Martin Brodeur has a reputation for his slick puckhandling skills. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
If the GMs are ultimately going to do anything about head shots in the NHL – and there are certainly no guarantees they will – it will not include taking away the trapezoid behind the net.
The possibility of removing it came up at the GM meetings in Toronto Tuesday and any notion they would recommend a rule change on that front had cold water poured on it immediately. The GMs will get into a more detailed discussion concerning head shots Wednesday morning, but something as radical as removing the trapezoid is clearly off the table.
There certainly wasn’t total unanimity on the issue, but the group generally thought that removing the trapezoid and once again allowing goaltenders to play the puck behind the net would cause more problems than it would solve. Members of hockey operations at the meeting told the GMs that according to their statistics, there is no conclusive evidence that removing the trapezoid would significantly reduce the current spate of hits causing injuries.
In fact, NHL vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said a team of doctors is currently studying every hit that led to a concussion in the NHL and has so far found that few are incurred in plays behind the goal line.
“I don’t have the numbers right now, but that’s not the issue,” Campbell said.
But Campbell was saying that in context to races for the puck, not the times when a defenseman goes back to retrieve a puck behind the net that a goalie could have theoretically played, then having to absorb a big hit from a forechecker.
And the cost would be that the game would run the risk of going back to the offense-challenged style that marked the pre-lockout era.
“The game was turning into a tennis match,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “Now, with the soft chip in the corner it becomes a puck battle, which is exactly what we want.”
Campbell said people who want to remove the trapezoid might forget how pedantic hockey was prior to the lockout and one of the reasons for that was goalies were simply firing the puck out to the neutral zone on the dump in.
“Teams would throw the puck in and the goalie would throw the puck out,” Campbell said. “Some people forget that a big part of our goal with this was to reward offensive hockey and penalize defensive hockey.”
Not everyone was on board with keeping the trapezoid. Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, a former NHL goalie himself, didn’t like the idea of the trapezoid when it came in after the lockout and likes it even less now.
“I’m a little more surprised that more guys didn’t want to take a closer look at it,” Rutherford said. “I’m sure when a few more defensemen get hurt during the year, they’ll want to talk about it. What’s happening now is that when the guy is going back to get the puck, he’s kind of tip-toeing back and trying to make it a tie because he’s so afraid he’s going to get whacked into the boards and you’re going to have to peel him off the glass.”
Rutherford also said he thinks just as many chances would be created if goalies played the puck, and it’s not only because notoriously bad stickhandler Arturs Irbe played for him for so many years. Rutherford contends that the group of goalies who are good puckhandlers is so small that having goalies play the puck would result in as many turnovers.”
Aside from the trapezoid, the GMs did not discuss any other issues concerning head shots, but plan to devote much of their four-hour session on Wednesday to the topic.
Anyone expecting a change in the middle of the season will be disappointed and there is a chance the GMs won’t recommend any changes at all. If there is a change, the GMs might at some point recommend the league come down harder on players who hit unsuspecting opponents who are not playing the puck, pointing to the Mike Richards hit on David Booth recently. Campbell said the three-game suspension to Curtis Glencross of the Calgary Flames for his blindside hit on Chris Drury of the New York Rangers had nothing to do with the current spate of injuries and would have been called that way regardless.
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Brian Lawton, who recently lost rookie defenseman Victor Hedman to a concussion inducing hit, said he thinks something must be done. Hedman was leveled behind the net by Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators and sustained a concussion, but is expected to be in the Lightning lineup Thursday night after missing one game.
“I’m more concerned long-term about what’s going on,” Lawton said. “I raised some of these concerns long before Victor was hurt. It’s absolutely up to this group to take a close look at it and see if it needs to be changed and to rectify it.”
But this is once again proving to be an age old problem for those who run the game. How do they reduce players’ chances of getting injured while retaining the physical element that makes it attractive?
“You want to reduce injuries as much as possible because they’re costly and painful,” Campbell said. “But we’re not going to take all the injuries out of the game. My son (Florida Panthers forward Greg) ate a puck the other day. We can’t take that out. Got 50 stitches in his mouth. You’d like to take those out, either that or not have your wife watch the game.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.