Players have adjusted to the crackdown on face-off violations and slashing throughout the preseason to the point where the NHL head of officiating doesn't think enforcement will be a big issue in the regular season.
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Stephen Walkom, NHL senior vice president and director of officiating supervision, said officials might have been strict in enforcing the rules and calling penalties for face-off violations and slashes to the hands early in the preseason, but he said it was the League's way of sending a message to players that they need to conform to the rules quickly.
"Everybody settled in," Walkom told NHL.com last week. "Our [officials] came out of training camp and maybe we were overreacting. Maybe we had some penalties that shouldn't have been called. I'm not saying we were anal relative to the rules, but it was important we settle in and get into a comfort zone by the end of the preseason. That's what it's for. There has to be an understanding that there are rules and parameters and we want the players to abide by them."
The League did not rewrite the rules for face-off violations or slashing. Instead, after discussions with players, general managers, owners and officials, it was decided the enforcement of each eroded through the years and there was a need to get back to calling them as spelled out in the rulebook.
Fair competition among players for the puck and safety for the linesmen dropping the puck were the factors that drove face-off reform, according to Walkom.
He said too many draws were being won with hands or feet, everything but the stick, and the linesmen were being put in a dangerous position because of the overcrowding in and around the face-off dot, making it difficult for them to cleanly back away after dropping the puck.
However, with 17 minor penalties for face-off violations last season and 15 in 2015-16, it was clear that officials were not cracking down to alleviate the problem. That changed early in the preseason.
There were 26 penalties for face-off violations in 28 games from Sept. 16-20, according to game-summary sheets filed to the NHL. The number dropped to 12 in 118 games from Sept. 21-Oct. 1.
"When we went to [NHL officials training] camp, we talked about reclaiming some of the ice to put the integrity back into the face-off," Walkom said. "We tried hard to communicate it to the players through the exhibition and the players have been excellent. It was quite painful the first few days, but they've quickly figured it out."
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Walkom said the League will remain vigilant to ensure that enforcement of the rule does not again erode, but he said it's in the best interest of the linesmen to be vigilant because it involves their safety as well as the integrity of the face-off.
"As long as it's consistent, I think we're going to adjust," Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "I think as players you'll be able to adjust, and if you don't learn quick, you're not going to be taking many face-offs."
Walkom said the need to crackdown on slashes to the hands was born out of years of watching a skilled player lose the puck because of what should have been a penalized slash. He said it became a tactic for players 12 years ago, when the League came out of the lockout with a crackdown on hooking and holding.
"There was nothing worse as an official than thinking the guy got whacked on the hands and it was an inch below his hand and people then complain, 'Oh, come on, he got him on the stick,'" Walkom said. "Really, that caused us to default away from calling it all the time. Now, you're still going to have stick-on-stick battles. You're still going to have the swing of the stick and the break of the stick. But there is more focus relative to the hands."
It's as much a player safety issue as it is a competition issue.
Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau sustained a broken finger because of several slashes to his hands in a game against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 15. Dallas Stars defenseman Marc Methot, then of the Ottawa Senators, lost part of his left pinky because of a slash by Crosby on March 23.
Neither play was penalized, but similar plays will be under the present standard.
"I would see why they would want to crack down and eliminate those ones, for sure," Crosby said in reference to his slash on Methot. "It happens a lot. It's something that if it's deliberate and guys are going after the hands, they have to be responsible."