TORONTO – It promises to be the kind of scene a hockey nut can’t help but marvel at.
With a series of revamped rules and an altered ice sheet that has just one faceoff dot in each zone, the NHL’s research and development camp will feature plenty of outside-the-box thinking.
It plays out over four sessions at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility on Wednesday and Thursday, with 33 top-rated junior players being put through their paces by veteran coaches Ken Hitchcock and Dave King. The stands will be full of general managers and executives carefully watching everything unfold.
“Like most people, I’m curious,” Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business affairs, said Tuesday. “I’m curious to see a lot of these things play out. I know as a player, it would be fun to play with these new challenges and new rules and new ideas.”
Shanahan was tasked with bringing the camp together—an assignment that came directly from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
It’s the first major project he’s undertaken since stepping into his job with the league in December. However, it’s not entirely new ground, because of the “Shanahan Summit” he famously organized in December 2004.
Many of the changes that opened up the game following the lockout had their roots in that gathering, when Shanahan footed the bill for key stakeholders to gather in Toronto and discuss what needed to be done to fix a sport the veteran forward viewed as “broken.”
There’s a completely different atmosphere around this event. The NHL’s goal now is to be proactive and avoid letting the on-ice product slip again in the future.
“I think it would be the wrong time not to be studying the game,” said Shanahan. “To do this now is not a reflection on us trying to change things or wanting to make changes, but simply trying to study a good product and see if there are any ways to make it better.”
The ideas were submitted by a number of people closely involved with the league and range from slight tweaks to radical changes.
Among the suggestions that will be looked at:
—Having three faceoff dots, one in each zone, down the centre of the rink.
—Using a variation of the faceoff, where a whistle starts play rather than the traditional puck drop.
—Trying both no-touch icing and a hybrid icing rule, where referees can blow the play dead prior to the defending player touching the puck.
—Having the second referee located off the playing surface.
—Not allowing a team to change lines after it commits an offside.
One potential rule change Shanahan thinks GMs will be closely monitoring is forbidding teams from icing the puck when they’re short-handed.
Those men will also be watching the players. The camp offers a rare opportunity for teenagers entering their draft year to try and make an early impression on NHL teams.
Shanahan didn’t have much trouble convincing players to attend the two-day camp.
“It’s a unique situation for them (because) they’re on the ice simply with the players they’re competing with in the draft,” he said. “Not 16 year olds, not recently drafted 18 year olds and not 20 year olds. They’re only on the ice with kids that are in their same draft class and that doesn’t happen very often.”
They’ll also be on the ice with men who have coached the game for decades in locations around the world.
Shanahan specifically sought out Hitchcock and King because of their passion for the sport and their unique views on how it’s played. They’ll take centre stage during the afternoon session on Thursday when variations on special teams play will be featured.
“One of the things I wanted to include (in the camp) was strategic advancements,” said Shanahan. “I just didn’t want new rules, new equipment and that’s where it ended. I basically put the challenge to them to be creative and to think of some new possibilities.”
A battery of statisticians will attend the four on-ice sessions to quantify the various ways each change affects the game.
But Shanahan expects the camp to produce something even more important than data. He believes having so many different people associated with the sport in attendance will pay dividends down the road.
“We’re going to collect all the information,” said Shanahan. “I think the biggest thing and the best thing that we have is just all the general managers and team personnel that are going to be present and see things first-hand.
“I think it’s easier to build a consensus when we’re at a general managers’ meeting and we want to talk about something and 80 per cent of the guys in the room actually saw it on the ice.”