Decreased obstruction calls obstructing NHL’s best attractions

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) bleeds from the lip after a high stick (Jason Franson/CP)

Connor McDavid picks up a pass just past his own blue-line, midway through the third period of a 2-2 game in St. Louis. The Blues immediately recognize the danger.

Alexander Steen, just coming off the Blues bench, does his best to get his stick into McDavid’s hands. Defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk is next, applying two separate hooks onto McDavid’s left hip. Neither hook separates McDavid from the puck, but they do slow him down enough for Alex Pietrangelo to remain within a stick’s length from the streaking centreman.

Now it’s Pietrangelo’s turn. This is a clear-cut breakaway now, the fastest player in the NHL undoubtedly able to increase the separation even from the smooth-skating Pietrangelo.

From his position behind McDavid, Pietrangelo reaches in from the right side with his stick for a hook, then a second hook. As McDavid is losing the puck without registering a shot on goal, Pietrangelo has changed his angle and is now coming in for a third chop from the left side.

Watch the video:

So there you have it: Nothing.

No exciting goal that makes the score 3-2 and causes the Blues to press hard on offence for the rest of the period. No fabulous save by Carter Hutton, the kind we look back on after a win as a turning point. No Oilers power play, or the most exciting play in hockey — a penalty shot.

The play didn’t even make the highlight packages — because literally nothing happened.

Internally, NHL officials have concluded that referee Chris Lee blew the call. It was at least a hooking minor, and more likely a penalty shot.

But what the play really represents is a beacon for change. A reminder of what drove the league to change “the standard” coming out of the 2004-05 season that was lost to the lockout.

Hooking and holding, the preferred methods of obstruction in the ‘90s, have largely been eliminated from the NHL game since referees handed out an average of nearly 12 (11.7) power plays per game in 2005-06. Hooking has been replaced, however, by the slash.

The “tap tap” on a puck carrier’s the hands. Or just a blatant chop, like the one from Eric Staal that broke Johnny Gaudreau’s finger earlier this year. Slashes to the stick, which only get called if an opponent’s stick breaks — a ridiculous standard, when you think about it — are accepted, another tactic that allows the lesser-skilled player to compete with the higher-skilled ones.

Today the league is blessed with its finest crop of exciting, young talent in decades. McDavid, Gaudreau, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, Patrik Laine, Jack Eichel, Shayne Gostisbehere, Zach Werenski, Jimmy Vescey, Sebastian Aho, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin. Many are smaller, skilled players who can do things with the puck at high speeds that we have never before witnessed.

We talk about sending NHLers to the Olympics to grow the game. Or playing games in China.

What if NHL leaders ensured that its most entertaining players were allowed to entertain all season long, right here in North America?

“After 04-05, they took that hook out. So I had to change. I had to adapt to that rule. Players changed how they tracked for hits, how they hit,” a former NHL player (who did not want his name used) told me this week. “That’s how you change players.

“Why did we get away from that? Why are we allowing that to happen?”

Average goals-per-game has been stuck at between 2.7 and 2.8 per for seven seasons now. The last time the NHL averaged more than three goals per game per team was coming out of the lockout in 2005-06. Before that, 1995-96, according to hockeyreference.com.

Power plays have been on a steady decline since the NHL emerged from the lockout. Even from the 2006-07 season, when players were used to the new standard, until today, power plays per game have fallen by 34 per cent.

In the following chart, we used the Detroit Red Wings as a comparable because they have iced a skilled, successful team throughout the years.

Season DET PP Opps PP Opps Leader PPO/game/team
03-04 314 422 4.24
05-06 461 541 5.85
06-07 398 463 4.85
07-08 391 420 4.28
08-09 353 374 4.16
09-10 307 332 3.71
10-11 301 346 3.54
11-12 298 335 3.31
12-13* 316 347 3.32
13-14 282 294 3.27
14-15 294 294 3.06
15-16 266 300 3.11
16-17** 280 299 3.20

* 2012-13: 48-game season, power=play opportunities pro-rated to 82 games.
** 2016-17: Power-play opportunities pro-rated to 82 games.
(Some stats from hockey-reference.com)

The tactic of “making one’s presence known” by whacking an opponent with a stick is so common, even players like McDavid and Kane use it themselves. They are not always the victim, often tugging an elbow from behind to steal a puck.

Because players have found the grey area between slashing and those “taps.” Between a full-on hook, and the hook Shattenkirk employed on McDavid.

The league is aware of the trend, and some insiders have been pushing Hockey Operations to take notice.

And this is not, aside from Lee’s blown call, a refereeing issue. This is about the general managers, at the urging of people like Colin Campbell, Gary Bettman and Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom, instructing the referees on a new standard.

Perhaps every whack above the shin pad becomes a slashing minor. Maybe we regain respect for the stick that is “parallel to the ice” and used to slow an opponent, the way the NHL once did.

The general managers meet next March 6-8 in Boca Raton, Florida. Having been blessed with this much speed and talent from the past three drafts, restating the standard on stick fouls should be at the very top of the GMs’ agenda so that speed and talent can entertain.

That’s what I would call “growing the game.”

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