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Preds tackle new rules for '05-'06: Part 1

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators

In addition to the return of the sport, much of the buzz associated with the 2005-06 National Hockey League season has been generated by a series of rule changes the league will be implementing. Improvements in coaches' defensive tactics and a general reluctance by referees to penalize so-called "clutching and grabbing" penalties led to a style of play that critics attacked as low-scoring and grinding. Recognizing this unwelcome shift in the style of the game, the NHL addressed those issues this summer by instituting a number of rule and regulation changes designed to boost scoring and emphasize the sport's speedy, skilled players.

In order to introduce fans to the changes and to examine each rule's impact on the Nashville Predators in particular, we present this first installment in a two-part series summarizing these significant modifications to the NHL rulebook.

Rink Dimensions

Casual fans might not notice it upon their first trip back to an NHL rink, but several changes have been made to the layout of the playing surface. For starters, the goal cage and the goal line will be moved 2 feet closer to the end boards of the rink. Likewise, the blue lines will be moved 2 feet farther away from the end boards, toward the middle of the rink. Ultimately, the new dimensions remove four feet from the neutral zone and add an additional 340 square feet to each offensive zone.

"You really see the difference between the top of the circles and the blue lines," Predators assistant coach Peter Horachek said at a recent media briefing on the rule changes. "When you're standing out there in the middle of the ice, you feel like there's so much more room."

The new dimensions have been implemented on one of the two rinks at the Predators' facility at Centennial Sportsplex. This has allowed the team to get comfortable with the changes during training camp. The Predators coaching staff sees advantages and disadvantages to the new setup. As you'd expect given the league's motives, the advantages go to the offense.

"On the power play, [defensemen near the blue line] are going to draw penalty killers," Horachek said. "It's going to open up the ice a little bit more. It's just going to create more opportunities. I think there's going to be an advantage there for both teams when they are on the offensive side.... On the other side of it, it's going to be more of a challenge to be in better [defensive] position all the time."

Defending the larger zone while short-handed creates a bit of a Catch-22. Do you aggressively attack the power play unit, or do you adopt a more conservative alignment to primarily guard the areas where most goals are scored? Horachek believes several teams will adopt the latter approach to shift the burden onto the attacking team.

"Some teams defensively are going to end up collapsing," Horachek said. "They're going to be tight around the net and they're not going to come out to the blue line. They're going to sit and say, 'You make the first play,' or let you shoot the puck. Shooting and getting pucks through in traffic is going to be a premium."

Predators forward Paul Kariya, a prime example of the type of skilled player for whom the league is implementing the new rules and regulations, likes the new dimensions especially the repositioning of the net. "Moving the goal back is a great change, because you can't score from behind the net," he said. "At least most guys can't. Gretzky could maybe, and Mario's done it a few times. Pushing the goal back gives more opportunities to score because it gives more angle to shoot at."

Two fewer feet behind the net should also be a factor when it comes time for a goaltender to stop the puck behind his net for an oncoming teammate. The coaches are expecting a few collisions between goalies and defensemen around the league especially during the preseason until everyone adjusts to the limited space.

Legalization of the two-line pass

The one rule change generating the most talk around the Predators locker room is the legalization of the two-line pass' or as it's somewhat confusingly called, the removal of the red line. (In actually, the red line isn't being removed at all. It will remain at center-ice, but will only be significant for determining icing infractions.)

Whereas in previous seasons players could only pass the puck across one neutral zone line be it blue or red they can now pass across two. So hypothetically, a player can be standing in the corner, deep within his end of the rink, and fire the puck 125 feet up the ice to a player waiting at the opposing blue line. The desired result for this change is an increased number of breakaway opportunities for players who can sneak behind the defense.

Given the relative team speed and skill of Nashville's team, many Predators are salivating at this rule's potential impact. But these same players along with the team's coaching staff warn that the 100-foot up-ice passes aren't going to be quite as prevalent as some are predicting. Defensemen will be able to easily pick those off, much like a cornerback in football has an increased chance of intercepting a long bomb thrown by a quarterback. Instead, passes will most likely originate from just inside the blue line as defensemen capitalize on takeaways and loose pucks.

"I think you're going to see it happen all the time on turnovers," Horachek said. "A puck comes into the top of the circle and the [team's forwards go] in. Quickly, the puck is zipped up to the far blue line and you're going to catch them. Even inside the zone, on a bad change when the defense goes to the bench, if the goalie moves it up quickly he can zing it all the way up to the far blue line. There's where you going to see the two-line pass become an effective tool transitions, bad changes, turnovers, and less when you're playing regular five-on-five and everybody's in position."

Cody Franson, a 2005 Predators draft pick who played without the red line on a Canadian Junior B team, saw firsthand what Horachek described.

"It's not a thing that's going to work a lot off of face-offs out of your own end. I think it's going to be more transition and turnovers and stuff like that just being able to take it from your end and move it up there real quick rather than having to get to the blue line and make a shorter pass. I think it's going to push a lot of games toward higher scoring, rather than the 1-1's and the 1-0's. Also, on the disadvantage side, it's going to press the defense back too, because they can't allow that forward to sneak in behind them. In all, it's going to make for a lot more offensive game."

Some, like center Scott Nichol, think the change is going to require a pretty significant adjustment for players. "I think the first few months with no red line will catch a few guys off-guard," he said, "just because you're not used to it. There will be a few breakaways here and there I bet, especially if your defensemen are real mobile and can move the puck, like ours are. It's going to open up the ice a lot."

After just a few informal skates and one training camp scrimmage, Kariya could see a difference. "On a quick turnover play, when you don't have that red line you can really get a good jump," he said. "Plays you might have given up on because it [would have once been] a two-line pass, it's right there for a breakaway."

Tag-Up Offsides

For the 2005-06 season, the NHL has reinstituted the tag-up offsides rule. It allows a player who precedes the puck into the offensive zone to return to the blue line to "tag up" with his skates. Once he does so and all offsides teammates do as well he can then reenter the zone without the puck having to first leave the zone.

"If players are in the zone and your defenseman wants to shoot it in, everybody tags up," explained associate coach Brent Peterson. "With all the obstruction rules and the goalies staying in their nets more, it can turn into a forecheck which is another offensive threat."

It's a rule that Predators forward Jeremy Stevenson likes a lot.

"For a guy like me, who likes to hit and mix it up, that tag-up offsides is going to be good for me, [Darcy] Hordichuk, and Jordin Tootoo," he said. "I think you're going to see some real big hits, and I feel bad for the [defensemen], but it's going to create a lot of excitement in the building."

One key benefit of the rule for viewers is more continuous play. On the ice, though, Trotz pointed out that continuous play leads to more mistakes, and those mistakes often translate into goals.

"When there's chaos, we want a face-off so we can get organized," Trotz said. "Just like in football a play happens, you get organized, next play. [Without a stoppage, hockey players] have to read and react on the go. If you've got a team scrambling, they remain scrambling.

"If you have fatigued players out there, especially if you're able to get line changes and you're the ones that are pressuring, you can really continue putting the pressure on a team," he added.

No-Change Icing

Prior to this year, teams that iced the puck were penalized by a rule that placed the ensuing face-off close to their own goal. Now there's an added drawback to sending the puck the length of the ice from your side of the red line: The offending team will not be allowed to substitute players prior to the face-off. The opposing team, however, will still have that option.

"It's going to keep more tired players on the ice, and obviously give the other team a chance to maybe change and get fresh players out there," said forward Adam Hall. "There were tough times when that used to be an easy out just ice it and get a change."

Some in the Predators organization believe this rule will have a much bigger impact on the game than people are expecting. "If you ice it, you might get organized but you have to leave your players on the ice," said Peterson. "And now you're fatigued. That's when a lot more mistakes happen, because you're fatigued and the other team's able to change."

"If we're playing Dallas and Mike Modano's fatigued, they ice the puck," Trotz explained in a hypothetical. "They've got Modano and Guerin and those guys, and usually I have them against Greg Johnson because he's probably checking them. Well, all of the sudden they ice the puck. A great tactic I have is I know they can't change and they're tired. Now I'm going to put an energy line of Nichol, Tootoo and Hordichuk out, and they get a chance to play with that energy and bump people, against fatigued top players."

Up next: Part II
The second installment of this two-part series addresses new restrictions on goaltenders, the crackdown on hooking and holding in the game, and the tie-breaking shootout.

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