Being Canadian, Adrian has a lot to say about hockey. I’ll let him take it away:
In August, the NHL held its (now annual) Research, Development, and Orientation (RDO) Camp. The RDO Camp is an interesting idea — it gives NHL teams a chance to evaluate top prospects and serves as a venue to experiment with potential rule changes. This year, they evaluated over two dozen rule variations, from the mundane (thinner nets) to the radical (line changes only permitted on the fly, 3-on-3 overtime). While I often complain about the NHL’s rules, especially in regard to player safety, the RDO camp is a great idea more leagues should implement. Moreover, it shows a surprising open-mindedness and willingness to change by the conservative NHL establishment. So, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly at the last RDO.
The Power Play
Three of the best ideas at the RDO are discussed by NHL.com’s EJ Hradek. I’ll let his article stand for itself, but he’s right that the verification line, shallower nets, and curved class near the benches are long overdue innovations. Also, while no-touch icing looks to be a no-go with GMs, I think a hybrid icing rule could do much to improve player safety. More controversial are a variety of proposals to open up the power play. The first proposal is to remove the rule allowing the short-handed team to ice the puck during the power play. The intuition is that this will make it much more difficult for the short-handed side to clear the zone and will open up scoring. The second option is to make it so that the offending team must clear the zone with possession of the puck before the officials call the delayed penalty. The third is to make all penalties go their full duration regardless of whether the team on the power play scores a goal.
It seems to me that the first proposal is the best one. Ideally, rules should be consistent across all facets of play — specialized rules are confusing to fans and tend to be controversial. Allowing the short-handed team to ice the puck during a power play represents a deviation from the normal rules of hockey. It is a remedial rule imposed because power plays offered too much of an advantage to the team with an extra man. Now, with power play scoring down, such a remedy seems unnecessary. Removing the rule represents an easy, intuitive fix that closely addresses the problem at hand. Neither of the other proposals directly addresses the problem of low potency power plays. The second proposal deals with the period before the penalty is called and seems unlikely to yield more scoring. Also, hockey during a delayed penalty is often a bit stunted, sloppy, and confusing for a fan. No need for more of it. Finally, allowing the offending team to score multiple goals on the power play doesn’t improve the chances that a team will score on the power play. It does little to improve the balance between offense and defense and, at best, gives teams already good at the power play a greater advantage.
Strengthening the power play is important. Not only will it increase the number of goals scored per power play, but it should decrease the number of penalties and open up the game. Now, teams with a strong penalty kill have little reason to fear the power play. During even strength play, those teams can be more aggressive and risk more penalties, slowing up the game and decreasing scoring. A rule change like the first one will help to improve even strength hockey. However, the result of such a change may not be an uptick in scoring. If teams commit far fewer penalties there will be fewer power plays and maybe even fewer goals. This is fine — an improvement in the quality of even strength hockey is good for fans and good for the league.
The Bear Hug Rule
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Bryan Burke has long been a proponent of something called the “Bear Hug Rule,“ which continues to be a topic of discussion during the NHL’s RDO camps. In brief, the “Bear Hug Rule” looks to improve player safety by allowing a potential player to grab a player making a hard pivot instead of driving him into the boards. While the spirit of the rule is a good one, critics charge that such a rule makes little sense — if the defender has time to “bear hug” the puck carrier, he surely has time to avoid the check altogether. If he has time to stop and refuses, there should be a boarding penalty. While the focus on player safety is a good one, the NHL appears to want to improve player safety while still allowing potentially reckless play that may stymie offensive production. By putting the onus on the defender to avoid contact, and making him play under control along the boards, the NHL could open up the game and improve player safety. I think hockey’s old guard would likely protest such a move. That attitude is going to take a lot more than an RDO camp to change.