The number of star players who have been sidelined due to concussion issues has led some NHL execs to conclude that the game has become too fast. (Getty Images)
It wasn't enough to outlaw blindside hits to the head. It wasn't enough to outlaw all targeted hits to the head, to broaden the boarding rule, to give a video explanation of each suspension. The NHL is still too much of a demolition derby, and concussions continue to be a crisis.
So when the league’s general managers hold their annual March meeting next week in Boca Raton, Fla., they will discuss whether to go back to their roots. Should they reintroduce the red line to outlaw two-line passes? Should they eliminate the trapezoid behind the net to allow goaltenders to play the puck in the corners again? Should they do something else?
"The game is fast," said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "We want the game to be fast. But how do you get the game to be a little bit controlled?"
These are good questions, and they need to be asked when Sidney Crosby has played only eight games in more than a year, when so many other players are suffering from concussions – Chris Pronger, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews, on and on and on.
"My opinion is that we should discuss it," said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "I think we've done a lot of different things to speed up the game. I think maybe looking at putting [the red line] back in, in some way shape or form, would help moderate the speed."
But there seems to be no consensus within the league. There isn't a consensus within organizations. Take the Red Wings: Holland isn't a big fan of reintroducing the red line; his coach, Mike Babcock, is. Some think it would make the game safer and more aesthetically pleasing; others doubt it.
If the experience of the past decade has taught us anything, it's that the game evolves and rule changes can lead to unintended consequences. You can look back for solutions – and you might find some there – but the real trick is thinking a step ahead.
The NHL changed the rules after the 2004-05 lockout to open up the game. Coaches learned how to exploit them. Teams now fire the puck up ice to the far blue line. One player tips the puck into the offensive zone to avoid icing, while forecheckers race ahead unimpeded. They smash into the defensemen, who are racing back and can't be helped by a goaltender who can't play the puck.
It's dangerous. It's also unimaginative.
"If you want more puck possession in the game, you've got to bring the red line back in the game so there's more control," said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "It slows down a little bit. Second thing, the big hits on the defensemen, it comes from the middle of the ice. It doesn't come from the walls. It comes from the middle of the ice."
In theory, the red line would force players to carry the puck up ice. It would keep forecheckers from gathering so much speed and closing on defensemen so quickly. Without the trapezoid, goaltenders could relieve some of the stress on their defense.
The argument is that the new rules didn't increase offense much in the long run, so going back to some of the old rules wouldn't decrease it that much, either. There is less of an appetite for allowing some level of obstruction to creep back into the game, because it is more of a gray area and a slippery slope. Players would still be freer to make plays than in the past.
"I'd put [the red line] back," Hitchcock said. "I'd put it back in for sure. It'd add to puck possession, and it would really decrease accidents. … You're going to have more rush attacks, more puck-possession attacks and less chip and dip."
But some are unconvinced that the lack of the red line is a root cause of concussions.
"In theory, I understand it," said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. "I don’t know in actuality. Is that why there's been injuries? Because of the red line? Or is it more that there's no obstruction? … I don't know if there's a correlation between the red line and injuries. … If you really broke it down, I'm not so sure that allowing the stretch pass is going to result in more concussions."
Others are worried that reintroducing the red line would lead to teams clogging up the middle again, like Hitchcock's Dallas Stars used to do.
"I think actually it would hurt the game, putting the red line back in, to be honest, because of the fact that you could just back up and keep everybody in front of you," said Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz. "Now they can spread you out, and it allows the skill players a little bit more room."
Then there are those who wonder whether the red line would really slow down the game and lead to more playmaking. It's nice to think there would be Harlem Globetrotters hockey in the middle of the ice. It's nice to think that goaltenders would relieve the stress on their defense if they could play the puck in the corner. But how many teams have that many playmakers? How many teams have goaltenders who are that skilled?
Coaches like low-risk strategies that can be employed consistently by everyone in the lineup. They have learned that their odds are better if they get the puck into the offensive end as quickly and efficiently as possible, and they aren't going to unlearn that even if the red line comes back.
Instead of allowing players to carry the puck through the middle – where they can commit dreaded neutral-zone turnovers, especially with today's back pressure – coaches might just find new ways to get the puck deep and chase with speed. Perhaps they’ll have somebody chip in the puck at the red line instead of the far blue line. Perhaps forecheckers will still be racing in so fast that goaltenders won't be able to play the puck in the corners even without the trapezoid.
"Coaches are paid to win, right?" said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett. "The hitting part and the safety part, to me, that's out of the coaches' hands. You can have rules that dictate things. But … it's a tactical battle as much as a physical battle. The thing is now, every team is tactically sound. Every team is prepared."
Remember, the GMs have been discussing these same subjects for at least two years. They might decide they need to go further after they receive another study breaking down the causes of concussions. They also might decide that they have made many rule changes already and that they're starting to work, and they might want to see if equipment changes like lighter shoulder pads can have an effect.
"There is more speed," Trotz said. "Because there is more speed, there is a little more contact, especially for defensemen going back. But now that we have the NHL police on head injuries, I don't think the game's very physical at all right now compared to what it was 10 years ago."
They also might come up with something different. Years ago, legendary coach Scotty Bowman suggested borrowing a rule from ringette. You can't pass from behind your net to the far blue line. You have to work your way to a line at the top of the circles first. Holland recognizes that would change the game. He wonders how it would be officiated. He isn't proposing it. But it interests him.
"I like it the way it is, I don't like it the way it is," Holland said. "I guess ultimately I'm interested in having further conversations."
There remains a responsibility among players to protect themselves. Why anyone would come up the right wing wall in his own zone with his head down against the Red Wings is beyond me, when defenseman Niklas Kronwall has become famous for blowing guys up in that spot.
Chicago's Patrick Sharp almost got it Sunday night, but he picked his head up just in time. Kronwall might actually have gotten the worst of that hit. But the Philadelphia Flyers' Jakub Voracek tried to carry the puck with one hand and his head down Tuesday night. He picked up his head just in time to get smacked by Kronwall's left shoulder.
Kronwall wasn't penalized on the play. He wasn't suspended, either. He has never been suspended, and he might represent the very line between vicious, clean hits and vicious, dirty hits. It seems like he has adjusted slightly to the new era, keeping his feet on the ice better than he used to and turning his back into hits to make sure he makes full body contact and doesn't pick the head.
There are more examples, though. The Flyers' Danny Briere stopped in front of the San Jose Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic on Feb. 28 and ended up going into the boards. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Kris Letang lowered his head to reach for a puck at the last instant on Feb. 29 and was drilled by the Dallas Stars' Eric Nystrom.
"I see a lot of hits that I think everybody's jumping on and saying are dangerous now, but I would like to see players have the mindset to protect themselves better, not put themselves in a vulnerable position," said Tippett long before all of these incidents. "I'm not letting any bad hitters off the hook here. I think we've got to get that out of our game, too. But there's a lot of hits I think players could protect themselves a lot more, be more aware of their surroundings on the ice."
Five years and $27.5 million for Mikhail Grabovski? And a limited no-trade clause, too? It seems like an awfully generous contract for a guy who has never reached 30 goals or 60 points. But it's a decent deal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it's a good little human interest story.
The Leafs lack a No.1 center. Grabovski is only a No. 2. Had they lost Grabovski, they would have needed two top-six centers, and prospects Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne apparently aren't ready to fill those roles for a team that is desperate to end a long playoff drought. There won't be a lot of options on the free-agent market, which means the price will be high – if you get the guy you want. A trade would cost assets, and the Leafs need assets to fill other holes.
So the Leafs paid up to keep Grabovski. No, he isn't big and tough. He's a 5-foot-11, 183-pound skill guy. But he's 28, entering his prime, and he's the type of guy who stays out long after practice to do extra work.
"The competitiveness that he displays and the size that he is proves to us that the little man can compete," said new Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "He's displayed that, and he's been rewarded for it. Besides, he's got some offensive flair. He's a real solid NHL centericeman. Yes, small men can compete against big men, and you have to utilize the strengths you possess. If you're a quick player, you've got to be inside and get on the puck."
As for all that money, know this: Grabovski grew up in Minsk in what is now Belarus, living in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and grandparents. "Oh, I have tiny house," he said. "We don't have, like, big house, but I always have good food." He sends money home to his father, a retired engineer, so his father can take care of his grandparents and spend time following his career. "He don't want to go to work anymore," Grabovski said. "He watch hockey every night and support me."
Grabovski loves Toronto – his girlfriend and their two children are Canadian – and he knows his money needs to pay off for the Leafs. "Deal doesn't make any sense if you're loser, you know?" he said. "Deal make sense if you win something and you play your best."
It was 2 a.m. in Austria. Marty Turco woke up, rolled over and checked his smartphone. He had a message asking for his passport and green card information.
Oh, and it said congratulations. After almost a year out of the NHL – working as a TV analyst, practicing with a junior team, playing in Europe, hoping for another shot – he had been signed by the Bruins.
Turco, 36, passed through re-entry waivers and could play a key role in Boston. Although he can't play in the playoffs because he was signed after the trade deadline, he can help the Bruins prepare for them.
Tuukka Rask is out for at least a month with lower abdomen and groin strains. Tim Thomas doesn't look like the goaltender that won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player last season, and he will turn 38 on April 15. He can't play every game down the stretch and be expected to carry the Bruins to another Stanley Cup.
"The history shows it's important to spell him," Chiarelli said. "In an ideal situation, you want to rest him for the playoffs, and that's what we're trying to do."
The thought is that Turco needs to get the Bruins through four or five games. The Bruins have 17 games left, including two sets of back-to-backs. Thomas, who has started the Bruins' last six games, started 12 of the Bruins' final 17 games last season and went four rounds.
Now that the regular season is headed down the stretch, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens have won seven straight without Sidney Crosby, and now their captain could return as soon as Sunday. Letang still has to come back, too. But at full strength, this is the best team in the NHL.
2. New York Rangers: The Rangers are the real deal, and their shot-blocking style and excellent goaltending seems conducive to playoff success. But it remains to be seen whether this young group can rise as quickly in the playoffs as it has in the regular season. Lots of good teams need to take their lumps to learn how to win a championship.
3. Vancouver Canucks: The Sedin twins have combined for only one point in the past six games – Daniel has one, Henrik zero – and Ryan Kesler has one goal in his past 13 games. The Canucks are 1-2-2 in their past five. Time to panic? Um, no.
4. Detroit Red Wings: No panic in Detroit, either, even though the Wings have run into injury trouble and a little slump. At least Henrik Zetterberg is heating up. He has 20 points in his past 15 games.
5. St. Louis Blues: Since returning from a concussion on Feb. 12, Andy McDonald has added speed and scoring to one of the best teams in the league. He has five goals in his past four games, eight in his past 11.
6. Boston Bruins: Keep an eye on Jordan Caron. The 21-year-old, a first-round pick in 2009, has three goals and five points in his past two games. The 6-foot-2, 202-pounder drove to the net impressively to set up a goal Tuesday night in Toronto.
7. Nashville Predators: The deadline acquisitions seem to be fitting in well. Scoring winger Andrei Kostitsyn has four points in his past two games. Checking center Paul Gaustad won 56 percent of his faceoffs in his second game with the Preds.
8. Philadelphia Flyers: Though Ilya Bryzgalov seems to have found his form in net, finally, injuries are testing the Flyers' depth. Jaromir Jagr. James van Riemsdyk. Jakub Voracek. Kimmo Timonen. Andrej Meszaros. Tom Sestito. It's a long list, and we didn’t even include Chris Pronger.
9. New Jersey Devils: Huge 4-1 victory for the Devils on Tuesday night. They seem to rise to the occasion against the Rangers, and here's hoping somehow, some way, the cross-river rivals meet in the playoffs.
10. Chicago Blackhawks: Just when you think the 'Hawks might have their goaltending figured out, Ray Emery goes and gives up five against the Blues on Tuesday night. He had won three straight with a 1.13 goals-against average and .959 save percentage, earning the NHL's third star of the week.
PLUS: Who picked the Dallas Stars to lead the Pacific Division this late in the season? They're on a 7-0-1 run, and they have six of their next eight games at home.
MINUS: Only problem is that Pacific is so weak, the Stars' spot in the standings is deceiving. They're third in the West with 77 points, but that means they have fewer points than their playoff matchup, the sixth-seeded 'Hawks (79), and are only three points ahead of the eighth-place San Jose Sharks. Same for the Florida Panthers in the East. They're third with 74 points, but the sixth-seeded Devils have 79 and the eighth-place Winnipeg Jets have 72.
PLUS: We'll call this a plus, but maybe it should be a minus. Asked about the New York Islanders' future, Brian Rolston said: "They have the talent right now to be in the playoffs. We'll see what happens, but they have great young talent there obviously. I think their power play's one of the best in the league. They have all the pieces, in my opinion." So why are they 13th in the East, then? "Growth and maybe a few other things," Rolston said, "but I think they're right there." Rolston declined to say what those other things are, but it might have something to do with leadership. The Isles didn't use Rolston much, passed the proud veteran through waivers and then traded him to Boston before the deadline.
MINUS: The Phoenix Coyotes couldn't lose in February (11-0-1). Now they haven't won in March (0-4-0), falling out of first place in the Pacific and slipping back onto the bubble in the West. They have struggled on the power play and gotten off to slow starts, and two of their losses have been to the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets.
PLUS: The Blue Jackets didn't honor his trade request before the deadline, but so far Rick Nash has lived up to his word that he would continue to compete hard as team captain. He has three goals and four points in four games since the deadline, and the Jackets have gone 3-1-0.
MINUS: Holland didn't put his overtime idea on the agenda for the GM meetings. He'd like 10 minutes of overtime – five minutes of 4-on-4 and five of 3-on-3 – to de-emphasize the shootout. There was some support after almost 15 percent of games went to shootouts in 2009-10. But only 12.1 percent of games went to shootouts last season, and that number has risen to only 13.5 percent so far this season.
“Nicklas Lidstrom is in the press box. The only Nick up here should be me.”
In 20 regular seasons with the Red Wings, Lidstrom has missed only 37 games. He has sat out only 2.3 percent of the time. That's amazing durability for a man who has logged a lot of minutes against top opponents in all situations – and has done it at such a high level that he has won seven Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defenseman.
Lidstrom, 41, has missed five games this season. The Wings, one of the top teams in the league, have gone 2-3-0 without him.