NHL’s crackdown on slashing could leave slower defencemen behind

Auston Matthews and head coach Mike Babcock on why their speed and skill should help the Maple Leafs benefit from the crackdown on slashing calls.

EDMONTON — So they’re cracking down on slashing in the National Hockey League, which really means they’re challenging the slower player to defend without using his stick as a tool, or weapon.

Which means you’d better be able to get body position. Which really means, you’d better be fast enough because the foot-speed bar just got raised. Again.

For the sake of this column, let’s say the crackdown lasts. That the slashing of a puck carrier’s hands or stick will remain illegal years from now, the same way the “stick parallel to the ice” hook remains a penalty after being introduced a decade ago, post-lockout.

What happens to stay-at-home defenders like Eric Gryba in Edmonton or Luke Schenn in Arizona?

How about Deryk Engelland in Las Vegas, or Mark Borowiecki in Ottawa? Roman Polak is in Toronto’s camp on a PTO. Does this rule change give the Maple Leafs a new lens through which to watch Polak play?

What about Radko Gudas in Philly, or even Erik Gudbranson in Vancouver? Did they just get a best-before date stamped on their careers?

“It definitely changes how you have to defend. Those reactionary slashes of the stick, taps to the hands, are so ingrained in a defenceman,” Gryba said on Wednesday, in a long, insightful conversation about defending in the 2017-18 season. “If they stay as rigid on the rules as they are right now… the whole makeup, landscape of the D-corps is going to change, from top to bottom. Everyone is going to have to be a better skater to defend.”

Where today the six-foot-four, 225-pounder slots in as the Oilers’ seventh defenceman — Gryba is currently a No. 6 with Andrej Sekera injured — that traditional big, burly penalty-killing No. 7 may morph into a smaller, better skating defenceman. A player who can help on the extra power plays being handed out.

If Gryba is an old-school physical defenceman, then Adam Larsson is the new-age version. Still six-foot-three and strong as a muskox, Larsson is a physical defender who calls his stick “a tool” of his craft.

“A good stick is stick on puck. Not stick on stick (or hands),” he said. “This rule will probably take away the first battle between players, but not the (overall battle). When you go into a situation sometimes you give a little whack to start. Then the stick comes. Then the body comes. It will be an adjustment, but I don’t think it will affect a certain type of player.

“I think the rule will fade off a bit when they realize the games are taking too long, with all the whistles. They overdo it now to prove a point.”

He’s right on that last bit, but the lasting effect will still be penalizing those whose stick is being used to compensate for feet that can’t get them close enough to take the body. And the clumsy part of this rule change is, they can change the officiating standard overnight, yet rosters are already filled for the season.

“We’re committed to the group we have under contract right now. So we’ve got to make that group work, as does the other 30 teams,” said Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, who sees it going one of two ways.

“Perhaps, as the season wears on, we just get back to regular hockey without a lot of hooking and slashing, and any player can fit it,” he said. “But, if we continue to see eight, nine, 10 power plays a night, (as a coach) you have a tendency to lean towards the power-play defenceman or the penalty-killing defenceman — not just the utility guy who does everything. Those guys become more valuable because they’ll play more minutes.”

So, maybe the stay-at-home guys will have work on killing all these extra penalties. Personally, we hope so, as that role is most often filled with character veterans who make a dressing room a better, more educational place for both reporters and young players.

“There are benefits (to the new standard), but it could take away some of the integrity of the game as well,” Gryba warned. “If the game continues to push out older role players, you’ll have less people being held accountable. Whether it’s on your team, or other guys on other teams. You want to keep the game as organic as possible. Don’t try to create a new type of player, because you’ll be cutting out crucial parts from some teams. Since my first year (2012-13), we’ve lost a lot of that already.”

The crucial function of the elder statesman in a hockey dressing room could be a casualty here, as weeding out slower players equals weeding our older players. Just like young players, as a young reporter I learned a ton about how the NHL works from an old defenceman at the end of his career named Dean Kennedy, a wise grey beard on a too-young hockey team.

“Showing the young guys how to be a pro. Not being a sheriff, but calling guys out on some corner-cutting here or there. How to carry yourself on and off the ice. How to be a good pro,” listed Gryba, when asked about that job description.

“The game is already getting younger and younger, and there are less and less older guys around to teach the next generation how to be a pro, how to do it right. … How to be successful.”