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All-Star Weekend: NHL’s all-stars dive into the goalie interference debate

Some players think the NHL is allergic to goals. Others think goalies need more protection. Can the league sort out a rule no one seems to agree on?

TAMPA – Connor McDavid sat outside in the balmy air, palm trees blowing behind him, sun beating down on his back. He had every reason to feel happy but, for a brief moment, he didn’t. Facing reporters on the podium as he represented the Pacific Division all-stars as captain, he got a question – from yours truly – that scratched a wound not yet healed.

What are your thoughts on goalie interference right now, and what must the NHL do to change the way it’s enforced?

“This is the all-star weekend,” McDavid said, jaw clenched. “I’m here to have some fun. I’m not going to comment too much on that. I said my thing about it the other night, and I’ll leave it at that. I’m just here for the all-star weekend, and that’s that.”

Apologies, Connor. Too soon. Only a couple days had passed since he had a goal controversially called back in overtime against the Calgary Flames. Upon scoring in the shootout, he angrily taunted the officials, pointing in the air, telling them to “go upstairs,” and he had plenty to say about the incident post-game, wishing goalie interference calls could be more black and white and worrying goalies would start grabbing at players deliberately in hopes of selling calls and getting goals disallowed. 

He was done talking about the issue by Saturday morning, but the rest of the All-Star Game participants had plenty to say about it. Judging by the variety of opinions offered, the NHL’s board of governors has a lot to sort out. 

“I just think it pisses people off right now because it’s hard to score goals in this league,” said Washington Capitals left winger Alex Ovechin, the NHL’s leading goal scorer. “You can score a goal, and if there’s just a little touch, it can be goalie interference. If it’s clear goalie interference, it’s fair, but if there’s just that little touch, it shouldn’t be goalie interference.”

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby believes the players have more control over their bodies in the crease than they sometimes let on. “As a player you have a pretty good idea,” he said. “If you affect the goalie’s ability to make a save, ultimately it’s not going to be a goal. I think it’s been pretty consistent. It’s tough in the moment to understand that, but I watch a lot of hockey, and I like to think as a player that I’m pretty aware of if it’s a goal or if it’s going to be called back.”

Crosby, then, represents the middle of the debate, and there’s another faction, the one believing goalie safety is paramount. St. Louis Blues center Brayden Schenn points out the game is so fast these days that it puts netminders at risk more than ever, so he likes the idea of interference calls protecting them. Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck still thinks the league can do more in that regard. 

“I remember in Detroit, I got absolutely crushed, and it was still a goal,” Hellebuyck said. “So I think there could be more consistency there.”

But is it possible to ever achieve a consistent definition of something that, for now, is pretty qualitative? It’s not like we’re discussing the foot-in-crease rule of the late 1990s, and even something that seemingly black-and-white was constantly debated in its day. Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette believes it’s moot to even try to define goalie interference. As he told reporters Saturday, when he and his fellow Predators brain trust, including GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton, review goalie interference calls, everyone has a different opinion. Consensus is a pipe dream. 

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“Those decisions are so hard when they happen,” Laviolette said. “If we threw one instance of a goaltender interference in front of this group, half of you would think it is and half of you would think it wasn’t. Usually one coach is pretty happy, and the other might be upset, but that’s the nature of the goalie interference. Who’s right and who’s wrong? I know the referees and the NHL give their best to give the right answer. I’m not trying to give the politically correct answer either. 

“I could throw three clips out to you right now with exactly what you think is cut and dried, and you’d be 50/50.”

As reported by TSN’s Darren Dreger, the NHL’s board of governors met today, and one of its primary discussion topics was the notion referees have become “too technical” in their enforcement and are “overthinking” goalie interference. That supports the line of thinking Ovechkin expressed to THN Saturday, the idea goalie interference should be defined as something that genuinely impedes the goalie as opposed to minor incidental contact in the heat of battle. 

The other hot topic at the moment is, of course, offside calls. According to records the NHL shared with THN last week, the number of coach’s challenges for offside calls on goals has decreased almost 40 percent year over year, meaning the decision to assess two-minute minors for incorrect challenges has worked brilliantly. But what about the concept of the rule itself and whether having a skate blade just a hair off the ice should matter? As one Eastern Conference GM recently told THN, we should expect the debate to be reopened when the competition committee tables changes for next season. As for the reviews themselves, as much as they disrupt the flow of a game, not every player abhors them. 

“I like it,” Crosby said. “I’d rather them get it right. It’s important to get it right. We have the ability to get it right. And it’s not like they can (challenge) multiple times, because you either get a penalty or you lose your timeout, that kind of thing, It’s nice to have that opportunity, especially when all those plays are so important. One point over the course of the year can be the difference between making the playoffs or missing the playoffs, so you want to get it right.”

At least there’s one thing virtually every player, coach and GM league-wide agrees on: the slashing crackdown has opened up space for everyone. Power play opportunities are the highest they’ve been in four years, and the 2017-18 season’s goals-per-game mark is the best since 2006-07. 

“They’re doing a good job,” Schenn said. “Last year guys were getting hit on the hands 10 times in a game. It was a little bit crazy how they were enforcing it in the pre-season, but the refs are doing a good job now keeping things in check. It’s a skating game now. 

“As as it gets down to the final games here, I don’t know if it’s going to be called as tightly, but it’s been good so far.”