If you’ve watched or read anything about the NHL’s pre-season so far, you’ll notice one trend in particular.
There have been an awful lot of penalties called.
The reason for this is the NHL’s crackdown on two rules that have been in the book for a long time: faceoff encroachment and slashing.
Like they did following the lost 2004-05 season, the league and its officials have focused on obstruction and calling stick penalties with greater vigour. Hooking and holding were the focal points in 2005-06 when average penalty minutes and total goals spiked from pre-lockout levels, and now it’s slashes, specifically to the hands, that is in the spotlight.
“You can still stick-check, it’s just when you’re slashing or whacking at the hands a long way from the puck the consensus by everyone was this is no longer a tactic we want to see in our game and we want a better enforcement of an existing rule,” said NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom on Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup. “I know a lot of people are thinking ‘ah we got a new rule,’ but this rule’s been around a long time. We’re just enforcing it a little closer to the rule.”
Faceoff encroachment is another one and it’s a standard we’ve never really seen before. If a centre doesn’t line up square and his skates touch or are inside of the hashmarks on the ice, or a winger steps in the circle or the marked neutral zone, the team first has its centre removed from the dot and is given a warning. If a second transgression on the same play occurs, a two-minute minor is automatically called.
It’s hard to imagine the league would be OK with this strict level of enforcement through the season, never mind the high-stakes playoffs. It’s a standard that has ruffled a lot of feathers in the pre-season because faceoffs – and “cheating” at them – is recognized in the league as a specialized skill. Walkom insists this standard will continue on, though, for similar reasons to the obstruction crackdown.
“In ’96-97 is when this rule was put in the book (and) when we had the stirrups or the L-shaped markings put on the ice,” he said. “And it was done for a reason: it was done so players would stand squarely to the opposing team’s end and so that they would line themselves behind the markings with their stick down on the ice. And over 20 years this rule eroded.
“By the end of exhibition I think players will understand how they’re supposed to set up relative to the faceoff. We want conformance. If they don’t conform we can call a penalty. That’s not what we’re looking for here. What we’re looking for is improve the faceoff from where we allowed it to erode to. Have we been a little tight? Yes we have, but we needed to send a message that this needed to be fixed. It was an existing rule that was put in for a reason.”
So far, the teams averaging the fewest penalty minutes per game this pre-season are Philadelphia and Winnipeg — and they’re still at 11 PIM/G. The Dallas Stars are at a hefty 26 PIM/G and Arizona is second with 23.
It’s no surprise, then, that some players have been making their opinions heard of these new standards. Some are understanding, others frustrated and all are certainly still getting used to the way these games are being called. Here’s a taste of what some are saying of the way slashing and faceoff encroachment has been called so far:
Kris Versteeg, Calgary Flames, to the Calgary Sun: “I think it will benefit guys like Johnny (Gaudreau) who gets hacked and whacked. If it sticks it definitely will benefit a lot of guys. And I like it.”
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: “The faceoff is definitely an adjustment. I don’t see how they can keep that going. (Taking) faceoffs is a skill and you work your whole career to develop that, work on your hand-eye and timing and everything and they’re trying to take that away. You have to adapt I guess and that’s something I’ll definitely do. But I don’t know if I’m a huge fan…I wonder really what they’re trying to get out of it. I understand it’s feet above those lines and the sticks, but that being said, it’s also common sense. Hockey’s a fast game, and right now they’re slowing it down.”
Trevor Daley, Detroit Red Wings: “Anybody who watched this game, that was not an NHL hockey game. That was a special teams practice…It’s hard to call that a hockey game. I hope it’s not here to stay. I don’t know what they’re going to do about it, but I hope it’s not here to stay. If it’s going to be like this, there are going to be some pretty ugly games.”
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins: “I don’t even know what to feel about some of those calls. There’s definitely going to be a feeling-out process, I think, just because they’re literally calling every single tiny thing.”
Justin Schultz, Pittsburgh Penguins: “You’ve got to learn. You can’t be slashing. I’m sure it’s going to calm down before the regular season, but it’s good for everyone to keep your sticks down. Don’t want broken fingers or hands…That would be crazy if it was like that in the regular season. It’s kind of a crazy game out there like that, but hopefully it’s just for the pre-season.”
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks head coach to The Province: “When there’s that many power plays and penalty kills and you’re trying to evaluate guys in their five-on-five play it’s hard. The flow of the game isn’t what it normally is.”
Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think I got kicked out of more [draws] than I took. It’s something you learn to do – is cheat a little in the faceoff circle and learn different ways to win faceoffs. But it’s going to be a lot more difficult now, there’s not going to be too much of that. It’ll be a learning curve for everyone.”
Dominic Moore, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I didn’t know they were clamping down on it until tonight. Obviously it’s a good thing to make the draws a little cleaner. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “We had a meeting before the game, but I’m not exactly sure what’s going on there. We just want to get a better understanding of what they’re looking at.”
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: “I don’t think you’ll see a lot of tying up anymore (opposing faceoff men). You won’t see a lot of turn and kick moves (puck). It’ll be a lot more of a stick battle.”
Mark Letestu, Edmonton Oilers: “Feet are really important. They don’t want skates touching the hashmarks at all. They want the defensive team paused, then the other team paused, then the drop. They’re calling the rules the way they’re meant to be called…I have a tough time believing that in the playoffs, in Game 7, that kind of call is going to be made. Right now, there’s an overemphasis on it, and hopefully it doesn’t go all the way back to where it was.”
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings: “It kills the game. There’s no rhythm, no flow.”
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: “It’s going to be tough to adjust. I mean, you’re talking about some grown men playing a fast game. I agree that slashes to the hands are dangerous, you gotta get those out of the game. But if you’re hitting a guy’s pants…It should really be the ref’s discretion as it’s always been. Maybe they can be a little more thorough on the ones close, like right on the hand. But like I said if you hit pants or shin pads, that’s very questionable.”
Kyle Brodziak, St. Louis Blues: “It seems pretty overwhelming right now. In our game it felt like there was really no flow to the game. Just penalty after penalty. But you know what, they warned us before… I think the league’s done a good job of letting guys know that that’s the way it’s going to be, and guys are just going to have to adjust to that.”
Doug Weight, New York Islanders head coach: “Even worse for the older guys. We’ve been swinging our sticks for 20 years. It’s a habit, a frustration. The hard thing is — over the last 10 years — now I can’t grab your free hand. It’s just natural to get waxed.”
Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders: “If every time your stick gets lifted off the ice a slashing penalty gets called, then it’s going to be tough. There’s slashing and then there’s just playing the game. There’s a difference. I understand they’re doing it to drive it home here in the pre-season and then maybe back off 20 per cent.”