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Campbell's Cuts: Rule changes need more research

Wayne Gretzky became known for his play behind the net.

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Wayne Gretzky became known for his play behind the net.

After the NHL’s power brokers found time to do business in between $400 rounds of golf at Pebble Beach at the end of November, they declared the game to be in just smashing shape.

Yeah, fighting is up, headshots are reaching near-epidemic proportions and goals are tumbling, but let’s not get too negative. It wasn’t all the same cheerleading blather.

While the league’s board of governors did absolutely nothing to address a product that is attracting “announced” four-digit crowds in places such as Long Island, people such as Buffalo Sabres president Larry Quinn were sounding the alarm bells over the fact that offense continues to be choked off to near pre-lockout levels.

The most sensible words came from Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who simply said, “Maybe we’ve got to spend a little more time on research when we make changes.” He went a step further, claiming the league could “probably do a better job projecting the potential liabilities.”

No league in the history of the world – how’s that for hyperbole? – has changed gears as often as the NHL has over the years. And while there is now a competition committee that at least looks into matters affecting the game, there is far too little research and development going into changes in the NHL. Instead, much of the direction of the game is controlled by a relatively small cabal of “hockey people” – whatever the heck that is – who are charged with the custodianship of the game.

Too often, changes are made without the their effects fully known.

For example, prior to the 1998-99 season, the league decided to move the goal lines two feet out from the boards to 13 feet. Now, if you were going to fiddle around with the space behind the net, does anyone come to mind whom you might think about consulting? Well, the league went ahead and created more space behind the net without even so much as a courtesy call to Wayne Gretzky, who had just come back from the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and said the area behind the net “was like an ocean.” The result was disastrous, with even more useless cycling behind the net and a whole lot of play in an area from where it is next to impossible to score.

After the lockout, the NHL decided a good way to open up the neutral zone would be to take out the red line. If the league had bothered to consult scouts who have watched hundreds of games in Europe, it might have found that removing the red line takes away as many chances as it creates. For every long bomb that springs a fleet-footed forward, there are 10 occasions when the puck carrier hits a wall somewhere between where the red line was and the opponent’s blueline.

People also are talking about making the ice surface bigger, another move that would almost certainly be panned by those who have watched a lot of hockey on the big ice. In fact, many scouts will tell you that international-sized ice with no red line has produced some of the most tedious hockey they’ve ever seen. (See Republic, Czech circa 2001.)

It’s the same with the trapezoid that has effectively chained goaltenders to their goalposts and prevented the good puckhandling goalies from having an effect on the game. Not to mention the goalies that play the puck like Arturs Irbe. That little guy used to handle the biscuit like it was a live hand grenade and there are a number of others who often made it an exciting adventure every time they leave the crease.

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And, of course, there’s the omnipresent contingent of players, fans and media who continually harp on the dreaded instigator rule. They’re the ones who want it abolished so tough guys such as Riley Cote and Jesse Boulerice, who are supposed to keep everyone honest when they’re not bashing other players’ heads in, can maintain peace and order on the ice and keep those little pukes from carrying their sticks too high.

At no point in the debate, however, has anyone pointed out a couple of simple realities.

First of all, the instigator rule was established in order to keep skilled players from getting beaten up. It was also to cut down on the silly premeditated fights. Even Pat Quinn, who later in his career became a vocal crusader for abolishing the instigator penalty, saw the merits in it when the league put teeth into the rule in 1986.

“What we’ve done today should go a long way toward eliminating the premeditated fight and fighting as a strategy,” he said at the time. Plus, the instigator penalty is failing miserably, largely because it rarely gets called. Through early December, there were just 13 instigator penalties called on 397 fighting majors, meaning it was called just once every 15.3 fights. That’s compared to once every 7.5 fights last season and once every 7.1 in ’05-06.

A little R&D would help in a number of areas. For example, people are talking about the possibility of creating offense by going to 3-on-3 in overtime after five minutes of 4-on-4. Well, the league created 3-on-3 in overtime last year by decreeing that all coincidental penalties that either stretched into or occurred in overtime would result in 3-on-3 play. Since then, 29 minutes and 20 seconds of 3-on-3 has been played and there have been just two goals scored. If you extrapolate that over 60 minutes, you get an average of 4.1 goals per game, which is lower than the per-game average for 5-on-5 scoring. That doesn’t mean 3-on-3 is a bad idea. It simply means it needs some examination before the NHL adopts it.

If the league really wants to boost goals, why doesn’t it look at taking away the penalty-killing team’s ability to ice the puck or not allowing players to bat the puck with their hands in the defensive zone? These are all matters that would be helped by a little R&D and experimentation at other levels.

The most successful companies in the world do it and so should the NHL.

Ken Campbell's Cuts appears Mondays only on The Hockey News.com.

One of THN’s senior writers, Ken Campbell gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Ken's expertise delivered to you every issue.

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