Ten years ago, instead of being unveiled at a full arena, the best prospect in a generation was introduced to the hockey world in the ballroom of an Ottawa hotel. The 2005 lockout had just ended and the Corel Center (now the Canadian Tire Centre) couldn’t accommodate the new day for the NHL draft. But that didn’t blunt the excitement and anticipation of the New NHL, one that featured a ready-made superstar in
Sidney Crosby, a salary cap to get the NHL’s economics in order and a host of rule changes and enforcements to allow its offensive stars to shine. As Mario Lemieux posed for pictures with Crosby, the Penguins’ No. 1 pick, you could just envision him using the removed red line to spring Crosby for breakaway after breakaway. For a while, the plan worked masterfully. After taking a year off, the NHL roared back in popularity. Ratings were up, attendance was up and the excitement was palpable.
How could the NHL have possibly kept up that pace? Well, pace hasn’t been a problem. The league is faster and more chaotic than it has ever been. Over the years, though, scoring has decreased almost back to where we started. In 2003-04, the season before the lockout and the height of the Dead Puck Era, teams were producing an average of 5.12 goals per game. This past season, without factoring in the goal teams are awarded for winning a shootout, that average was just 5.32.
Many argue the evolution of the player has narrowed the gap so much between the best players and lesser ones that it’s more difficult to create offense. Now, instead of having a fourth-line of enforcers and role players, teams have bottom-six forwards who can skate almost as well as the top-six forwards. And according to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, teams are actually playing far more reckless defensively than they ever have, challenging the puck carrier at every opportunity. “If you’re a winger, there’s a defenseman in your face every shift,” Hitchcock said. “He’s either in your face as you exit (your zone) or he’s in your face in the neutral zone. So there’s no space, no time.” Teams play a swarm defense in their own zone. They collapse in front of their net and block shots like never before. “It used to be that a shot blocker was a specialist,” said Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. “Now, everybody blocks shots.” So is the New NHL still working? Or does the league need another round of sweeping changes? Let’s look at the major changes and see where we stand 10 years later:
Obstruction Crackdown Entering 2005-06, the league vowed to crack down on the obstruction fouls that were slowing the game to a crawl, and it was hyper vigilant to start. Nobody could have expected it would continue at that pace, and it hasn’t. There’s more obstruction now than there was in 2005-06, though still far less than there was prior to that. “When we went to the final (with Carolina in 2002) and when we’d play the New Jersey Devils, oh my God, how are you selling that?” said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice. “The difference now is that everyone skates so well, and there’s so much gap control. It’s almost the Anton Stralman effect. These strong skating defensemen can close the gap so quickly. And I don’t think we want to see that go away.” Some believe it was the obstruction crackdown that caused teams to close that gap and take the ice away. Players who would slow opponents down with restraining fouls have been replaced by those who do it with skating, hockey sense and body positioning. And there’s been at least one unintended consequence of the crackdown. “I worry about defensemen,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. “I know when pucks are dumped in the corner and they go back, they have no protection at all. With the speed of the game and no obstruction, I just worry about the safety of the players.”
Removal of the red line In an effort to speed up the game and stretch out the ice, the NHL removed the red line, creating the stretch pass. But there are those who think it has sped the game up too much, especially in the neutral zone. There were a lot of old-school coaches who were not in favor of the move, but many have changed their minds. “You can catch a team on transition and that’s great,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “You see teams throw it into a space and the guy is just flying. The Rangers do that a lot.”
Reduction of Goalie equipment and Introduction of the trapezoid If the NHL was declaring war on goaltenders by restricting the size of their equipment and their movement, then the fraternity has battled back valiantly. Despite the fact their equipment is now dictated by the size of their bodies and the equipment police keep a vigilant eye out for offenders, the position has never been better.
Some minds believe the league still has a ways to go when it comes to reducing equipment, and it continues to be a work in progress. But goalies are so well prepared now that they continue to keep ahead of even the best shooters. The head trajectory craze has hit, and goalies are tracking the puck better than ever. “I would say Alex Ovechkin probably hit about 35 posts last season,” Trotz said. “But he has to be so fine and so precise and so quick with it because the goalies are so good.” The trapezoid has limited goalies’ ability to play the puck, which goes back to Nill’s concern about the safety of D-men. And while many more goaltenders play the puck with aplomb, some of them make it such an adventure you wonder whether it wouldn’t create more offense if they got more touches. Boudreau has a unique idea. “Outside the trapezoid is the only place you should be able to play the puck,” he said. “You’d see rims when you’re rimming it in way more often than you see it now. The goalies just get out there and stop them all the time, but I think you’d see more offense if they couldn’t go out there behind the net and stop the puck.”
The Shootout The fact the league has done everything to marginalize it, from making regulation and overtime wins the primary tiebreaker and going to 3-on-3 next season, gives you an indication of how it is going. “I always thought that it was more exciting in the AHL with five guys rather than with three,” Maurice said. “Because we got down 0-2 a couple times, but you still had a chance and you were still in it. So I like that one.” The fact it was designed as a skills competition and has evolved largely into a goaltending competition has taken the luster off it.
GRADE: C- Reduction of neutral zone and removing the goal lines It was seen as a minor change, but it’s had a significant effect. Along with taking out the red lines, the league moved each blueline out two feet, reducing the neutral zone from 54 feet to 50, and the goal line was moved in two feet, to 11 feet from the boards. It made for bigger offensive/defensive zones, but it hasn’t created more offense because players and coaches have adapted to it. There’s at least one GM who thinks it has contributed to the increase in shot blocking. “We thought moving the blueline out was going to create more scoring chances, but it’s probably created fewer,” Nill said. “Instead of a winger standing next to a defenseman out at the blueline, now they stand in front of the net and collapse. It became more the European way. Coaches got smart and they collapsed.”
No line changes on icing and puck-over-the-glass penalty The two other major changes were to eliminate line changes for the team icing the puck and the controversial move to enforce the rule that penalizes players for two minutes when they put the puck over the glass. And it didn’t take long for the rule to have a profound effect. In the third period of Game 7 in the 2006 Eastern final, Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell put the puck over the glass and the Hurricanes scored the game-winner on the power play. “I hate it when it’s against me,” Boudreau said. “But it forces that defenseman to make a play, and that’s what we want.”
GRADE: A Ten years into the New NHL, it’s not so new anymore. Meanwhile, players are more skilled than ever, and that isn’t going to change. So perhaps when the Even Newer NHL comes along, it might have bigger ice, bigger nets and some of the rule changes we’ve proposed on page 36. Until then, we’ll have to live with the fact that a better player doesn’t always make for more goals.
This feature appeared in the August 17 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.