NHL general managers will gather in Boca Raton, Fla., from Monday to Wednesday in an annual gathering that historically has set in motion some of the biggest rule changes in the game – most recently, the introduction and eventual adoption of hybrid icing.
Among the 40 or so items crammed onto the agenda will be a discussion of what overtime may look like in the not-to-distant future. In 2005-06, coming out of a season lost to a lockout, the league adopted the fan-friendly shootout to break overtime ties – and ever since, roughly 13 per cent of games are decided by the controversial penalty-shot contest.
As recently as 2010, Detroit Red Wings' general manager Ken Holland proposed that the NHL increase the current five-minute, four-on-four overtime period so that fewer games are decided by a shootout. Over time, support has built for some version of Holland's initiative, which involves adding a second five-on-five overtime period that would be played with three skaters apiece.
Some of his colleagues – notably the St. Louis Blues' Doug Armstrong – are reluctant to go that far because they haven't seen enough three-on-three action to know what it might look like, and thus are more inclined to go to a full 10-minute period of four-on-four overtime.
In November, the New Jersey Devils' Lou Lamoriello proposed the simplest tweak (and the one most likely to be adopted) – that teams switch ends for overtime, so that they are required to make the longer, more challenging on the-fly-line changes using four skaters apiece. Theoretically, such a change could create more confusion on the benches, more open ice in overtime and thus more scoring.
"I would prefer for our game to be decided by playing hockey instead of the skill part of the game, which is the shootout," Dallas Stars' general manager Jim Nill told The Canadian Press.
"It's really tough. You can play a great game, play a great overtime and then you go to a shootout and just because you lose a shootout it feels like you've lost the game – and you have, and it hurts because you played such a good game. I would rather lose a game by playing the game."
In general, the March GM meetings begin with smaller group sessions to discuss possible rule changes for next season. If the GMs reach a consensus, then their proposals are forwarded to the joint NHL-NHLPA competition committee and from there to the board of governors.
Most of the topics on the agenda were originally broached at the November GM meetings in Toronto, including the possibility of a tweak to the rules that apply to goalie fights. Earlier this season, the Philadelphia Flyers' Ray Emery crossed centre ice in a game against the Washington Capitals to engage an unwilling combatant Braden Holtby in a fight. Even though it was a relatively rare circumstance, there is a move afoot to ensure goalies that cross center ice to fight will be automatically suspended in the same way a position player who leaves the bench to fight receives an automatic suspension.
The GMs will also discuss adding some tweaks to the video replay rule, a response to the Jan. 18 game in which the Red Wings won a controversial overtime decision over the Los Angeles Kings after a puck shot by Detroit's Niklas Kronwall that was clearly out of play caromed back into the rink and deflected in off Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. None of the four officials on the ice saw the puck carom high off the netting before landing back on the ice. Potentially, the extra point that the Red Wings earned that night could be the difference between them making and missing the playoffs.
The West is set, but don't try to make sense of the East
Not everyone is completely clear about how the new NHL playoff format works, so here's a brief primer, based on the standings through Sunday morning and the notion that unless the Minnesota Wild fall apartin the final month, the first seven spots in the West are pretty much sewn up.
Under the new system, the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs automatically, with the final two spots being awarded to wild-card teams. Currently, that means that two teams in the Central, Minnesota and the Dallas Stars, hold down the final two playoff spots, with the Phoenix Coyotes next in line, just three points back.
There was a massive swing in two games Saturday night that ultimately may decide that final spot in the West.
Phoenix had a two-goal, second-period lead to the Washington Capitals and ultimately lost in regulation. Dallas rallied from a goal down to defeat Minnesota in regulation on the same night that Mike Modano's jersey was retired. That was a four-point swing, with Jaroslav Halak getting the win over Phoenix in his Washington debut and Coyotes coach Dave Tippett lamenting the lost opportunity, noting that if his team doesn't start finishing teams off soon, they'll "have an early spring."
As things currently stand, the West could have four fabulous first-round matchups. The St. Louis Blues hold the Central Division lead, which means they'd play Minnesota, an old Western Division rival going back to the NHL's original expansion days.
That would leave two of the most exciting teams in the league, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche, to play one another.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks would face the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks would play Dallas.
Of course, if St. Louis could pass Anaheim for top spot in the West, then they would get the second wild card team and Anaheim would get the first. Teams will likely jockey back and forth like that from here until the end, with the Eastern Conference so wide open that it doesn't even bear to think about possible matchups, unless you want to consider the possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs could play the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round and the Boston Bruins could get either the Detroit Red Wings or the New York Rangers, depending upon how things shake out, two potential Original Six matchups.
Dallas, under new management, is a suddenly an intriguing team to watch, with Tyler Seguin lighting it up again these past two games, scoring eight points and moving up to No. 5 in the NHL scoring race.
Dallas GM Jim Nill's faith in Seguin – that if he had the chance to play as a No. 1 centre, he would respond to the challenge – appears well-justified at the moment. Boston continues to forge ahead even without Seguin, though the Bruins will probably not be able to get a true reading on Loui Eriksson's ultimate contributions until he gets healthy. It might not happen until next year.
Meantime, Reilly Smith, who was the forgotten player in the deal, had an excellent start, but has seen his scoring numbers fall off of late. Smith is playing a little under 15 minutes per game for the Bruins.
There is a potential red flag for Dallas – goalie Kari Lehtonen left the third period of the win over Minnesota with an injury, forcing Tim Thomas to go in.
Thomas was acquired as insurance by Nill just for this reason. As good as Lehtonen has been for Dallas – he was probably the best addition made by former GM Joe Nieuwendyk during his tenure – Lehtonen is known for his fragility. The Florida Panthers pretty much had to move Thomas out after acquiring Roberto Luongo to be their starter – too much potential drama there – and Dallas looks as if it could be the right landing spot for him.
The Stars honoured Modano a day after the Calgary Flames honored Nieuwendyk as part of their Forever A Flame program. Nieuwendyk had been linked to the Flames as a possible replacement for fired general manager Jay Feaster, but he had determined that he wanted to spend a full year away from the game with his wife and three children before deciding what to do next.
Ultimately, Nieuwendyk's decision will be linked to family as well as professional considerations. In the meantime, Brian Burke is acting as interim general manager, likely through at least the entry draft at the end of June.
POST DEADLINE REVIEWS
Like Thomas, every new trading-deadline addition wants to get off to a fast start with his new team. Ryan Miller accomplished that, going 4-0 in his first four games with the Blues. Ales Hemsky had a three-assist day for Ottawa, in his second game with the Sens. David Legwand, added by Detroit, slotted in with Johan Franzen and Gustav Nyqust, and they looked great – 11 points in a 7-4 win over New Jersey. Franzen's return will likely be key for the Red Wings' playoff hopes, since Henrik Zetterberg is out for the balance of the regular season...The Wild put Matt Moulson up on the second line with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle, which left Dany Heatley to drop back to the fourth line … The Capitals will have an intriguing addition to their lineup, likely in time for Monday night's date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, after signing their much heralded 2010 first-round draft choice, Evgeni Kuznetsov, to an entry-level contract. Kuznetsov had been playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL, but negotiated a release of the remainder of his Russian contract to try his hand at the NHL. Kuznetsov, now 21, shone in back-to-back world junior championships, overshadowing far more well-known Russians such as Nail Yakupov in brief glimpses. The Capitals have been patiently awaiting his arrival and when he showed up Saturday, general manager George McPhee commented to reporters: "It's kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in. We've heard you, but we haven't seen you. And there he was. I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this."
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