Ben Bishop. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
With technology better than it's ever been and cameras able to look at the goal line from all angles, referees will worry less about seeing the puck go in than they will catching goalie interference in the crease this season.
Although a new season brings challenges for everyone in the NHL, perhaps no clan will be tasked with a bigger mental hill to climb than the referees.
“Historically, our focus has been on the crease,” said director of officiating Stephen Walkom. “This season our guys will look at the activity happening around the blue paint and the secondary focus will be on the puck.”
Simply put, determining if the puck crossed the goal line is no longer that important for refs. There are cameras – very good cameras – that are better equipped to take care of that task. Instead, the officials want to make sure the goalies are allowed to do their jobs in the crease, and that’s just fine for the men behind the masks.
“We’re some of the most vulnerable players on the ice,” said Arizona Coyotes stopper Mike Smith. “Our job is to stop the puck, not take a hit.”
The high speed of hockey – particularly in the NHL – makes officiating difficult, especially when players do whatever it takes to get an edge. Invading forwards bump goalies and sometimes just plain steamroll them, while defenders sometimes dump opponents on their own netminders by accident. And sometimes the goalies “sell” contact to draw a penalty. The goaltenders themselves are sympathetic toward the refs and for Florida’s Roberto Luongo, the league needs to help more when it comes to goalie interference.
“It’s hard to make a judgment call on the fly,” Luongo said. “I think that should be reviewable, whether that’s through a coach’s challenge, or whether it’s automatic, like they do in the NFL.
Especially in the playoffs, if it’s a key situation, it can cost you.”
The NFL parallel is interesting, since Smith also used the football circuit to make a point about interference. “In football, the most important player is the quarterback,” he said. “And it’s a pretty severe penalty for roughing the passer now.”
Would the NHL ever experiment with a double minor or even a five-minute major for goalie interference? For Walkom, the current weapon is a game misconduct for charging, which he believes is plenty of bat to carry around as is.
The amount of goalie injuries in recent years has put a spotlight on interference. Both Smith and Luongo have sustained concussions and there’s the Milan Lucic hit on then-Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller in late 2011, which spawned fallout in numerous directions.
The common wisdom doled out by Walkom to his charges is that the blue paint is where calls should be the most stringent and goalies protected the most. It’s a must that goaltenders have a chance to re-set themselves after contact before the puck is fired at them. They should also know that incidents in the white paint are subject to more judgment, and they won’t be as shielded.
Luongo believes the most dangerous play for him and his peers nowadays is when attackers cut in towards the net with the puck at high speed.
“You’re on an angle, hanging onto your post and he’s coming,” Luongo said. “You don’t know if he sees you and you have to stay in there, because obviously if you move he will be able to score. When that happens in practice, I just get out of the way.”
Having referees (and linesmen, who will be more active in helping out the refs) pay closer attention to the crease could be a double-edged sword for goalies, however, particularly those who have been accused of flopping in the past. Naturally, such slanders are a pet peeve of Luongo’s.
“I’ve been accused of that a lot and it gets me a little bit upset to be honest,” Luongo said. “People don’t understand – when you’re on your butterfly, there’s not a lot of balance there. There’s nothing there for you to anchor yourself to. So as soon as you get hit, you’re going to lose balance.”
Refs will be forced to learn the nuances of such things this year. The pre-season was naturally invaluable in getting used to the new philosophy, but until there’s a shift in group-think, Walkom believes goalie interference will still be contentious.
“You always hear the same mantra in the NHL,” he said. “Get pucks to the net, get traffic in front of the goalie. If we wanted to take all goaltender interference out of the game, we’d have to get rid of the coaches.”
And since that’s not going to happen, the next big thing will be increased vigilance and a new focus. It may be weird for refs not to obsess over the goal line anymore, but it’s the new reality.
“For a hundred years, we’ve been looking at the net and pointing at the puck,” Walkom said. “That’s a big change.”