After a ho-hum regular season and so-so post-season, the NHL has to find way to boost scoring for fans, who are foaming at the mouth for more goals. Lucky for the league, there’s an easy way to do it: change the icing rule.
Well, that post-season was underwhelming. Come to think of it, so was the regular season. At 5.03 and 5.32 goals per game, respectively, the two parts of 2014-15 combined to create another low-scoring season for goal-starved fans. Immediately after that dud of a Stanley Cup final, in which just 23 goals (3.83 per game) were scored, suggestions started flying on ways to fix the dearth of goals and the downtick in excitement.
TSN’s Dave Naylor threw his support behind making the nets bigger, a move the NHL should embrace. Failing that, however, perhaps there’s another way to boost scoring. Prior to the playoffs, this editor floated an idea by Kris King, vice-president of hockey operations, and Stephen Walkom, senior vice-president and director of officiating, at the NHL. Neither offered any feedback, but at least they were willing to hear it out. “We have a lot of ‘interesting’ GMs,” King said. “So your idea might not be as crazy as you think.” That crazy idea targets the suffocating defensive strategies of coaches – the real culprits behind low-scoring games – by making this rule change:
Move the icing line back for each team to its own blue line. As the rule stands now, teams on offense have to navigate a 25-foot minefield of defenders between the red line and the blue line to get into the offensive zone. That compressed space is critical, because teams on offense have to negate an icing while avoiding an offside – all within one-eighth of the length of the ice. And coaches are exploiting that space defensively. Teams on defense only need to defend the 25 feet between the red line and their own blue line. Under this new icing rule, however, they would have to cover the entire 50 feet of the neutral zone.
Now, many of you are probably thinking, “Wouldn’t this just turn the NHL into a back-and-forth dump-and-chase game?” Why would it? Just because the option is there to dump the puck in earlier doesn’t mean teams on offense would use it, but the option alone would still force teams on defense to defend against it. As the icing rule is now, defensive formations are set up width-wise. To maintain puck possession through the neutral zone, teams on offense have to beat as many as five defenders lined up across the rink in the 25 feet between the red line and the offensive blue line. Setting icing at each team’s own blue line would stretch defensive formations length-wise, forcing teams on defense to guard the entire 50-foot neutral zone. This would increase the chances of getting through those formations and into the offensive zone. “If I perceive the concept correctly, I could see in principle that your proposal might generate the potential for increased and sustained pressure both inside the attacking blue line and on the forecheck,” said former NHL referee Kerry Fraser via email. “It might also open up the neutral zone for quick transition and stretch passes.” With a more open neutral zone, teams on offense would be more likely to carry the puck through it. Thanks to analytics like Corsi and Fenwick, statistics strongly suggest puck possession is a huge part of what makes a successful team, and moving the icing line would only favor clubs that hold onto the puck. And even if defending teams dropped a player back into their own zone to defend against a long dump-in, it’d leave one less defender in the neutral zone to clog it up. This rule change isn’t without precedent. The World Hockey Association experimented with it for power plays by making shorthanded teams cross their own blue line to negate an icing. And it isn’t the first time someone suggested the NHL set icing at the blue lines. A Google search revealed that
a THN reader – Kevin Cave from Victoria, B.C. – had made this suggestion back in 2008. Changing the icing rule works in theory, so it’s worth putting it into practice by testing it in the minor leagues or at an R&D camp. That being said, neither is likely to happen in a league that seems content with the goal-starved status quo. “Moving the icing line would be a major change in the slow-moving minds of Hockey Ops and most team GMs,” Fraser said. “I could be wrong, but my guess is they would view moving the icing line as a radical change.”