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NHL GMs emerge from meetings optimistic they can make at least one rule change

NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan speaks to reporters during the annual fall meeting of the hockey league's general managers, in Toronto, Nov. 9, 2010, file photo. The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese

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NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan speaks to reporters during the annual fall meeting of the hockey league's general managers, in Toronto, Nov. 9, 2010, file photo. The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese

BOCA RATON, Fla. - When NHL general managers sit down to discuss rule changes, two principles guide them through the decision-making process.

"Every time we make a rule it's about safety or scoring more goals," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said Monday.

The 30 custodians of the game emerged from the first day of their annual March meeting feeling optimistic that they'll be ready to recommend a change that falls under each category.

After years of discussion, it looks like there is finally enough support to adopt a hybrid icing rule that would see the faceoff circle being used as the marker where a play can be blown dead. It's already in place in NCAA hockey and is designed to keep players from crashing into the end boards while racing back for the puck.

"It makes sense, it makes it safer for the players," said Rutherford. "You're not going to get as many of those collisions right along the boards."

The second change that earned strong support was the elimination of hand passes in the defensive zone—an infraction that could become a penalty. The GMs feel too many players are using the ability to glove the puck with their hand as a tactic on faceoffs.

No official rule changes have yet been proposed.

While hybrid icing and the elimination of hand passes both earned the approval of the seven managers who discussed them in a breakout session Monday, they still need to be debated by the entire group before the meetings wrap up Wednesday. Twenty managers must give their support a rule for it to be passed on to the competition committee.

None of the other items on the agenda gained much support, including the possible re-introduction of the red-line. The majority of the managers also remain in favour of keeping the trapezoid that prevents goaltenders from playing the puck in the corners.

Among the other items discussed were the possibility of using video to review goaltender interference calls, allowing players to "bearhug" an opponent and creating a ringette line across the top of the circles that would be used to blow down two-line passes.

"This is a great meeting," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "I think fans would be very impressed if they sat in the room and watched the time and care that goes into these discussions. The GMs take very seriously their role as custodians of the game.

"The discussions are detailed and soul-searching, it's important. I'm always impressed when I watch this group work."

The first day of meetings also included a video presentation from Brendan Shanahan, who heads the player safety department in addition to handing out supplemental discipline.

The league is encouraged by what it believes is a change in player behaviour after the creation of new rules that govern hits to the head and charging over the last two seasons. They've seen far fewer dangerous hits as a result.

"I think we have smart players that adapt," said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "When you put in a Rule 48 or a Rule 41 and we made the changes that we've made over the last couple years, they're smart guys.

"For the most part they figure out what they need to do at the highest level and not do dumb things that might cost them or their team."

There is a much different atmosphere around the three-day meetings as a result. When the GMs got together the last two years, there were controversial incidents hovering over both sessions—the Max Pacioretty-Zdeno Chara hit in 2011 and the Marc Savard-Matt Cooke hit in 2010.

Without any similar issues this time around, there seems to be fewer calls for major change.

That doesn't make the hybrid icing any less significant. A number of players have been seriously injured while racing for the puck, including Edmonton Oilers prospect Taylor Fedun, who shattered the femur in his right leg during preseason and only recently started skating again.

Under the new proposal, icing would be called if the defending player crossed the faceoff circle first. The play would be allowed to continue in instances where the attacking player was leading the race.

"We don't want to eliminate the chase," said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon.

Burke had previously put it on the agenda for five years running without any success, but more support started to build after managers saw it in action at the summer research and development camp. Burke had another theory as well.

"Someone else proposed it this time," he said. "It probably has its best chance if someone else proposes it."

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