn't discussed was increasing the size of the goals as a way to boost scoring.



Even in the context of off-the-wall experimentation, that remains sacrilegious, and the league doesn't view its lack of scoring as being nearly that dire a situation anyway.



"I don't think we had one focus [on increasing scoring]" said Brendan Shanahan, who ran the camps as the NHL's vice-president of hockey and business operations. "I think, generally speaking, we felt that going into this camp, we wanted to reward skill. … Maybe limit a coach's ability to manipulate a game, to control a game.



"And also to protect the integrity of the game of hockey. That was a theme that we tried to follow as we tried some of the different things. I think that that paid off."



As for when any of the new rules could come into effect, Shanahan didn't set a deadline.



"I don't really feel like there's a finish line with this project," he said. "I think it's just a matter of collecting information that could come in handy tomorrow, or it could come in handy five or 10 years from now."



And having research already completed, with statistics to back it up, may be just another tool the NHL can pull out the next time pucks stop going in.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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