Crackdown on Obstruction
Ice hockey has long been recognized as the fastest team sport on the planet, but an increase in the amount of hooking and holding by defenders and in some cases, attacking players too has created a drag on the National Hockey League's trademarked speed in recent years. Officials have attempted to penalize such infractions more aggressively at times in the past, but the standards for what merited a whistle varied considerably and a certain amount of accepted "clutching and grabbing" remained in the game.
Buoyed by this season's slate of other rule changes and supported by all involved parties, new, tighter standards for the so-called obstruction penalties are being enacted. Last month, the league mailed each team a DVD that demonstrated exactly what would and would not be a penalty this season. The differences between what warranted a trip to the penalty box during the 2003-04 season and what referees will be required to whistle for 2005-06 will be eye-opening for fans. For the players, it requires a complete reorientation.
"You're not allowed to put a stick on anybody," said Predators forward Steve Sullivan following a training camp intra-squad scrimmage. "So if you're flat-footed for a split second and the guy gets an advantage on you, you're either taking a penalty or the guy's gone. I think it's going to be a big difference."
Indeed, the league video spells it out clearly. "The use of the stick either on the puck carrier or non-puck carrier other than when incidental contact is made to restrict the movement of an opponent will be penalized," states narrator Steven Walkom, the league's Senior V.P. of Officiating. In addition to a stronger standard against the hooking, holding and tripping of the puck carrier, defenders will not be allowed to use their free hands to impede the puck carrier's progress, nor can they use their sticks to push, poke or tug him. In the defensive zone, defenders will not be able to wrap up an opponent or pin him against the boards common techniques used in the past. Locking onto players during face-offs, hooking or holding forecheckers, and interfering with defensemen skating to retrieve a puck will all be penalized.
"Defensively you have to move your feet and get body position," said Predators associate coach Brent Peterson at a media briefing on the rule changes. "If you get your stick outside your body width, that's supposed to be a penalty. With all the room, you have to have skills, speed and [you have to] skate. Those teams that do and use it right will have a bigger advantage. And on the other side, defensively, you have to be mobile and move to handle those positions. It's going to be body position now moving your feet and getting that body in front of people instead of the hooking and the holding that we had before."
Given the team speed evident during this month's training camp, it's no surprise that many Predators are excited about the crackdown's potential impact on the game.
"I think the biggest rule in terms of making the game faster is calling all the hooking and holding," said forward Paul Kariya. "How the rink is configured is kind of secondary to that. If you allow guys to skate and move through the neutral zone and in the cycles, that's going to make the game faster."
For 5-9 forward Jordin Tootoo, who likes to deliver big hits and has a knack for drawing penalties, he sees the tighter standard as advantageous to his style of play.
"The biggest thing for me is getting the puck and dumping it into the corner and crashing and banging," Tootoo said. "Obviously, if I keep my feet moving, their d-men are going to hold me up and there will be penalties called. I think that's one thing I'm really excited about. I love the physical part of the game and I think that's really going to work in my favor."
So far, players league-wide are taking a while to catch on. This month's preseason games have looked more like the power play/penalty kill practice the Predators conducted during Monday's scrimmage. For example, 37 total penalties were called in the Montreal Canadiens' 3-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on September 18. Statistics like those have center Greg Johnson somewhat worried about the fallout caused by such a significant shift.
"I'm a little concerned with the obstruction rules and the effect it's going to have on the game all the whistles and power plays," Johnson said. "But I'm hoping there's a middle ground that we find."
Critics argue this "new standard" will be implemented in the short term only to have referees put their whistles back in their pockets as the season progresses. That has in fact happened with previous league initiatives to remove obstruction and interference from the game. But head coach Barry Trotz believes this time is different.
"This is a mandate from the league," Trotz said. "The coaches want it, the managers want it, and the players want it. So if it's ever going to succeed, it's going to succeed now."
As the last line of defense, goaltenders were the first place the league looked in their quest to boost scoring. Netminders are required to wear smaller equipment this year, and they're prevented from skating into the corners to stop or retrieve the puck too.
"It got to the point where, if you were on an angle coming down the ice, even a goalie that wasn't that big had such big equipment that you couldn't even see the net," said Peterson. "You could be the best shooter to ever play in the NHL and not find that net."
Now goaltenders have been given a makeover, sporting smaller gloves and pads and slimmed-down jerseys. "The biggest change is the trapper," Trotz said, referring to the catching glove. "It looks like they're wearing a kid's glove now, compared to what they used to wear."
For sharpshooters like center Yanic Perreault, it's a welcome change. "I like to see the goalies a little bit smaller, for sure," he said. "You see a lot more net when you shoot at the goalies."
The goaltenders themselves are less enthusiastic about the downsized gear. The Predators' Chris Mason believes that if there is more scoring generated across the league, it will be a product of this season's new rules not his smaller gear.
"They look at us and they pick apart our whole attire, and reduce the size of it," Mason said. "I think the biggest thing before was the way the game was played. I don't think it was the goaltending equipment. It doesn't matter if you're wearing 11-inch or 15-inch pads when you're not getting high quality scoring chances there aren't going to be goals.
"I think the new rule changes will be the biggest factor in more goals," he added.
His teammate and fellow goaltender Tomas Vokoun looks for the restrictions to offer a possible advantage to the Predators. "It's going to help goalies like myself, guys that try to skate and try to actually play the goal instead of just being a huge guy just trying to get hit," Vokoun said.
Trotz agrees, noting that the Predators could benefit relative to the league's other teams. "We might be in great shape," he said. "[Vokoun and Mason] are not only athletic goaltenders, but they're technically really sound goaltenders in terms of how they play and think the game. I think those goalies will be very successful. The pure blocker is not going to be very successful because he's not going to cover as much square footage."
Another regulation change limits goaltenders to playing the puck on the center-ice side of the goal line and within a new trapezoidal area behind the net. They can no longer assist their defensemen by handling pucks in the corner. If they do, they'll receive a two-minute penalty.
"I think you're going to see a lot of goalies, on dump-ins, just stay in the net and let it ring right around," said Peterson. "I think there will be a lot fewer guys wandering, and you've got to get there above the goal line or right behind the net. You can't go in the corners where the puck ends up a lot."
The coaches suggested new strategies that could take advantage of a goaltender's restricted movement. "You're going to put the puck in the corner where the goalie can't go," Peterson said. "Especially when we're playing New Jersey, we're going to tell our guys to put the puck in that corner. Not behind the net where [goaltender Martin] Brodeur can handle it, but in that corner where he can't touch it. Now we're coming down on defensemen. It will become a tactic if you use it offensively."
For goaltenders, it creates another split second decision. "Now it's going to be something where you either hurry out and get the puck before it crosses the goal line, or just sit there and wait," Mason said. "I guess what it does is it takes the indiscretion out of whose puck it is. Because the d-men know I can't go get it, so it's their puck. Sometimes they're going to be left out to dry and forwards will come in and hit them hard."
Tough checking forward Darcy Hordichuk likes the thought of that. "For guys like me that like to hit players, down low it's a little easier to get in there and hit them because the goalie's not playing the puck," Hordichuk said. "It creates a few more turnovers, which makes the game a little bit more exciting."
If you've ever been disappointed after sitting through a 65-minute NHL game only to see it end at 2-2, you'll be happy to learn that the league is doing away with tie games this season. Like last year, if a game is tied after three regulation periods, a five-minute, four-on-four sudden-death overtime will be played. The change this year, though, comes if the score remains knotted after that OT period. In that case, a shootout will be used to decide a winner.
"From a fan's perspective, I don't think the shootout can be seen as a bad thing," forward Adam Hall said. "I can't see why a fan wouldn't want to see a bunch of breakaways, one-on-one with the goaltender. I think that's one of the most exciting aspects of this sport."
Each team will designate three shooters, and those players will alternate as they square off against the opposing goaltender. If the score is still tied afterward, each team will continue sending out players from its roster until a winner is decided. Winning teams receive two points while teams that lose in overtime or a shootout receive one.
"I got a chance to do some shootouts last year in Norway, and we did them in the American [Hockey] League and the International Hockey League when I played there," said Mason. As a goaltender, his reaction to the new feature might surprise some.
"I kind of like it," he said. "I think it's fun. In the shootout everybody kind of gets a little more excited and there's an end to the game. You get a result. It sucks losing in a shootout, but it sucks losing anytime. Now that it's part of the game, I just think it's another element of excitement for fans to watch, and players like it too when we do it in practice."
Some of the shooters selected by teams may shock fans. Trotz explained that all players have at least one breakaway move, and most of those moves are very effective. The best ones might come from the players you'd least expect.
"So you might get to a situation where you go, What is coach Trotz thinking? He's putting that guy in? " Trotz said. "But he might have that move. It might be a defenseman, it might be more of an energy type of forward, but you'll be surprised. You'll see that from a lot of coaches I think."
As a result, players now have an excuse to perfect and show off their hotdog moves during practice.
"We're going to get them ready, that's for sure," Hall said.
So, what overall effect will these various rule changes have on the NHL's brand of hockey? The league predicts more goals, more speed and more excitement, but the true magnitude of the impact remains to be seen.
"Right now it's a guessing game as to how it's going to work," said defenseman Mark Eaton. "My feeling is, like everybody else, that you're going to have to use some preseason games and kind of see how they're really going to take effect."
"I hope the learning curve is quick for the players," Sullivan said. "I think that the NHL is going to stick with it so we might as well learn about it and learn to play with these new rules changes very quickly. If not, it's going to be a parade to the penalty box and I don't think that's going to help our game."
As the new rules and regulations lose their novelty status and become a natural aspect of the game, the Predators players and coaching staff are confident that they are in a prime position to capitalize on them.
"I think one of the most important keys is how quickly a team can adapt to the new rules," Kariya said. "It has to start the first day of camp. If you've seen the rules video, it's going to be a huge adjustment for everybody in the league. But I think it plays into our team, because we do skate well. You're going to have to do that. There's going to be no clutching and grabbing and tripping and holding. You've got to be able to skate to defend."
Trotz points out that although these rules promote offense, they weren't designed to benefit a few superstars at the expense of everyone else. According to Trotz, the new rulebook rewards any player that plays a well-rounded game.
"It's a little bit of a misnomer to say all the skill guys are going to get all of the chances," Trotz said. "If you don't work and you don't do both sides of the game the defensive side and the offensive side you're not going to have any production. But if you have a good balance between that, you're going to have some great opportunities.... I think you're going to find that the players that have good balance in their game are going to be the most effective."