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NHL's R & D Camp Presents Plenty of Options

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Now in his fouth season with Leafs TV, you can catch Brian Duff all over Leafs TV hosting various programs including Leafs Today.

June 9, 2004 

(MISSISSAUGA) -- Less than five minutes into one of the six scrimmage games held during the NHL's three-day Research and Development Camp, a goaltender found his team down 2-0.

If he was listening closely, he might have heard Panthers general manager Mike Keenan, perched high above in the corner to his left, slyly suggesting that Team Black head coach Mike Murphy yank his twice-beaten tender.

Some things never change.

But perhaps things will change after this 72-hour camp, one that featured 34 unsigned players (mostly overaged juniors), who displayed great hustle and desire despite a grueling schedule coupled with endless unfamiliar game scenarios being thrown their way.

Clearly the NHL is poised to adopt two measures that will improve the game; slimmer goaltending equipment (which looked terrific and from my vantage point had very little adverse effect on the men between the pipes) and the tag-up offside.

An alteration to the ending of a tie game through 60 minutes is coming too. It may simply be the addition of a shootout after five minutes of 4-on-4, or it may become three or four minutes of 4-on-4, followed by three minutes of 3-on-3, then the penalty shot parade.

Whichever route they choose will greatly enhance the fan experience.

The most shocking development of the camp was the introduction, in a game situation, of bigger nets (80 inches by 52 compared to the standard 72 by 48). Shocking because they didn't look abnormal, they weren't a visual distraction.

Many hockey people went into this process thinking there wasn't a chance they would consider such a move, yet now they aren't so convinced. Still, given the costs associated with such a bold move and the trickle down effect (e.g. at what age do kids start using bigger nets?), you can file this one under highly unlikely.

The underlying theme of every game was creating more offensive space within the standard 200 by 85 foot ice surface.

The Open Game was proposed by Harry Sinden and the Bruins, featuring no offsides and plenty of 100-foot passes.

The Bowman line allows for a team to get to a thin line beyond its own faceoff circle and pass all the way to the far blue line.   

What some people call the ""Ball Hockey Rule"" saw a team gain the opponents blue line and then be able to use the entire area from the centre red line in as the offensive zone.

The latter two stand the best chance of being tested further, perhaps at the AHL level first. Maybe the Ball Hockey Rule will be used only on powerplays to give teams a chance at becoming at least 25% proficient with the extra man. All were eye-openers. All led to other ideas being floated. All will be reviewed.

And while many of these ideas could be perceived as radical, it might well have been the subtle changes that could help the game the most.

Every scrimmage featured this new wrinkle on icing: If you ice it, you can't make a line change. Brilliant.

It works even better on the penalty kill, where the league is looking at punishing this long accepted defensive tactic as well.

Picture this - Team A is on the power play. They gain the blue line and now have an offensive zone from centre ice in. They pressure Team B relentlessly for 90 seconds, thwarted only by outstanding goaltending. Team B is having tremendous difficulty clearing the puck beyond the centre ice line. Once they finally do, the inadvertently clear it too far and it goes for icing.  Team A gets to make a line change. Team B does not. A faceoff ensues in Team B's zone, and the pressure begins all over again.

Another very slight change that could lead to more offensive puck possession was also tested. The offensive team (rather than the defensive team) sets up second in face off situations (success might only be able to be measured in mere percentage points but every little bit helps).

Of course everyone in attendance acknowledged that without an even stricter crackdown on obstruction, and more frequent calls of infractions against the puck carrier, many of the above rules will have very little impact on the game. On that we can all agree.

Strangely one potentially major change was never talked about officially at all. It just so happened that both teams were comprised of rosters of 17 players; 15 skaters and two goaltenders.

It's an idea that some (this writer included) have been pushing for. And it's pretty obvious why.
a) In a new NHL, cutting costs will be a priority, so why not lop off at least three salaries?
b) In a league that needs its star players to shine, let them play more.
c) Tired players make mistakes. Mistakes lead to scoring chances.
d) If smaller rosters were used, the league would need to reduce the schedule to allow players more recovery time between games. Haven't we heard that most people would be in favour of a 72 game schedule as opposed to 82?
e) With fewer big league roster spots, the AHL would have a chance to develop more skilled players. Therefore, in an injury call-up situation, the player being called up may have a better opportunity to display his particular skill set.

For example, if Mats Sundin or Joe Nieuwendyk went down with an injury, and the Leafs were looking for a first or second line centre to fill the void, maybe they call up Kyle Wellwood and give him a chance to play on one of the top two lines. Too many times in recent memory we've seen top prospects around the league get recalled, only to be stapled to the bench in a fourth line role, seeing maybe one or two shifts a game. Get rid of the fourth line and there's less room to bury a call up. As Rangers coach Tom Renney suggested, isn't that what team development is supposed to be about, giving top prospects an opportunity to shine when that opportunity presents itself?

Given the current state of the game, roster size doesn't appear to be high on the priority list of many. But it, along with everything else and more, should be thoroughly reviewed by the group that will ultimately form the NHL Competition Committee.

Remember, change is a good thing. Just ask Mike Keenan.

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