Five Ways to Cure NHL’s Allergy to Defense

By Jason Menard

The NHL is currently conducting a little on-ice R&D in an attempt to fix a game that’s pretty darn good as it stands. So why are the eyes of a hockey-loving nation focused on Toronto for the next two days?

Allergies. 

We need to start by admitting that the NHL is allergic to defense. Any time the scoring numbers dip, suits get ruffled, and board rooms turn into ORs, with focus groups and committees deciding whether to perform major surgery, or just finesse a couple of cosmetic tweaks.

The NHL wants to return to the glory days of the 1980s, where run-and-gun teams like the Edmonton Oilers ruled the roost; where goalies like Grant Fuhr didn’t worry about having a GAA in the low 2.00s or a save percentage in the .930s. In 2011 goalies have a legitimate chance of stopping EVERY goal each game; back in the 80s, goalies were more concerned about preventing the KEY goals.

Hockey purists – and I’ll admit to having a healthy appreciation for the past – have no problem with 1-0 or 1-1 games. We’ll argue, like fans of soccer, that the team play and defensive skill displayed in a low-scoring game can be just as beautiful and exciting as a high-scoring shootout.

Of course, I find soccer, in general, to be about as exciting as watching paint dry, so I can see how some hockey fans would disagree with my sentiment.

The NHL is constantly tinkering with the rule book. The game is better for its crackdown on hooking, clutching, and grabbing. But there are still things that need to be improved – and this two-day camp, unfortunately, is missing out on some of the best ways to improve the sport of hockey.

As a long-time fan of the game who watches it at all levels, allow me to play commissioner for a day. And, honestly, wouldn’t it be great if the NHL’s commissioner was a fan first and not a lawyer or business mogul? Yes, the business aspect is very important, but improving the on-ice product and making it more appealing to more fans means a better bottom line. At the very least, fans should be included in some of these discussions – after all, it’s our dollars they’re after.

I do want to commend the NHL for its willingness to tinker. Some sports and fans treat the games with an almost-religious reverence. Nothing is set in stone. And for those NHL fans who consider updating the rule book akin to blasphemy, I say that unless they’re willing to campaign to return the rover to the game, they should keep an open mind. The NHL’s always been about change, so embrace it and let’s make the game better.

So, my top-five ways to improve the game, in order of importance:

1) REGULATE EQUIPMENT SIZE: If the NHL really wants to return to 80s-style offense, maybe they should watch a game from that era. What do you notice? The players are about half the size they are now (and goalies are about a third of the size of today’s counterparts). Better nutrition and a greater awareness of exercise and biomechanics means that players are naturally bigger, stronger, and faster than their predecessors. But when you add suits of armour to the equation, it’s amazing that anyone can move on the ice (and since #3 on this list will never happen, we’ve got to go with fixing #1).

When I played as a youth, our equipment was cloth-like and flimsy, with a bit of plastic protecting the main areas. We respected each other because we knew each hit was going to hurt us as much as it did them. The NHL is concerned that blocking shots is undermining power plays? Smaller pads might discourage some of those actions.

And, most importantly, smaller equipment might prevent some of the potentially sport-crippling injuries we’re seeing. I’m very worried we may have seen the last of Sidney Crosby due to a concussion. Players colliding at top speeds wearing unforgiving shoulder and elbow pads is a recipe for disaster.

I’m not saying go back to the glorified padding we used to use. Take the benefits of today’s technology, but marry it with a stringent limit on size. Maybe a goalie’s leg pads can only extend a couple of inches on either side of the leg; perhaps player’s protective equipment should be downgraded to the point where it isn’t a potentially lethal weapon.

When a goalie can stand with legs more than shoulder width apart and still not have a five hole, we have a problem.

Finally, as part of this, I’d love to see full facemasks and/or shields made mandatory. Kids grow up playing with them, collegians still use them. It’s only at the upper levels where it suddenly gets “difficult to see” when wearing them.

Guys, your egos are either too big or the contents of your jock are too small.

There’s nothing manly about losing an eye, or missing time because you’ve had your face mangled by an errant high stick. Remember, you may be the one on the sidelines with the injury, but the fans who pay your wages are the ones who are actually missing out. They’re paying the same price without your services – unless you’re willing to refund a portion of the tickets out of your own pocket, put on the mask and minimize the risk of injury.

2) RESCIND THE HABS’ POWER-PLAY RULE: For an offense-loving league, it’s interesting to note that this rule was put in place for the 1956-57 season because one team was scoring too much.

Prior to that year, a two-minute penalty was a two-minute penalty. If you committed a crime, there was no mercy in the form of an early return if your teammates were unsuccessful in killing the penalty. The team with the power play had a full two minutes to try to score as many goals as it good.

The cusp-of-a-dynasty Montreal Canadiens were stacked offensively and took advantage of that rule to such an extent that the remaining five NHL teams voted it out of existence. It’s time to bring it back.

One concern expressed has been that it may make referees more reluctant to call penalties. My hope is that the NHL will press its officials (and with every game televised and instant armchair analysis everywhere it will be hard to hide egregious oversights) to call the game as intended, and any reduction in penalties would come from players realizing that putting their squad in a short-handed situation is potentially a much more serious infraction.

3) MANDATE OLYMPIC-SIZED ICE: Players aren’t going to get smaller. Nutritionists and year-round training will see to that. So the only way to make more room on the ice is to actually make more ice.

We’ve seen how exciting the game is when played during international competition on Olympic-sized surfaces, but the problem is that the seats that would be taken away aren’t going to be those disposable nose-bleeders in the upper level, but instead they would be the premium second-mortgage-for-an-ice-level-view seats*.

That’s why this will never happen. The cost of retrofitting all the NHL rinks would be fairly high and losing a few hundred paying customers each and every night wouldn’t be worth it to NHL owners.

*True, with a larger ice surface, you’d actually end up with more ice-level seats than previously, but not enough to make it work.

4) ELIMINATE THE RIGHT FOR A SHORT-HANDED TEAM TO ICE THE PUCK: So let’s look at this from a strictly logical point of view. Your team commits a crime against the rules of the game. Yes, you lose the services of one of your players for a period of time (hopefully longer if #2 comes into play), but you also gain a really great advantage.

Unlike during every other time in the game you can now ice the puck the length of the ice with no penalty! None. No whistle, no face off in your end, no restriction on line changes. Nothing.

You do this during normal five-on-five and you get a faceoff deep in your end, with tired players — because you’re not allowed to change your on-ice personnel – facing fresh foes. How does it make sense that you’re going to receive a reward or special privilege because one of your teammates broke a rule?

It doesn’t. That’s the problem. A penalty should come with consequences. And, once again, if a player knows that hooking an opponent instead of hustling to catch up will result in a full two minutes of short-handed time, with no ability to fire the puck down the ice to kill valuable time, maybe that player will think twice about committing the infraction in the first place. 

5) NO-TOUCH ICING/ALLOW GOALIES TO PLAY THE PUCK BEHIND THE NET: I’ve combined both because neither is really an Earth-shattering game-changer. No-touch icing just makes sense. Personally, I don’t rate a race to prevent an icing as one of the game’s best features; nor do I find it worth the potential injuries coming from two 200+ pound men racing at top speeds towards a wall.

As for the second part of this, for all the Marty Brodeurs out there who are masterful with the puck, there are a dozen accidents waiting to happen. The origin behind this rule was to prevent skilled puck-moving goalies from negating offensive rushes by playing the puck out of the zone. I have more than a bit of a problem with a rule that actually punishes a player for being more skillful – it would be like forbidding Alex Ovechkin from participating in shootouts because his dangles are just too nice.

We’ve all seen goalies mess up the clearing attempt – either by passing it nicely to an opposing player or launching it into the stands for a delay of game penalty. Scoring chances will be created and, again, we shouldn’t punish goalies that can handle the puck well.

There you have it: four (and-a-half) quick and easy solutions (and one idealistic but impossible idea) to improve the game. No charge! Although, if you’re looking for a new commissioner, I could make myself available. I will also work on a freelance consulting basis – but I don’t come cheap!

The game is great as it is. It doesn’t need wholesale changes, but just minor adjustments. Personally, I’m OK with defense, but I can see the appeal of increasing offensive opportunities in the game.

The best way to fix the game, however, isn’t through improving scoring but rather increasing respect throughout the league. Hey NHL! You really want to improve scoring? Ensure a healthy Sidney Crosby is on the ice. But concussions may rob us of his full career, just as it did with Pat LaFontaine and Eric Lindros, and just as it may do with Marc Savard.

I’m not speaking as a potential future commissioner; I’m speaking as a fan. Before any new rules are put in place, let’s make sure the old ones are enforced and the players’ safety – and ability to play each and every night – is made the most important thing.

One thought on “Five Ways to Cure NHL’s Allergy to Defense

  1. Pingback: NHL Hockey Blog Beat – August 22, 2011. | Spectors Hockey

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