The 30 NHL general managers had a lot on their plate when they held their annual meetings in Florida earlier this week, but by far the biggest issue was a continuing look at concussions, how they're occurring in the game today and what can be done to increase player safety without negatively impacting the sport's appeal to fans.
GM George McPhee
, appearing as a guest Thursday on "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman," came away impressed with what the general managers were able to accomplish as a group. A new protocol was established for treating a player who may have suffered a concussion, a crackdown on charging and boarding calls was mandated and more severe discipline for players injuring an opponent under such circumstances as well as repeat offenders also received support.
"We certainly take the meetings very seriously, and I think we've come a long way in those meetings," McPhee said. "I think the League has done a fabulous job of really preparing us to deal with the issues. I think we come down there knowing what the issues are, having our own opinions, having our own experience in the game, and when we get there the way the League has enlightened us with the video and the stats and the science and the experts."
McPhee said that in trying to figure out the right way to cut down on concussions, it was important to analyze the role of hitting in the game. The reasons for hitting were summed up as: to eliminate a player from the play; to knock him off the puck; to wear him down over the course of a game or series; and, finally, to intimidate or punish him.
"That's the category that I thought maybe needed to be addressed," McPhee said of the last one, "because in some instances we're allowing players to use the boards to sometimes injure, and I just thought if we could tweak that aspect of hitting and make the game a little bit safer that it would be good for the game. And I really think we can, without changing the game, we can take out some of those hits and it's still going to be a great game and a little bit safer for players."
While McPhee was away, the Capitals were in the process of winning a season-high nine straight games, taking over the lead in the Southeast Division and pulling within a single point of the Flyers for the Eastern Conference lead. It's mostly the same group that lost eight in a row shortly before Christmas, and McPhee was asked how the Caps' somewhat streaky nature has affected him.
"I don't know how you ever maintain your equilibrium in this business," he told Bettman. "I've heard it said that the world belongs to the single-minded, and I just obsess about this hockey team and the game the way I imagine you do about the League all the time. When things are going well, you feel lucky that you're winning and doing well, and when they're not going well nothing else in your life seems to be going well. It's a heck of a challenge for us."
"I think the League has done a fabulous job of really preparing us to deal with the issues. I think we come down there knowing what the issues are, having our own opinions, having our own experience in the game, and when we get there the way the League has enlightened us with the video and the stats and the science and the experts."
-- George McPhee
As the Capitals' fortunes have taken a turn for the better in the second half, so too have those of their star player, Alex Ovechkin
. McPhee pointed to personal disappointment over Russia's play in the Vancouver Olympics and Washington's early exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring after coming in as the top seed as reasons for Ovi's uncharacteristic stats over the season's first few months.
"He was not himself earlier this year, but he certainly is now," McPhee said. "Obviously we need him to be good -- we need everybody to be good if we're going to get anything done. But it's nice to see him play the way he's been playing the last five years. He's something to watch."
For a team that's bidding to win its fourth consecutive division title but hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the past three postseasons, there will be plenty of scrutiny on the Capitals during this stretch run. McPhee likes what he sees right now and feels the trades for center Jason Arnott
and defenseman Dennis Wideman
as well as claiming Marco Sturm
off waivers have helped solidify the roster.
"I like what we've seen lately. I think the moves that we made at the deadline have helped us a lot," he said. "We needed a few more NHL bodies, and we needed some help up front. All three players that we brought in have played well, but it's the players around them that I think were excited to have them and sort of raised the level of their play as well. That's made us much better.
"Up until last night (a 3-2 loss at Detroit) we were undefeated and had a great run going and I'm much more confident in the team than I was a couple months ago. We really addressed some of the areas where we needed to improve."