It's become an issue again this season in large part because of the abuse superstar centre Sidney Crosby has taken this season. Currently the rules stipulate that a player who picks up three instigator penalties warrants a two-game suspension. Some GMs believe that makes it too difficult for tough guys to protect their star teammates.
"That's an agenda item that I requested," Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said after the first day wrapped up at a posh resort hotel. "I think we need to raise the number of instigator penalties a player can take before getting suspended. I do not favour the elimination of the penalty but I think we've got to get to five or six (instigator penalties) before a player gets suspended so they can do their jobs and protect their teammates."
Through Feb. 15. there were 47 instigator penalties handed out this season, up from 39 through the same number of games last season.
Ben Eager of the Philadelphia Flyers is the only player to have earned the two-game suspension so far this season for earning three instigators, but the issue with some GMs is that some players get two instigators and are hesitant to drop the gloves.
"So the question is, when a guy is at two instigator penalties, does it affect him to say, 'I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to protect my guy. I'm not going to protect my goalie because I'm going to be suspended.' That was really the debate today," said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean.
If the GMs vote to loosen up the rule Wednesday, it would then have to be discussed by the NHL competition committee (players and GMs) and then finally get the approval of the board of governors (owners).
Not all GMs are in favour of changing the instigator.
"I'm not against the way it is right now," said Ottawa Senators GM John Muckler.
"I do think there's enough time in the game to play tough and deliver that message appropriately," echoed Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson. "I do think it would be hard to go backwards in terms of vigilance against it."
Even Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, who sees Crosby having to defend himself game in and game out, didn't sound terribly troubled by the current rule.
"I don't think it's that big an issue for us," said Shero. "Sidney would be the first person to say that. He's the guy who plays the game as hard as he does."
Ferguson worries about the bad optics for the NHL if the instigator penalty was loosened, the perception that the league was encouraging more fighting.
"And you don't get to control that end of it. because perception comes from the person who's viewing it and I do think it'd be tough," he said. "We'd potentially be leaving ourselves open to that type of criticism."
But the bottom line, said Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong, is allowing the stars to shine.
"You want to make sure that the star players have the ability to do their jobs," said Armstrong. "You look back in the late 80s and early 1990s with players like (Wayne) Gretzky and Pierre Turgeon and they were getting 150, 160 points on a regular basis there was probably a little more freedom a little more room there and we want to make sure that next generation of players always can have that ability too."
Glen Sather was the GM of the Edmonton Oilers when he had tough guys Dave Semenko and later Marty McSorley protect the likes of Gretzky and Jari Kurri when the league didn't have an instigator penalty.
"I think you can't protect as well as you used to be able to," Sather, now the Rangers GM, said after Monday's meetings. "There are a lot of guys who, I think, have come full-circle on (the instigator). I always liked the idea of being able to protect Wayne, and Mark, and Paul, and all those guys. And we always had somebody in a position to do it."
The 30 GMs split up into breakout groups Monday and discussed other issues as well:
-Goalies freezing the puck too often;
-Player development in the AHL, with a AHL president Dave Andrews on hand;
-The length of pre-game ceremonies;
-The standard of enforcement on obstruction;
-The idea of going to one-minute penalties in overtime, an idea also brought forward by Burke.
"I don't know how far that one's going to get," said Burke. "The logic of it, obviously, if you take a tripping penalty in the first period it's 10 per cent of the period and it's a 5-on-4 power play.
"That same foul in overtime is 40 per cent of the period and it's a 4-on-3 power play which has a dramatically higher conversion rate. So to me it makes sense. But I'm not sure my logic will carry the day here."