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Camp to allow NHL to keep game in shape

by John Dellapina
The last time Brendan Shanahan played a central role in pulling together hockey's best and brightest to perform an MRI on the game -- in December 2004 -- he was hardly the only one who believed surgery to insert a pacemaker might then be required.

Six years and five NHL seasons later, Shanahan again agrees with the overwhelming majority.

So this time, when Shanahan puts approximately three dozen of the top North American prospects for the 2011 Entry Draft on the ice in suburban Toronto, Aug. 18-19, for two days of scrimmages in front of many of the League's general managers and coaches at the 2010 NHL/Gatorade Research, Development and Orientation Camp fueled by G-Series, the focus will be upon ensuring that the NHL game on the ice keeps soaring, rather than giving it another shot of adrenaline.

"I think that this is just a way of being progressive and keeping ourselves well informed of not just the fact that things work, but why they work."
-- Brendan Shanahan

"I think everyone involved with the NHL thinks that our game is in really good shape," Shanahan said. "I think that this is just a way of being progressive and keeping ourselves well informed of not just the fact that things work, but why they work.

"As coaching strategies change or as playing conditions -- such as the size and speed of our players -- change, we want to always have these reference points to teach us about the game."

An active player in 2004 who had become frustrated with how the game had bogged down, Shanahan now is the NHL's Vice President of Hockey and Business Development. He's delighted with how the on-ice product has evolved since -- the League is coming off a rollicking 2009-10 regular season that led into a heart-stopping Stanley Cup Playoffs. But Shanahan and the NHL's Hockey Operations Department believe that only reinforces the importance of keeping an eye on the game and remaining open to any possible improvements.

In seeking input from throughout the hockey world, Shanahan compiled so many suggested rules and strategic innovations that the League would have had to run a week-long camp to test them all. Instead, Hockey Operations focused upon the suggestions that received the broadest support and fit into the four major themes that emerged from Shanahan's canvassing:

*Achieving greater flow in the game while reducing the number of stoppages.

*Closely examining the icing rule to determine what, if any, changes might be suitable to the NHL game.

*Finding ways to improve the fairness and integrity of face-offs.

*Reducing coaches' ability to influence games through line changes.

"I think, at first, there was a curiosity from a lot of people because they weren't sure about what we were trying to do," Shanahan said of the camp, which will take place at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility in Etobicoke, Ont. "Some people, we had to convince we have no intentions of putting in 10 new rules next year.

"Like most companies or industries, they have research and development and that's exactly what this is: It's studying our own product. And I think what started out as a few guys that knew exactly what it was and were jumping on it, all of a sudden developed a lot of momentum from not only GMs but coaches and partners in the game throwing ideas at us. It got to the point where couldn't do everything in two days -- we would have needed a four- or five-day camp."

The morning scrimmage Wednesday, Aug. 18, will display the USHL's "hybrid" icing rule that enables on-ice officials to whistle the play dead when they determine the race to an iced puck will be won by the defensive team, precluding a dangerous collision at the end boards. The prospects also will play under rules that prohibit line changes for teams committing an offside and with a face-off variation that has the puck placed on the ice, with the draw commenced by a linesman's whistle. Overtime will proceed from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 to 2-on-2 to a shootout.

The Wednesday afternoon scrimmage will focus upon the effect of changing the markings on the ice. A bigger crease, wider blue lines, painted line-change zones in front of each bench, face-off dots down the middle of the ice and a second "verification goal line" behind the goal line will be among the visual changes. The prospects also will be prohibited from icing the puck while shorthanded. Face-off violators will be moved back from the dot for the drop of the puck rather than replaced by linemates. And for overtime, teams will switch ends, requiring the longer second-period line change that often results in odd-man rushes and goals.

For Thursday's morning scrimmage, one of the two referees will be stationed off the ice. No-touch icing will get a look. And on offside infractions, the face-off will be moved into the offending team's zone with it being prohibited from changing lines. On face-off infractions, the opposing center will be able to choose his subsequent face-off opponent. On delayed penalties, play won't be whistled dead until the offending team gets the puck out of its zone.

The final scrimmage, Thursday afternoon, will be played in two halves utilizing various special-teams innovations that will be deployed by coaches Ken Hitchcock and Dave King. For the 4-on-4 overtime, the teams will switch ends, requiring longer line changes. 

For all sessions, the camp also will test the effects of equipment and playing surface innovations -- such as different mesh on nets and padding on the partitions at the end of the glass at the benches.

In return for providing their top-flight talent to play out the many on-ice wrinkles, the top prospects will receive an invaluable introduction to the NHL. The top-rated 17-year-olds in North America, as ranked by NHL Central Scouting, not only will get an opportunity to strut their stuff for League  personnel evaluators, they'll attend orientation sessions that will better prepare them for their draft seasons and subsequent entry into the League. Undoubtedly, several of the players participating in the camp will be among the first-round selections in the 2011 Entry Draft and contenders for the 2012 Calder Trophy.

Though there is no guarantee that any of the tested rules changes will be enacted for the 2010-11 season, it is not out of the realm of possibility.

"We didn't do this with hopes or anticipation that any of these things would make it into this year's game," Shanahan said. "But that doesn't mean they can't. There's another Board of Governors meeting before next season starts. And if something we did in camp was universally approved and there was a desire to push through quickly, that could happen with the Competition Committee and the general managers and Board of Governors.

"But that's really not my focus right now at all. This is just about gaining information. And we have to remember, part of this camp is that we decided to go with highest rated 17-year-old prospects for next year's draft. So this is a great opportunity for the NHL to get a look at these players before their 'draft season,' and give them some orientation about what to expect -- not only when they get to the NHL, but in some ways, their NHL career starts now. Reputations get set now."

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