BOCA RATON — It was a day when NHL general managers demonstrated a willingness to change their minds.
And their understanding of new realities.
Several years ago, both the concepts of using three-on-three play in overtime and a coach’s challenge had microscopic appeal among the suits that design the game.
Today, both received essentially unanimous approval from that same body. Amazing.
But they received only tentative approval. Whereas once the GMs would have simply announced such measures, they now do so with the caveat that the players’ union must have its input before anything is final.
They remember how the players once used their muscle to kill a realignment plan.
They remember how regulations to curb “staged” fighting were similarly dismissed once the players got their chance to have a say.
This is the NHL in 2015. So while NHLPA representatives Steve Webb and Joe Reekie will arrive here Wednesday to address the managers, three-on-three in OT and the coach’s challenge will have to wait until the NHL-NHLPA competition committee meets in June.
That group will consider not a single proposal on a change to the current OT formal, but a choice:
1) A move to a format like that tested in the AHL this season, where teams play four-on-four for three minutes, or until the first whistle, then three-on-three.
2) A five-minute session with only three-on-three play similar to the format instituted by the Swedish Elite League partway through this season.
“The (GMs) are happy with either,” said Detroit GM Ken Holland, an advocate of three-on-three for several years. “We think both are good solutions.”
So what changed so many minds among a group that was very recently adamantly opposed to three skaters aside in extra time?
Well, many have grown weary of the shootout, or at least having too many shootouts. Over the last few seasons, about 60 per cent of the NHL games that go to OT have gone to shootouts, and that’s just too many for the tastes of even enthusiastic shootout advocates.
Second, a half-measure instituted last year, using the “long change” for overtime, simply hasn’t had much of an effect. In the AHL, by contrast, going to a portion of three-on-three for overtime has reduced the percentage of OT games decided by shootout to less than 25 per cent.
“Last year I voted against three-on-three,” said St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong. “But after seeing it in the AHL. . .well, let’s just say (Holland) changed my mind. It is entertaining, and it does produce goals.
“Now we want to incorporate the union’s feelings on this. With our new relationship, it’s good to get the players’ input.”
So is it a good idea? Absolutely. At a time when NHL scoring in general is down and the scoring championship may go to a player with less than 100 points, getting more goals in OT is very much needed. People don’t seem to find it as gimmicky as the shootout, and it offers the most skilled players in the sport more opportunities to show off those skills.
Who doesn’t want to see more of Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko? Seeing them unshackled at least for some of the time by enemy shadows and checkers is appealing.
For me, I once loved the idea of the shootout. Now, I’ve just seen too many. Unless they turn into marathon sessions, they offer no compelling narrative. We just keep count and declare a winner. An overtime goal, on the other hand, is the product of a play, or a blown save, or a perfect shot, or a timely hit. Three-on-three will still produce breakaways, but ones where the potential scorer has an opponent in hot pursuit.
Now, what the union has to say about all of this will be interesting. This relationship is still adversarial by nature, and when the union is asked to give something, it usually, and understandably, looks for something in return.
With other thorny issues on the table these days such as the five per cent salary cap escalator and Olympic participation, three-on-three could end up rolled into a bigger conversation.
The same goes for the coach’s challenge. The idea is that a coach needs to have his timeout to be able to challenge, and that if the challenge is unsuccessful, he loses that timeout. Theoretically, that could not only produce new strategies, it may make teams less inclined to use timeouts early in games to rest tired players after icing calls, and therefore might create more scoring chances and goals.
The challenge could be used for goalie interference and for delay-of-game calls when the puck is shot over the glass in the defensive zone. On those calls, replay could be used to rescind a delay-of-game penalty that’s been called, but not to call a penalty that wasn’t first signalled by a referee.
The goalie interference reviews could turn into Pandora’s box, creating more controversies than they solve. So we’ll see how that initiative progresses at the competition committee level.
For now, we’ll marvel at how open-minded hockey people can be. It just takes them a little while.