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Prospects, not rule changes, bring a big crowd to NHL's R and D camp

TORONTO - There are 27 potential changes being looked at during the NHL's research and development camp and it's possible that not a single one will ever make its way into the league.

The same can't be said of the players who are serving as guinea pigs this week.

One of the most important aspects of the two-day event is the fact top prospects for the 2012 draft are the ones competing in scrimmages with the different rules. Even NHL executive Brendan Shanahan, who is in charge of the camp, harbours no illusions about why roughly half of the league's 30 general managers interrupted their summer vacation to attend.

"The truth is that we coax a lot of them here with the 36 best 17-year-olds in North America," Shanahan said Wednesday. "It's sort of once we get them under the roof, as they're scouting these kids, they get trapped into a conversation about hockey and the future of the game.

"It's funny—I think there are some guys that are passionate about the rules and the game, but I think most are here to see the players."

The stands were packed at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility for the camp's first two sessions on Wednesday. The attendees included a number of scouts with next to no interest in the modified icing and faceoff rules on display.

Instead, they were closely watching Sarnia Sting winger Nail Yakupov, Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray, Red Deer Rebels defenceman Mathew Dumba and Halifax Mooseheads winger Martin Frk—among the most highly rated prospects for next year's draft.

Yakupov, in particular, made a strong impression.

"You could tell he's a dynamic player," said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who is coaching one of the teams at the camp.

The prospects themselves are viewing this as a bonus opportunity to make a good early impression. The NHL is holding the research and development camp for a second straight year and a number of top picks in June took part last summer, including eventual No. 1 selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

"I felt really thrilled (to be asked)," said Malcolm Subban, a goaltender for the Belleville Bulls and the younger brother of Habs defenceman P.K. Subban. "I know that they had it last year and there were a lot of good guys there last year. It's a real honour just to be represented.

"You can see when you get invited to something like this that they consider you as being one of the top guys."

The NHL makes no secret about the fact that virtually none of the tweaks or changes being looked at will be officially adopted. Even if a rule garners interest here it would likely be at least a year before it could be added to the rulebook because it would require approval from the general managers, competition committee and board of governors.

If anything, the research and development camp is more about identifying trends and gathering data that could be useful well down the road.

"This gives us an opportunity to try new things, look at things, even if we never implement them," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "It really gives us a chance to take a deep breath—not during the season, when everybody's worrying about the game they have to play—and make sure that we are comfortable with where we are."

The only alterations that might be expidited can be found in the area around the goal. Shallower nets are being used here along with a "verification" line that runs three inches behind the goal-line and makes it easier to determine if a puck went in during video review. An alternate camera was also installed in the net to provide a different angle for reviews.

Each of those tweaks could be adopted quickly.

"It's not as sexy as a rule change but it could certainly have a big play in how a game is decided," said Shanahan.

The research and development camp has likely found a regular place on the league's busy calendar of events. Bettman is a fan of the concept and expects it to be held at least every other year moving forward.

As long as the top prospects continue to show up, the NHL can count on drawing a crowd—even if the camp falls during a time when most team personnel might be more inclined to be relaxing at their cottage.

"Hockey for management people and coaches alike, it's a 12 month a year job," said Tippett. "You're always looking for ways to improve your team, you're always looking for ways to get an advantage. You can't take time off from that."

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