After an entire year of absence from the North American sporting landscape, the NHL returned to the ice last week. The league has implemented a number of changes, tweaks and wrinkles to the game that it believes will ultimately result in a better, more exciting product.
The tag-up offsides rule is probably the best of the new changes. The shootout is the one that most rankles traditionalists. Not allowing an icing team to change its personnel is long overdue. Tweaking the dimensions of the arena is designed to spruce up scoring, as is reducing the size of goaltenders' equipment. Legalizing the two-line pass is a mixed bag; it's too soon to tell the effect that one will have. Altering the dimensions of the offensive and neutral zones has largely gone under the radar.
But the biggest change in the game - and the one that everyone is talking about - is the referees' mandate to strictly enforce all obstruction and stick fouls. This change has forced defensemen to relearn their position to an extent and it has resulted in parades of power plays in some preseason and early regular season games, disrupting all sense of flow and tempo and making even-strength play and even-strength goals relatively rare occurrences. But if the referees maintain their rigidity and players stop trying to get away with illegal tactics, most believe the game will benefit.
"If they honestly enforce the obstruction I think it is going to be unbelievable," says Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig. "No red line, and you can't hold anybody up - there is going to be so much speed coming through that neutral zone. I think it is going to be exciting."
"The pace is better and the players have more freedom to execute and make plays and handle the puck," says Caps general manager George McPhee. "It's going to benefit everyone except those players who have relied on tactics that shouldn't be in the game. Defensemen basically have to keep their sticks on the ice. If they are cross-checking or tugging at players, they are going to get called. And that's the way it should be.
"The forwards, when they are skating up the ice, with or without the puck, there isn't someone from behind tugging on them. I think that type of enforcement makes the game better. When you add the new rules and take the red line out, you have forwards who can stretch things out a little bit and create gaps. Gaps create opportunities for players to exploit things. It looks better all around and it's imperative that we keep these standards the way they are."
Life in the new NHL becomes more difficult for defensemen. When they go into the corners after pucks, they might have opposing forwards bearing down on them at high speeds. They will have less time to react and make a play. They will have fewer options for clearing the crease, disrupting the forecheck and inhibiting the rush.
"You definitely have to be aware," says Washington defenseman Steve Eminger. "I was playing without the red line a little bit this summer. If you are focusing on the puck a little bit and you forget about guys behind you, before you even turn the puck is going to be by you and in the net. On defense you have to be aware and know where every single player is on the ice. When you have the puck offensively as a defenseman, you've got to be able to move it and get into transition quickly."
"There will be ways to defend things," says McPhee, "but opening up the neutral zone it now creates gaps that weren't there before. If you want to fall back and just protect the blueline, you're going to have a lot of people coming at you full speed, chipping it by you and going in. If you want to try and stand up [at the blueline], then people might be able to get in behind you. But the changes are good for the game and I think we all like them. The most glaring change is the crackdown on the hooking and holding and grabbing. It is nice to see that players who know how to play the game are going to be able to excel."
If the defensemen are wary of the new way if life, you know the forwards are licking their chops.
"I actually felt a little sorry for the defensemen in the preseason because it's tough when you have guys barreling in on you like that," admits speedy Caps winger Matt Bradley. "For a guy like me who likes to get in there on the forecheck, it's great. Not having anyone obstruct you on your way in just makes it so much easier because you use a lot less energy."
Veteran center Andrew Cassels concurs, and predicts an increase in scoring chances. That's exactly what the NHL has in mind.
"It certainly has the potential to have a lot of goals being scored out there," he says. "There will be a lot of breakaways, I think. I think it is going to be a game of skating and puck-moving. You are going to have to move the puck really quickly and be moving it at all times because there are going to be guys flying all over the ice looking for that long breakaway pass. It should be exciting for goalies and forwards. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to score goals."
The new game should play right into rookie left wing Alex Ovechkin's wheelhouse.
"I've only seen Alex Ovechkin a few times now," remarked Cassels during training camp, "but he certainly has a great shot, a quick release and he can skate. With the new rules he is certainly going to be a guy who can really fly out there and get an awful lot of opportunities. And he doesn't seem to miss too often."
Cassels' linemate Jeff Friesen is a speedy winger with a hard shot. Friesen has reached the 20-goal level five times in the NHL and he is excited about playing 82 games without being manhandled.
"I definitely am," he exudes. "There is an opportunity to challenge defenders more often. If they get a stick on you or if they clutch or grab you, it's a penalty. To be hungry on the puck and use my speed is something I hope to be able to do."
It's a new game for coaches, and many of them have tweaked their systems and introduced new drills and patterns into their practice routines. Caps coach Glen Hanlon hasn't done as much tweaking as some of his peers, but he is a fan of the changes.
"I think it's a lot better," he states. "I think it opens up the door for a lot of smaller players. The pool of players that has now become available has grown. Before you would take a 5-foot-10 or a 5-foot-11 player and you'd say, â€˜Boy, it's going to be very difficult for him.' Those players now can play. I think the game that you are going to see is going to be better once the players get adjusted to it. The rules are not very complicated rules: Don't make yourself bigger with your stick, keep your stick on the ice, play the puck. You can still hit, you can do all those things, you just can't grab people.
Whistle Stop Tour continued