SMALLER NEUTRAL ZONE:
Only the NHL would think that decreasing the amount of space in the neutral zone would get teams to shy away from using the “sleep inducing neutral zone trap.” Teams now have four less feet of neutral zone ice to clog up to thwart an attack. Call me crazy but I thought the idea here was to increase the flow and scoring chances? By giving trapping teams less space to cover, you’re actually playing into their hands. Yes, I know two-line passes are history (for now) and we’re about to have our umpteenth obstruction crack-down, but decreasing the neutral zone by four feet actually takes away space from cherry-pickers and makes the hooking and holding even less necessary for a neutral zone trap to work.
INCREASING THE FLOW:
Of the two items here, only one of these will have the intended effect. The other will actually serve to cut down on offensive production, much like the smaller neutral zone. First, reinstating the tag-up offside rule is long overdue. It don’t think it was a coincidence that the neutral zone trap started out right after tag-up offsides was done away with. Under the old rule, “dump and chase” teams were penalized when a player jumped the gun. Teams that wanted to aggressively fore-check and cut off transition games were penalized too because creating a turnover in the other team’s zone only resulted in a neutral zone draw instead of a prime scoring opportunity. Allowing tag-up offsides will reward teams that aggressively fore-check. Teams now have an incentive to fore-check rather than dumping the puck in deep and vacating the zone to get their trap set up. How many teams that decide to aggressively fore-check remains to be seen, but those that do should be rewarded early in this upcoming season.
As for the two-line pass? Don’t believe the hype that it will increase flow and lead to more breakaways. Remember the 2002 Winter Olympics and the beat-down that Canada got at the hands of Sweden? Well, the Canadians hadn’t adjusted to the lack of a two-line pass and the Swedes ate their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack as a result. However, Canada adjusted their game and ended up bouncing back to win the gold medal. Mark my words, teams will adjust and they’ll adjust quickly. Teams will do this by keeping at least one defensemen (possibly both) in the neutral zone to look out for cherry-pickers and many veteran NHL defenseman have already publicly stated that they will be making breaks for the opposing goal less frequently this season. This is going to create 3 on 5 and 4 on 5 situations (if nobody is cherry-picking) which will make defending in your own zone a lot easier. It also will give defensemen a head start on getting back to set up the trap. Finally, with the bluelines four feet closer to each other, cherry-pickers are going to have less room to get open for their home run passes.
So we’ll still have races to the puck to make an icing call. Good idea. But teams that ice the puck won’t be allowed to change their players. Huh? However, if a team ices the puck because of a botched pass, the linesman has the discretion to wave it off. Oh great……. Just what we need, more ambiguity for the on-ice officials to sort out. What one linesman considers an attempted pass, another won’t. It seems as though as the NHL is trying to keep teams from icing the puck, but I just don’t see how preventing a team from changing its lines will cut down on them icing the puck intentionally because all they will do now is race for the bench (to complete a line change) before the other team can touch the puck to get the icing call. So say good bye to many of the races for the puck to wave off the icing. While that might not be such a bad thing, (ask Pat Peake about that) this change will look pointless by the end of the first night of the regular season. Stupid, stupid change.
So now a player who is slapped with an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of a game is ejected from that game and suspended for another game, with the suspension doubling each time he does this. Furthermore, the head coach gets fined $10,000 that doubles each time such an incident occurs. I thought fighting was down in the NHL? What is the point of this? Todd Bertuzzi pulled his sucker-punch stunt on Steve Moore with more than 10 minutes left in the 3rd Period and, if anything, got less than he deserved from the NHL front office (which is a whole lot more than what the rule change calls for in the first place). When was the last time an instigator penalty was called in the last five minutes of a game? Are we now just changing the rules just to change the rules?
Smaller pads = more goals. Well, the NHL sure hopes so. I’m not too sure about this one. But considering that ALL players are getting bigger, faster, stronger, and are in much better physical condition than they were even just 15 years ago, reducing the protection a goaltender has just doesn’t seem like a smart idea. I hope I am wrong about this and that goaltenders aren’t going to suffer more injuries from doing their job (stopping pucks) than before. I’m sure goalies will adjust to their smaller equipment and cut down on some of the expected increase in scoring. Yes, goalies like Garth Snow were a joke, but it was easy to see who was a joke and who was simply trying to protect himself from hard shooters.
Now when it comes to goalies roaming and playing the puck, I need this explained to me. The whole idea behind most of these rules changes is to increase flow and keep the puck moving. So why, pray tell, are you going to slow the action back down by restricting goaltenders from moving the puck around? More public clarification on this rule is going to be necessary because anybody who regularly attends Caps games knows that most of the fans have no idea what the rules are despite having top-notch women’s hockey refs sitting nearby with their jerseys tucked into their jeans. To make this really, really simple, goalies can still move the puck anywhere in front of the goal line and only directly behind the net behind the goal line. Furthermore we’ve gone ahead and painted more lines on the ice to help the already beleaguered officials correctly enforce this rule. With the intended purpose of increasing scoring and flow, this rule change seems on its surface to be totally counter-productive to the stated goals simply because goalies can’t “go to the corners” to get a jump on starting the rush back up ice (especially with the much despised two-line pass history, for now). Goalies can still stop “hard arounds” and move them forward but soft dumps into the corners that don’t make it out of the “no go zone” will only lead to scrums in the corners (and the puck not moving!).
Finally why does a goaltender violating the “no go zone” warrant a two minute penalty?
Oh, they’re cracking down on the hooking and holding again? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
UNSPORTSMAN LIKE CONDUCT (aka DIVING):
In addition to calling minor penalties for diving (which will inexplicably continue to be assessed with the actual infraction that lead to the dive in the first place) in the course of the game, the NHL will review game tapes to find infractions that their dynamic on-ice officials missed. After catching the Penguins…er… I mean offenders… the NHL will send letters of reprimand, impose fines, and finally suspend prolific divers. Why do I get the feeling that this will be just like the continually on-going obstruction crack-down?
This year the Capitals will play each of their Southeast Division “rivals” 8 times piece, the rest of the Eastern Conference four times a piece, play Pacific Division teams just once each on the road, Central Division teams just once each at home, and none at all against Northeast Division teams this season. The whole idea behind this is to, stop me if you’ve heard this before from the NHL, create more division rivalries. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good idea. However this problem was created by over expansion and relocation. Montreal no longer has their blood feud with Quebec and Washington is in a division with three teams newer than they are and a relocated franchise. All this does is ensure more of the New York Rangers/Philadelphia Flyers games for “national TV” audiences that the NHL and their TV networks seem to think we just can’t get enough of.
If the NHL, with 30 teams and six divisions, really wants to increase division rivalries, here is my suggestion to do so:
#1.Use this new schedule format.
#2. Amend the playoff qualifications so that the top two teams in each division and the top two third place teams, regardless of record and placement in the overall conference standings, make the playoffs.
#3. The top two teams in each division then play each other in the first round of the playoffs with the division champion having home ice advantage and the two third place qualifiers play each other with the team having the higher point total (or usual tie breaker scenario) having home ice.
#4. Matchups in subsequent rounds would then be created by the winners of the first round being seeded according to their finish in the Conference standings and resume the playoffs as normal.
If this idea had been in place for the 2003-2004 season, these would have been your first round matchups (“top seeds” listed first) Philadelphia-New Jersey, Boston-Toronto, Tampa Bay-Atlanta, Ottawa-New York Islanders, Detroit-St. Louis, Vancouver-Colorado, San Jose-Dallas, and Calgary-Nashville. Only Montreal would have been left out of the playoffs, replaced by Atlanta who was 15 points behind them and none of these matchups took place in 2004. The reason behind this is to ensure that divisional rivals meet in the first round and 6 of the 8 first round series would do exactly that. This is what created the rivalries that currently exist. Teams used to have to beat two teams in their own division in a playoff series just to get to the conference finals in the old days of the NHL and this cranked up the intensity of the playoffs because the same teams were meeting every year. For instance, the Caps really didn’t have a rivalry with the Penguins until we started to meet every year in the playoffs. The Caps don’t really have much of a rivalry with the Devils and that’s largely because we’ve only met twice in the playoffs. By placing a premium on finishing in the top two places of your division and no lower than third, regular season games vs opponents in your own division will become even more important as well.
No, this idea is not perfect as demonstrated by the Tampa-Atlanta matchup with Montreal being left out in the cold, but rivalries pack arenas and draw in the TV audiences. Who wouldn’t have loved to have seen Vancouver and Colorado hook-up in a first round series in 2004?
I saved the best for last. Many, many people want to know just who Caps Nut is. Well, here’s an easy way to find out. When a five-minute four on four overtime ends without a sudden-death goal, I’ll be the one standing up and leaving the arena. I despise the idea of a shootout and absolutely refuse to watch it.
There are many problems with this idea. First and foremost, hockey is a team game and this gimmick (which all it is) greatly diminishes this point. Deciding games with a one-on-one competition is just blasphemous. But what really sickens me is that this gimmick will undoubtedly be declared a success and that this gimmick will be brought into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’m sorry, but if the NHL thinks that having Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals being decided by a shootout will be a boon for the league, they better think again. Remember the 1994 World Cup? I do. The casual US sports fan was enthralled by the entire World Cup competition in 1994 and was beginning to warm up to soccer. Italy and Brazil played a rather decent final game for 90 minutes and the final went to overtime which yielded another 30 minutes with no goals being scored. Then came the penalty kicks. The casual US sports fan said huh? You mean those guys just went 120 minutes and now they’re just going to see who misses the most to decide this? Soccer in the United States has yet to recover from that and I wonder if it ever will. Hockey was already considered fringe in some corners before the lockout and if hockey makes itself more like soccer in deciding tie games, even more people will see the sport as fringe. I am glad that I can tell my grandkids that I was there for all 4 overtimes in 1996 and the 3 overtimes in 2003 even though we lost both games. Games like that are “instant classics” and using a gimmick to decide them will end that too.
But here’s the real problem with shootouts. Before the advent of the “Regulation Tie/Overtime Loss” people complained about the boring 5 minutes of overtime hockey as teams ran out the clock to protect their one point in the standings. When the RT/OTL was introduced, that boring hockey was moved and expanded to the last 10 minutes of the third period if the game was already tied. At least overtime got a little more exciting with the 4 on 4 and an “extra point” being available. But now teams will have even less of an incentive to win late in the game and in overtime resulting in yet even more “boring hockey.” Why? Well consider that these shoouts are going to take place after 65 minutes of hockey. Bad ice is the norm in a vast majority of the NHL and bad ice will lead to bouncing pucks and bad shots. Now to counter this, the NHL has mandated a “dry cut” of the ice in front of the goal to be made by the Zamboni during a two minute break before the shootout. However, not using water (which is what “dry cut” means) and completely resurfacing the ice, the problem won’t totally be solved and the shootout, like the penalty kick, will become a one-on-one contest of who makes the biggest mistake. Though in hockey the goaltender, instead of the shooter in soccer, will be the one who makes or breaks the game for his team.
It’s one thing for Larry Murphy to spring Dale Hunter on a breakaway against Ron Hextall in overtime of Game 7, it is another for a penalty shot to be awarded to Joe Juneau against Ken Wregget in the second overtime of Game 4, but it is a completely different animal to send out Alexander Ovechkin, Jeff Halpern, and Dainus Zubrus for a shootout vs. some Western Conference team in the middle of December. “But Caps Nut! Don’t you know that the penalty shot ‘is the most exciting play in hockey’” Yes. I am well aware of this. And do you know why it “is the most exciting play in hockey”? Because the penalty shot is a rare occurrence. The advent of the shootout means the penalty shot is no longer a rare occurrence. “But Caps Nut! Don’t you know that the shootout is a big hit in Europe with the fans?” Yes. I am well aware of that. Europeans also love the penalty kick tiebreaker in soccer that US fans can’t comprehend. Furthermore, we fought a little war in the late 18th Century to get away from direct European influence. At least here in the United States we did...
Only time will tell if these rule changes will have the intended effect of increasing excitement in the game (aka goal scoring). Of course, I’ve never felt that more goals = more excitement. 6-5 games can be just as boring as 1-1 ties. And another thing, what is so wrong with ties in the regular season? There’s 82 games per team. There’s no need in my opinion to declare a winner in all of them. Like most people, I think there are too many changes at once. If I were in charge, I would EXPAND not SHRINK the neutral zone to help teams with speed beat the trap and bring back the touch-up offsides in order to reward forechecking. Finally, I would do like the NFL and MLB and create officiating crews so that the same two linesman and two referees are always working with each other (barring injury and demonstrated flat out incompetence) in order to get more consistency with calls but that’s it. I’m not as impressed with the other ideas and I don’t think they will have much of a difference, but because the NHL is trying to come back from oblivion, they feel that they have to do something dramatic. I don’t think most of these will work, and I am very afraid to say that the gimmicks of 4 on 4 overtime and shootouts are here to stay.
For another perspective on the new rules, see the other half of this two-part series.