The On Deck Circle

Where practice swings don’t exist

Thoughts on the New NHL

Posted by Blake Murphy on March 5, 2008

This article has been submitted by Ian Cass, who I couldn’t agree with more.

Since the year of the lockout in 2004/2005, the NHL’s on-ice product has improved beyond measure. In the so-called “New NHL,” there is a premium on speed and skill instead of size and grit, allowing the smaller skill players who used to be pushed aside to flourish. With the crackdown on obstruction and the elimination of the two-line pass whistle, the big and slow players are the ones falling by the wayside. Quick and mobile defensemen like Brian Campbell, Dan Boyle, and Brian Rafalski have become some of the NHL’s most valuable assets. To stop Gaborik, Kovalchuk, and Ovechkin, you can’t hook them; you have to skate with them. The NHL has adapted an explosive and exciting European style while maintaining the intensity and competition we all love. Disagree? Well then you didn’t watch last year’s playoffs.

Even though poker and So You Think You Can Dance reruns top the NHL in the US TV ratings, hockey is good. In fact, it’s as good as it’s ever been. There is an unprecedented pool of young talent, the salary cap is keeping small market teams in the hunt, and the rule changes have been effective in producing a more entertaining product.

On the topic of rule changes, there is more to come. I’m not talking about radical changes like making the nets bigger or moving to an international ice surface. I’m talking about addressing some fundamental flaws that just don’t make sense. There are four of them, and I will break them down for you.

1. Guaranteed top three seed for division winners
A few weeks ago, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals were jostling back and forth atop the Southeast division. At first glance, this race seemed like nothing more than a routine battle for the (worst) division (ever) but in fact, it was much more than that. The team holding the division lead was sitting pretty in the conference’s third spot with home ice advantage lined up for the playoffs, while the other was in tenth place. That’s right. The Washington Capitals went from tenth to third and back to tenth again in 48 hours. As of March 1st, the Carolina Hurricanes held the third spot with 71 points. That’s eight points BEHIND the fifth place Penguins and two points BEHIND the eighth place Flyers.

Last season, the Atlanta Thrashers won the Southeast and held the third spot despite being eight points behind both the fourth place Senators and the fifth place Penguins. No one was happier to see this than the sixth place Rangers who might as well have had a first round bye considering how they manhandled the Thrashers. How was this fair to the Penguins, who fought hard all season for that fifth spot but then went down in five to the eventual conference champs? There is something fundamentally concerning about this system.

In a league where there is so much divisional play (more to come on this topic), it is understandable that at least one team from each division should be given a playoff birth. It would be a shame, for example, if Calgary and Minnesota missed out on the playoffs because of the incredible competition in the Northwest. But why the third spot? Why home ice advantage? The system is meant to prevent good teams from missing out on the post-season because of strong competition in a division. It is not meant to guarantee home ice advantage to a non-playoff team. The NBA recently made the change to a guaranteed top four seed for division winners and I suggest the NHL make a move in a similar direction. Give the winners a playoff spot but nothing more than that.

2. No-touch icing
Only the lack of visors in the NHL has produced more needless injuries than no-touch icing. There is no question that races for the puck are part of the game. But there comes a point where the safety of the players is being compromised for a play that adds very little to the game. When a player ices the puck, the whistle should be blown the instant the puck crosses the line.

Many advocates of the existing system say that no-touch icing would slow down the game and ruin the flow. If anything, no-touch icing would speed the game up. Defensemen would no longer need to lackadaisically glide down half the length of the ice just to touch the puck. How often does a play actually materialize as a result of a forward beating the defenseman back to the puck? Not enough to justify the broken legs and the potential career and life threatening injuries that are more likely to occur when defensemen are placed in such a vulnerable position.

When asked about the issue, Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice said, “I think we need to find a way for on the icing races to out-law contact…” Okay, that would work too, but it’s not realistic. The last thing we need is to leave “contact” up to the discretion of the referee.

The issue comes up every year at the GM meetings and year after year it gets turned aside. I have trouble understanding why, as does Don Cherry. If this topic interests you, watch this Coaches Corner segment.

3. Point allocation
As Leafs fans, we all know how much every point matters when the season comes down to the wire. Last season, we had to painfully watch as New Jersey backup (and ironically, current Leaf) Scott Clemmensen failed to hold off the New York Islanders in a shootout, eliminating the Leafs from the post-season. In 2006, the Leafs’ late run came up two points short.

Games decided in overtime and the shootout are worth three points, two going to the winner and one to the loser. Games decided in regulation are only worth two points, both going to the winner. The fact that games allocate a different number of total points is a serious flaw in the system. Here’s where it could (and does) come into play.

If Ottawa and Montreal go into overtime, this is immediately a disadvantage to the other three teams in the division. Since the game is worth an extra point, that throws another point into the division. Sure, it probably evens out over the season. But as we’ve seen, every single point matters. Watching two divisional rivals go to a shootout shouldn’t put your team at a disadvantage. All games should allocate the same number of points.

A system that seems logical to me is the “three point game”. Regulations wins are worth three points, overtime and shootout wins worth two, and an overtime or shootout loss worth one. That way, all games throughout the schedule are weighted evenly. It also provides increased incentive to close out opponents in regulation.

Martin Gerber, filling in for the injured Ray Emery, gave the Senators a huge boost -- stopping 26 of 29 shots in Ottawa's victory

4. Divisional play
Following the lockout, the NHL increased the number of games between divisional rivals from five to eight. Over the course of a season, that’s 32 games against your own division. On top of that, teams play all conference foes four times each throughout the season, leaving a total of ten inter-conference games. Each team has an entire division that they never play! Sydney Crosby didn’t make his first trip to Western Canada until early December of his third season! How can that possibly be in the NHL’s best interest?

The league justifies the current system by saying that the extra divisional games increase rivalries. The NHL is clearly unaware that rivalries are born from quality, not quantity.

Leafs vs. Habs, Wings vs. Avs, Bears vs. Packers, Cowboys vs. Redskins, Yanks vs. Sox, Lakers vs. Celtics, North Carolina vs. Duke. Rivalries are not forced. They blossom over time through incredible competition and patriotism. They form through sheer hatred developed when the stakes are high. Three extra divisional games in the NHL regular season doesn’t give birth to rivalry. When teams play each other so many times in a regular season it takes away from the importance and excitement of each individual game.

The NHL has a second excuse for the schedule: travel. Although the thought of limiting travel time and costs is a little more valid than increasing rivalries, the players aren’t paid to rest. I understand that an 82 game season can take its toll, but suck it up and give the fans what they deserve. Ovechkin and Crosby should be in every building, every year.

It would be great to hear your comments about these changes, any others, or the new NHL in general so let’s hear it!

This article has been submitted by Ian Cass, who I couldn’t agree with more.

5 Responses to “Thoughts on the New NHL”

  1. Blake Murphy Says:

    Couldn’t agree more Ian, clearly, from the by-line there. Divisional play is the stupidest idea ever - you need to play every team once at home, once away. This isn’t baseball. Home-and-home against each team in the opposite conference (30 games), 5 against division opponents (20 games), 3 against other conference opponents (30 games) rotating who gets the extra home game, and then a final 2 games the NHL can use for ‘rivalry creation’ or whatever.

    Touch icing is just silly.

    I have been the largest anti-shootout, anti-extra point person around. It’s stupid. You lost, 0 points. Suck it up.

  2. paul Says:

    Great article, I agree with a lot of what you said. I absolutely hate all the divisional play. Eight games against the same teams over and over is too repititive. I like watching the Leafs playing teams from other conferences to see how they match up (usually they don’t match up).

    Also, we have to get rid of the instigator rule. All these high sticks and indescretion with respect to hurting other players wouldn’t be as high if George Parros could come over and kick your ass without getting a penalty for starting the fight. I’m sick of the agitators like the Ruutu’s who hide behind the instigator rule and don’t have to fess up for their crimes on the skilled players of the game.

  3. stu Says:

    I agree with all of these except for divisional play - I agree it should be toned down a little, but I’d still like a lot of games between division rivals, just for more Pens/Flyers games.

    Ruutu kicked Tucker’s ass this year, and recently had his ass kicked by that Lucic/Fake Cam Neely guy on the Bruins. He answers the bell, although not against true heavyweights.

    That is all.

  4. Ian Says:

    Great article. I’d like to add one rule change. Actually, it’s not so much a rule change, but actually enforcing an existing set of rules: boarding and hitting from behind. Both exist in the NHL, but without a severe injury, neither is actually called.

    If you watch the Coach’s Corner clip above you will see that Ponikarovsky gets hit from behind. What was the call? Two minutes for boarding. Personally, I think hits that are that bad deserve much more than two minutes in the box. Now, I’m not suggesting you suspend the player or anything, but make the punishment more severe. Either a double-minor (4 min) or a five minute major and a game misconduct (those two have to go hand-in-hand).

    There are numerous hits like that every year that lead to injury and frankly, I think they are unacceptable. These players are only going to get injured, and injured badly. It’s only a matter of time until the NHL has its own Brad Hornung (who broke his neck playing junior in the late 80s) at which point the rules will have to change. However, I ask, why does it have to take a serious injury to prompt this rule change. All of these players have grown up in hockey that has had hitting from behind rules where (generally) you receive a 2 or 5 min penalty, a game misconduct, and up to a 3 game suspension. I see no reason why this has to change when they reach the NHL.

    Many people will argue that a crack down on hitting will make hockey less exciting, but I disagree. A good clean hit is far better, far more exciting than a dangerous check - especially from behind - into the boards. Furthermore, I don’t think anybody thinks its exciting to see a dangerous hit that results in any kind of serious injury, which will inevitably happen as these hits are allowed to continue.

  5. Ian Says:

    Just to clarify: that is another Ian. I did not comment “great article” about my own article. But yes, I completely agree with your addition.

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