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With rule changes, NHL responds to officiating controversies without overreacting

The GMs endorsed several rule changes Thursday night, including the implementation of additional coach's challenges that will strive to reduce the likelihood of the kind of officiating gaffes that clouded the post-season.

VANCOUVER – If the rule changes the NHL implemented today had been in place two months ago, it may have changed the entire complexion of the playoffs. First, the Vegas Golden Knights would have almost certainly been in the second round of the post-season. And the San Jose Sharks would have been out, which would have meant they wouldn’t have had the chance to win a game in Western Conference final on a hand pass.

Who knows how things would have turned out? Perhaps Vegas would have made another miracle run to the Stanley Cup final. Or not. The NHL can’t change the past, but it did take a serious attempt at ensuring it gets controversial calls right without slowing games to a crawl and creating a constant stream of video reviews that would have sucked the energy out of games.

All most people wanted was that the egregiously missed or misinterpreted calls be reviewable and that is what the league did with the rule changes that were endorsed by the GMs Thursday in Vancouver. Ask any self-help guru worth his or her salt and that person will say it’s important to respond rather than react. There’s a difference, and the NHL responded to an enormous problem here without overreacting.

Would it have changed the embarrassment the league suffered in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final when an obvious missed call on the St. Louis Blues' Tyler Bozak directly led to the game-winning goal? No, because the league sees that as a judgment call and it still wants the human element to govern the game in that way. So these changes in no way will eliminate controversies because there will still be instances where an egregious foul will happen five feet in front of a referee without being called. It will only reduce them.

“Our officials are the best in the world in any sport,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “They have the most difficult job possible and overwhelmingly they do a great job, but there is a human element. Based on the speed of the game, things can get missed or gotten wrong. It happens infrequently, but as I acknowledged before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, we had some controversial plays at most inopportune times.”

The biggest change, of course, is the expansion of the coach’s challenge for goal calls on the ice that follow plays in the offensive zone that should have resulted in a play stoppage but did not. When the Sharks' Timo Meier used his hand to bat the puck to Gustav Nyquist who then passed it to Erik Karlsson for the overtime-winning goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference final, the play where Bettman said he thought his head was going to explode, the four officials who missed the hand pass were powerless to review it. That won’t happen anymore. And in Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs when the Columbus Blue Jackets scored after the puck hit the netting behind the Boston Bruins' net, that one would have been called back, too.

And now coaches can ask for challenges on these plays, as well as offside and interference on the goaltender, as often as they want, but unsuccessful challenges will be penalized with a minor penalty for the first one and a double minor for all subsequent ones.

The other major change is that now referees are required to do a review of every non-fighting major they assess. If they discover a major was not warranted, the penalty becomes a double minor. When Cody Eakin wiped out Joe Pavelski in Game 7 of the first round, he received a major penalty and the Sharks responded by scoring four power-play goals. Had that same incident occurred now, Eakin would have received a double minor and there’s a good chance the Sharks would have scored a maximum of two goals, not four.

There were a couple of other intriguing changes, including one which involves a player having to either replace his helmet or go back to bench when it comes off. So the Torey Krug helmetless hit on David Perron in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final? Won’t happen again.

And there are a couple that should promote offense. Following an icing and at the start of a power play, the attacking team can choose which dot to take the faceoff, which will allow teams to send out their best faceoff man on his strong side. And when a team puts the puck out of play in the attacking zone, the faceoff will be at an inside dot, not the outside one. And if a goalie freezes the puck on a dump-in that comes from the other side of the red line, the defending team will not be allowed a line change.

“We have to do it cautiously,” Bettman said. “We have to do it in a way where we get it right as much as possible, without disrupting the essential flow of what is the most exciting, fast-paced game, with the most action and the best flow.”

-With files from Ryan Kennedy

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