October 7th, 2002


Charlton's NHL

Big Trade: Fiscal & On Ice Sense

by Rick Charlton

No mistakes, no excitement.

More fumbles, more goals.

What's been wrong with the NHL the last few years?

From a fan point of view, it would have to be the chess-like games being played about as perfectly as possible, every man in his place, every trap perfectly sprung, every turnover carefully contained.

What the NHL needs, according to Ottawa GM John Muckler, is a few more bonehead mistakes.

And the coming obstruction crackdown may be just what the doctor ordered to relieve long-suffering fans from their tedium.

"It's the greatest thing to ever happen for hockey," Muckler told the Ottawa SUN a few weeks ago. "I just think it's a great thing to happen for the sport because this was a sport that was going in the wrong direction. The forechecking game is the way hockey should be played. Forechecking is a big part of hockey and it has to be brought back.

"When you have forechecking, you put the possibility for mistakes back into the game. Mistakes cause turnovers and they make for opportunities. You want to create opportunities for teams to score goals."

Truer words were never spoken.

Of all the arguments I could possibly dredge up on the potential impact of the NHL's annual crackdown on obstruction infractions, it was Muckler's insight which most closely matched the comments I've made in this column before.

Two years ago in this space I made mention of a wildly exciting 7-6 LA win over Ottawa where the Senators blew a 5-0 lead on home ice, a contest which had as unpredictable an outcome as you could possibly imagine. Last season, it was Edmonton diving underwater early before roaring back for a similar error-filled but wide-open 7-6 win over Montreal.

In both cases, the very scores inferred not necessarily offensive creativity but rather blown assignments, missed checks and other assorted unpredictable mayhem, all of which left the participants terrified if not horrified, most in their post-game comments acknowledging the likelihood of bag skates the next day under coaches glowering behind furrowed eyebrows.

And that was just the winners.

Both games were about as far from textbook as you could possibly get. But exciting? Wow.

Like all pundits, I was initially skeptical this summer when the NHL announced yet another attempt at removing obstruction from the game, figuring this one would die the same ignomious mid-December death as all the others had, including the stealth crackdown of last year that wasn't even announced.

Typically these attempts at reform are killed by their very creators, the people who bring enormous pressure to bear on the league through the summer but in the end are the biggest complainers by mid-winter when games are three hours long from excessive penalty calls.

Management and coaches take it even further, standing up at the bench or in the corridors to scream at officials on behalf of the very players guilty of infractions.

"Sure we wanted a crackdown - but we didn't figure it would include US!!!," is a common wail.

The players, being no dummies, can plainly see their coaches and GM's won't be sending them to the minors anytime soon and keep on with the illegal play demanded by their management team even though the penalties keep rolling on.

And the crackdown eventually dies under the weight of 30 similar situations, all of which blame the officials rather than the guilty parties.

So what's different about this year?

A simple two minute minor, the same minor penalty rather than a misconduct which gave the NHL's much-maligned instigator rule formidable teeth in the early 1990's, can now be handed out by referees to coaches or players for excessive objecting to an obstruction call.

In a league where 75% of games are decided by one goal or less, an extra two-minutes, putting the offending team down two men along with the original obstruction call, is a freebie no one will want to give the opposition.

"It's going to be zero tolerance," acknowledged Flames coach Greg Gilbert. "It's going to help negate a lot of that arguing and crabbing back and forth, which is great for the game."

The extra two-minute minor penalty, putting teams two men down, is an acknowledgement by the High Foreheads in New York that the referees may not have been the biggest problem the league faced in eliminating obstruction.

No, the largest problem was everyone else. Players, coaches and management, all eliciting crocodile support for the officials that disappeared as soon as the season started.

That two minute minor is the referee's nuclear bomb, his defacto support blanket from head office.

Scoring is already up in the pre-season, averaging 5.89 goals per game so far versus the 5.24 goals per game average of the regular season. But a closer examination showed exhibition games in the last last week averaged 5.53 goals scored versus 6.08 goals per game in September as teams move closer to their full NHL lineups, eliminating the incompetent and inexperienced, the guys most prone to mistakes.

That's the reason some, like Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, may have probably gone way overboard in their expectations.

"If we can do this from now on, it's going to be exciting," Lemieux said in September. "You're going to see guys scoring 70-80 goals now, and that's what people want to see. We had only one guy (Jarome Iginla) score 50 goals last year and that's not right. There are a lot of good players in the league that were not allowed to play they want."

He probably means himself but his expectation that teams are going to suddenly drift out of his way while he cannons down the centre of the ice are probably misguided.

There will be no 70 or 80 goals for Mario this year and probably nobody else as a matter of fact. The Canucks led the league with 254 goals last season, which would have been dead last in 1985-86, the year Mario would like to re-create. But that's a pipe-dream.

"I don't think we'll see a return to a team scoring 400 goals," said Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe. "Players are much more aware defensively than they were a decade ago or two decades ago."

Travis Green of Toronto echoes that sentiment, arguing something I've stated in this space before - the average NHL player has never been bigger, faster, stronger or better schooled in the game. And that in itself argues against scoring starting a runaway curve upwards.

"I don't know if they can change the game too much,'' Green said. "I think the players are just getting better and bigger and stronger. The games are tighter because the game is full of good players. There's not anyone out there that's not a very good player any more. There's so much talent and everyone plays their system to a `T' and this (low-scoring games) is what happens."

But that isn't stopping coaches formerly known for their dull, defensive styles to start rubbing their hands in glee over the latest attempt at curbing obstruction.

"My standard of play when I first went into the NHL was to play a similar style as the Oilers of the 1980s," recalls Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock. "I lived and died with it in junior (with Kamloops). We scored 572 goals in junior which is, I believe, still the record for the Canadian Hockey League. We lived and died with it in the IHL and we got killed with it in Dallas. So we changed. It's not so much that there's going to be a radical change in the system. It's just that there's going to be a reward now for the working people away from the puck. They're not going to be stymied and left out in the cold. They're going to be rewarded. Some of the risk you take when you join the rush is that as you join it, you get hauled down. You get taken out of the play. Now, you can take those risks, knowing that if you do get taken down, (a penalty) will probably be called. We can now take some of those chances, hopefully with greater rewards."

Four lines of depth will be increasingly important, particularly with the crackdown married to the new hurry-up faceoff rules.

"I don't think you're going to be able to take that 45-second or 1-minute shift anymore," Colorado's Greg de Vries said. "I think after 30 seconds you're going to be looking for the bench. I think it's going to be a higher-paced game. Hopefully they stick with it, and hopefully players will adjust and there won't be as many penalties. It's certainly going to open things up and bring skating back into it."

Less rest will be coupled with the probability of a higher incidence of injuries to defencemen which again speaks to the need for depth.

"I'm all for eliminating the interference that's been taking over the game, but injuries are definitely going to be the drawback," Rangers GM Glen Sather says. "You're going to need 14 defensemen."

"Of course a big part of it was, `Let's give the gifted players more room," said NHL vice-president Colin Campbell of the pressure defencemen will be under this coming crackdown. "But we also want to give Tie Domi more room to forecheck. We want to make it easier for guys like Tie Domi and Chris Neil in Ottawa to get in there and make their hits. That's an exciting part of the game."

"It's definitely going to be a challenge; I think that defensemen are going to have to adjust the way they get into position to play the puck," Rangers coach Bryan Trottier said. "You're going to need more quickness, better anticipation, and you're probably going to have to make adjustments on the angle when you go in to play it."

Brian McCabe of Toronto found his first taste of the new rules in pre-season confusing.

"I thought that first (penalty taken in a pre-season game) was pretty clean," McCabe said. "I just punched their guy in the chest, but my stick was between his legs. The ref said (a penalty) as soon as you put your stick there, but how do you control a guy then? I don't know how much easier they want to make it for the (opponent.) You can't use your stick, so what can you do as a defenceman? But we'll see where it goes from here. It doesn't make it fun."

How does a defenceman control an oncoming rush? Well, as Muckler pointed out at the start, maybe that's the beginning of the atmosphere of mistakes he's wanting to see.

"It's a fun game to play, but there's still a little more thinking going on than I'd like," said Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley. "You prefer to react a little more, but it's hard because you're thinking, "I can do this, but I can't do that.' It will get better in time."

"I found myself almost double-thinking," agreed St. Louis defenceman Bryce Salvador. "Things you're used to doing by instinct, you can't do anymore. You're told to hold up, hold up, hold up, and now you're told not to. We can't use all the tricks that made it fair for the D-men."

"I even caught myself a couple of times," said Oilers defenceman Janni Niinimaa said. "I would hook a guy, pause for a moment and look at the ref, who was thinking, 'Hold on any longer, you're going to get a penalty.' "Hopefully by the start of the season, it will be second nature."

Can you see Muckler rubbing his hands in glee?

"We're not eliminating battles for the puck; we're not eliminating hitting," said referee Paul Stewart. "We're opening up the ice that is there, the rules that in the past the players have been allowed some slack. Players that are working harder will get the rewards. We want forechecking with gusto."

While defencemen will be under enormous pressure in their own zone, they'll also be expected to pinch into the offensive end of the ice as well, to prevent separation when the play reverses. Playing as a unit will never be more important.

''That's one thing [assistant coach] Jimmy Hughes was saying, when we move up the ice, it's very important the defensemen get up and follow up the play as closely as possible so when it does come back on us, we're not two zones apart and flatfooted,'' said Boston defenceman Sean O'Donnell. ''Overall, it's going to let the skilled players play. You do have to play the angles more and maybe play the body more, but at the same time not commit yourself because if you step up to the blue line and the guy tips it by you, you can't just eliminate your man because it's going to be interference. I like the changes. I think it's long overdue.''

Campbell, the NHL's disciplinarian and a prime driver behind the obstruction crackdown, sees a brutal future for many older defencemen in the league.

"Maybe the 32-year-old defenceman will have to retire like we did in the 1980s," said Campbell half-jokingly, perhaps referring to his own 636 game career as an NHL defencemen that ended at the same age. "The hardest thing for a defenceman to do is to turn and pivot and go back. It's easier just to stand still and try to stop a guy."

From the point of view of forwards, particularly those with speed and size in their arsenal, life will never get better.

"For the power guys, it'll help if they keep their feet moving and use their power to get to the net," says Vancouver coach Marc Crawford, speaking of the Todd Bertuzzi's and Jarome Iginla's of the world. "For the speedy guys, with their quickness, they can't be held off anymore. If they keep their feet moving and get held up, it's going to be noticed and they'll draw penalties, so they should be able to maneuver a bit more. For the good puck-moving teams, it was tough before because, let's face it, there was a lot of slowdown by holding people off and fending them off with your stick. So I think it's a case of zeroing in on how it can benefit your game. There's no doubt, the guys that'll be hurt will be the guys that don't zero in on how it can benefit them. I think it'll be interesting to see how it plays out and who it does benefit."

"The one thing we really notice is you get that extra half-second when there's no tugging and guys picking and holding up," said Buffalo's Chris Gratton. "For a guy like Miro (Satan) or Max (Afinogenov) or Timmy (Connolly) it's going to make a big difference. For bigger guys, being able to chip it in and skate freely into the corner, it's going to help out tremendously. The speed of the play will pick up."

From an offensive point of view, it will be all about what happens away from the puck, says Toronto's Quinn.

"Position is always the key," Quinn said. "What we have done is to stop the speed away from the play. I remember playing Chicago in the second round once (while Quinn was coach of Vancouver) and as soon as the puck was dropped, they'd drill your two wingers against the boards and pin them, and the league allowed it. It was an awful game."

But hockey technicians loved it. The Ottawa/Philadelphia first round playoff series last year was a classic example of what Quinn was talking about. Textbook defensive hockey on the part of Ottawa, a speedy team using its gift for evil instead of good, generating a near-perfect chess like effect all over the ice surface resulting in the Flyers only scoring three goals in a five game wipeout.

Nice for guys like me who actually appreciate that underrated and difficult-to-orchestrate kind of perfection but I'll agree most fans hated that series.

But that doesn't mean the "trap" is suddenly going to be eliminated, much to the chagrin of Mario Lemieux. The 7-0-1 pre-season of the Minnesota Wild should be ample evidence of that.

"There is no such thing as Oiler hockey against a team like that," said Edmonton's Jason Chimera after a 1-0 loss to Minnesota in the pre-season. "You're not going to generate much speed through the neutral zone. They've got five guys back sometimes."

The "trap," in fact, has been around since the dawn of time and anyone watching the Canada/Soviet 1972 series would have seen it being used occasionally then as well. Don Cherry admitted a little while ago the Bruins were trying to spring the trap when Guy Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire teamed up for his famous rocket past Gilles Gilbert in the 1979 playoffs.

"The new obstruction rule will do well for the game," says the greatest coach in hockey history, Scotty Bowman, now retired. "I remember my very first game when I coached St. Louis and we went to Toronto on Dec. 30, 1967. There was literally no obstruction in that game, but the Leafs lined up on their own blue line and it was tough to get through. It's been tough for a good player to play with all that hooking and grabbing. Now there will be zero tolerance."

As Scotty says, the "trap" can still work, but it's about body position instead of stickwork now, just like the old days.

"If I don't stop it (obstruction), I'll get 100 penalty minutes for the first time in my career and they'll all be minors," quipped Toronto's Tom Fitzgerald. "I've made a career out of hooking and holding, so I've got to start using my feet and body positioning as much as possible."

"Forwards won't be able to latch on and water ski anymore," agreed Salvador.

And the weakest teams, particularly the slowest teams, will fall by the wayside.

"The thing is, if players aren't allowed to go north/south on the ice, it's difficult for them to create scoring chances," analyzed Muckler. "If these rules are (enforced), this is going to become a skating game. This means it's going to be tough for the lesser teams that try to slow people down. They're going to find out that if you can't play the game, then you can't play the game."

"From a coaching perspective it's exciting because it doesn't allow the teams that are lazy away from the puck to benefit anymore," said Hitchcock. "They are going to be penalized a lot with this standard of play."

"Although there is going to be less contact in terms of obstruction in the neutral zone, I think this is going to increase the contact in terms of bodychecks in the ends of the rink," said Lowe. "I think fans are going to appreciate the skating and the hitting that will take place."

Will it work? A healthy dose of skepticism isn't out of line given the past history of similar crackdowns. There are already players looking to test the limits.

"I think guys will want to judge what you can get away with and what you can't," Toronto's Alyn McCauley said. "And that's how it often creeps back into the game. Guys think, `I got away with it last game and maybe I'll try it again.'"

The attempt at a crackdown this year, however, is fairly clinical in its approach, as though the lessons of past failures have been well learned.

As with the Instigator Rule, the two minute penalty to muzzle loudmouth complainers, as well as extra penalties that go with delaying the hurry-up faceoff, will prove to be the key difference between this attempt at eliminating obstruction and prior efforts. In other words, there's a chance this might actually work.

"The game has changed over the past decade, with so much emphasis on coaching and development of defensive schemes, that everybody from the league on down to the managers felt it was time to start calling the rules the way they are and allow for talented players to do what they do best," Lowe says.

"The league's very adamant about enforcing the rules and staying with them through thick and thin," said Gilbert." The flow of the game is very important. That's the beauty of the National Hockey League game. This is a big key to getting that flow back."

"I expected games to be over 10 minor penalties, and players already have adapted pretty good," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "We had the officials come in again before the game in Syracuse and just go over everything, and they're dead serious about making it work. I think the players understand it this time around."

Muckler will get his wish. There will me more mistakes made in the game. That should translate into more scoring but nothing near what Lemeiux is anticipating.

But remember that extra two minute minor for bellyaching.

It may prove to be the key to the whole thing.

THE MARK PARRISH "MONEY TO PAY ME MUST FALL OUT OF TREES" DUMB HOCKEY PLAYER OF THE WEEK AWARD goes to Toronto's Tie Domi, upset that fans at the ACC were actually booing Ed Belfour, goalie for a team which hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 35 years. "It brings the whole team down when we hear that kind of BS," said Domi after the Leafs blew a two-goal third period lead. "If people want to do it, stay home." Parrish, of course, offered up the same rant against Islander fans two years ago before apologizing the next day. Hey Tie, without people buying a ticket to boo you wouldn't be paid to beat people up.

"LAST YEAR, THE AVERAGE FACE-OFF TOOK 45 SECONDS. This year's changes wouldn't have bothered me because I was always ready. Now the coaches will have to think fast what their next move will be. It'll stop stalling. It was also interesting to note that Punch Imlach, who coached the Leafs, had defencemen Tim Horton and Allan Stanley taking faceoffs in their own end." - Scotty Bowman, always thinking, with his analysis of the new hurry-up faceoff. Hey Scotty, its spelled R-E-T-I-R-E-M-E-N-T.

"WE KNOW WHAT OUR PHILOSPHY IS AND HOW WE WANT TO BUILD OUR TEAM. We want a fast-skating team, a hard-working team, a physical team." - Calgary coach Greg Gilbert.

"SPEED AND SIZE. You look at a Stanley Cup final from 10 years ago and it looks like it's in slow-motion. But the goal-scorers in this league are not always the big guys, they're Guy Lafleur size. ... And today, guys are playing hockey in football equipment." Gerard Gauthier, starting his 32nd season as an NHL linesman, commenting on the changes he has seen in the game through his career. Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins won the the Stanley Cup in 1991-92. Feeling a little slow these days Mario?

"MOST OF US AREN'T LOOKING AT THE STOCK MARKET THESE DAYS. It's too painful. We're just like anybody else. The stuff we have in there, it's not doing well." Colorado's Rob Blake, an ordinary guy after all.

ANOTHER ZZ IS ON THE WAY with ex-Flame Zarley Zalapski's two year-old son. His name? Zen. Zalapski's comeback attempt with Vancouver failed when he was an early cut.

OTHER THOUGHTS ON THE HURRY-UP FACEOFF. "The battle to win the draw is the same, just everything around it is quicker and changing," says St. Louis centreman Mike Eastwood. "Everybody has to understand what you're trying to do. You're going to have to get stung for it to sink in, but if the other team is snoozing. that's a huge advantage." "Feet on the T's, stick on the white and the puck drops - it is a pure faceoff," said Steve Dubinsky of St. Louis. "It will be interesting to see guys that are able to get that little bit of cheating in and how they're going to have to change." "You cheat, you get kicked out," says Nashville coach Barry Trotz. "The integrity of the faceoff is quite fair now."

"YOU'VE GOT TO GIVE THE GOALIE AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A MISTAKE. Don't you make it. If you miss the net, guess what? You made it.'' - Boston coach Robbie Ftorek on the importance of getting the point shot on the net on the power play.

FUNNY THE NHLPA IS GOING BALLISTIC on the elimination of certain statistical categories like hits and giveaways, saying the league is trying to suppress salaries by taking away otherwise intangible comparables for defence minded players to use in arbitration. Yet the NHLPA says nothing about how the obstruction crackdown, which could lead to higher scoring, could well serve to inflate salaries in much the same manner when previously suppressed scoring statistics are suddenly raised.

Quotes for this article were drawn from various news sources.

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