Problems with the state of NHL hockey, and how they can be fixed

The league is regressing ... I examine ways to help it progress and improve.

When the lockout ended in 2005 we were "rewarded" with the "New NHL" which was supposed to refine the game, rid us of the clutch-and-grab game, and put an emphasis on skill. The following season resulted in the Carolina Hurricanes' first Stanley Cup, and Joe Thornton’s first Art Ross Trophy to go along with a plethora of new rules; most notably, the trapezoid rule, the elimination of the two line pass, and the shootout.

After this lockout, we were not promised a better game or lower ticket prices, so I guess we got what we asked for.

If we look at some Art Ross history, we can see the difference in point production from the '05/'06 season.

Art Ross Trophy

2006: Joe Thornton: 125 Points in 81 Games

2013: Martin St. Louis: 60 Points in 48 Games (Pro Rated at 82 Games: 102.5)

Joe Thornton never repeated his Art Ross Trophy, despite following up the '05/'06 season with a 114-point campaign.

On the flip side, Martin St. Louis won his second Art Ross Trophy this year. He’s the oldest player to ever win the Trophy at 37 years old, and also holds the record for the largest sabbatical between wins. His first win came in 2003/04 with 94 points, the season right before the lockout; better known as the dead puck era.

Does that mean we are right back where we started? No, the sample size is too small, but it is interesting that right after the lockout we had five players record over 102 points.

Joe Thornton: 125 Points

Jaromir Jagr: 123 Points

Alexander Ovechkin: 106 Points

Dany Heatley: 103 Points

Daniel Alfredsson: 103 Points

* Sidney Crosby (102) and Eric Staal (100) also had 100-point seasons.

This past season, only Martin St. Louis and Sidney Crosby (56 Points in 36 Games) were on-pace for 100+ point seasons.

There is a problem in hockey. This is just an example, and the trend will continue to get worse until we completely regress to an era where a 1-0 game is considered "high scoring".

There is a couple of things I want to talk about that I believe would improve the league.

1. Officiating

This is an ever-controversial topic. A lot of fans are afraid to complain about officiating because it makes them appear "biased" towards their teams. But, the fact is, officiating in the NHL is a real problem.

Do you know why players are so angry after getting called on what seems to be a pretty obvious penalty? Because, they’ve probably seen it go uncalled three or four times before the whistle-blower decided that enough was enough. You can’t blame the players for interfering and holding when you set the standard that it's okay to do so.

Case in point, Game 7 between Chicago and Detroit: the infamous Niklas Hjalmarsson non-goal. For me, the problem is not that the whistle went after the scrum by the benches, it's the number of scrums ignored with non-calls, sometimes in front of the net, or in the corners where players are allowed to take liberties with each other until they somehow cross an invisible line.

Right now the best penalty in the NHL is the puck-over-the-glass rule. I know, the rule sucks, and it sucks even more because it seems to usually happen while killing a penalty, but it’s the one thing the refs seem to call with consistency. The black and white rules seem to be the only ones they can get right.

Let’s talk about the goaltender interference penalties: when the season started, the refs were very protective of goaltenders. Tomas Plekanec was given a penalty for snowing Ben Scrivens on opening night, a penalty that we saw multiple times in the first quarter of the season, but one that did not continue to get called as the season progressed. I understand it not being called; how would you like to lose an overtime game because your forward stopped too sharply in front of a netminder? Pretty bad way to lose, but if it’s not a penalty then, why should it be a penalty at all?

In the playoffs, the clutch and grab becomes even worse, and we wonder why skilled guys like the Sedin twins have trouble producing in the post-season. Sure, we can take the Don Cherry route, and just call them "soft Europeans" or "a pair of girls" or whatever ridiculously offensive thing Monsieur Cérise would prefer to call them. The fact is, skilled players are the victims of holding and interference much more often in the playoffs than at any other time of year. It’s especially difficult for the Sedins, who play a cycle game. How can we set them up to succeed in the regular season, only to take away that part of the game in the playoffs?

(Just an aside, I think CBC should rename Don Cherry’s segment "The Extra Man"; it’s not only what he’s become on the set, it’s what he’s best known for. Think about it; they already have the opening footage ready.)

2. What’s a Distinct Kick?

The "soccer" goal by Mika Zibanejad against Montreal in Game 4 is a prime example of the consistency problem. Tyler Bozak had a goal called off early in the season for what I personally thought was less of a kick than Zibanejad’s goal. The problem is not that Zibanejad’s counted; it’s why did that one count when similar ones are disallowed?

Here is the wording for your own eyes, Rule 49.2 states:

Kicking the puck shall be permitted in all zones. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who uses a distinct kicking motion to propel the puck into the net. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who kicks a puck that deflects into the net off any player, goalkeeper or official. A puck that deflects into the net off an attacking player's skate who does not use a distinct kicking motion is a legitimate goal. A puck that is directed into the net by an attacking player's skate shall be a legitimate goal as long as no distinct kicking motion is evident.

The logic behind the no-kicking rule is to protect goaltenders from skate blades. If that is the reasoning behind it then I believe we should adapt the rule to be: a puck cannot be directed, deflected, or kicked in with a players skate. This would nullify the possibility of missed calls based on subjective reasoning. If the NHL believes pucks should be allowed to go in off skates, I would suggest adapting the rule so that the skate cannot be lifted off the ice on a scoring play, which would allow for redirections, deflections and subtle kicks.

3. Shootouts

The shootout is another situation where the NHL feels the need to change the regular season rules in the playoffs. The truth is, if the shootout is good enough to determine regular season games, it should be good enough to decide playoff games as well. The NHL obviously believes that is not the case. I tend to agree, but if that is the truth, why do we cheapen our regular season with it? If it’s not good enough for a playoff game, then let the regular season game end in a tie, or play until there is a winner.

The way the NHL is headed, the shootout will one day be used to determine playoff games, and to think, Pittsburgh picked up Jussi Jokinen for nothing.

4. The Diving Epidemic

Diving is a problem in the NHL. Star players and role players alike all share the passion for a good ol’ fashioned belly flop now and again. I won’t get into which players' dives are the most egregious, because there are too many to list; and while some argue about who the divers are, most recognize that there is a problem.

With the current state of the NHL, I can’t even blame the players for diving that much; it seems to be the only way to draw a penalty sometimes, and even when a player gets caught, it seems that more often than not the ref will call coincidental minors.

It’s also very difficult to fault the ref for missing forms of embellishment; the game happens so fast, I don’t blame them for missing it. But, needless to say, it needs to get out of the game.

If you want to find a way to get harder on the divers, I think they should be dealt with in a supplemental manner. After being reviewed at league office, a diver would be dealt a fine upon first offence, and a 1-game suspension upon second offence. Third offence, suspension doubles and continues to double with each infraction.

The problem with this is that it breaks my own rule, as the ruling will obviously be subjective. I have a feeling, though, that if players lose money or miss games due to diving, it won’t be long before it’s out of the game.

5. Video Review/Coaching Challenge

To me, this is an enigma. The NHL claims it doesn't want to lengthen games by adding a coach’s challenge, understandable, but hypocritical when we watch them continually delay the game for the most simplistic reason, the faceoff.

If we have the technology to call the game right, why not utilize it? I look back to Matt Duchene’s obviously offside goal earlier in the season: if we know it’s not a good goal, how can we allow it? Dismissing it as an "unreviewable play" is purely bureaucratic.

6. Delay of Game

The Trapezoid, shooting the puck over the glass from your own zone, and concealing the puck with your glove are all examples of delay-of-game penalties.

Don’t you think the trapezoid has worn out its welcome? It’s very rare to see a goalie play the puck in the restricted zone; only Pekke Rinne has been called for it more than once this season, and it certainly doesn’t help create offence. In fact it probably takes away from it; Martin Brodeur may have an extra career goal, and more than a few goalies would have misplayed a puck that led to goals. This isn’t the biggest deal, but it seems like a stupid rule to me, one which I’m surprised made it past the AHL testing period in 2004.

Shooting the puck over the glass is no more a delay-of-game than icing. It’s terrible to see teams be on the wrong side of a 5-on-3 power play because somebody got under a rolling puck. How about using the same rules as icing: a team can’t make a line change, and the TV crew cannot cut to a timeout if a player clears the puck over the boards. This could even include when the puck ends up in the player bench area.

Speaking of icing, the rule works pretty well, I find. There used to be no disadvantage to icing the puck if you were a strong face-off team, but now with a tired fourth line caught on the ice, opposing teams can make their foes pay for their icing. The problem I’ve noticed over this playoff year is certain teams making an illegal switch; of course the ref catches them, and heads to the scorekeepers to make sure the right players are on the ice. By the time everything is taken care of, the coach has bought his team an extra time out, and they’re rested and ready to take the draw. How is this not a delay of game penalty? It’s not an innocent mistake, there’s a reason you see the same coaches trying this move - it happens to be one of Claude Julien’s favorite tactics, but he’s far from the only one.

7. Growing the Game

The diehard fan is excited for the draft. The casual follower knows who Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are. The fair-weather fan knows who their team picked. Wouldn't it be nice if draft-eligible players were given the same coverage as other major sports? The "Frozen Four" is starting to pick up a little steam, but is obviously not followed with the same scrutiny as March Madness or College Football.

This year, the Memorial Cup final featured the likely top three picks. Wouldn't that be a fun game/tournament to sell to hockey fans? Why did the NHL schedule a playoff game (Sharks vs. Kings Game 6) on the same night, in the same time slot as the Memorial Cup? It's certainly not helping to sell the sport, and that's what the NHL should be focused on if they want new fans.

8. Hybrid Icing

I had the opportunity to see the hybrid in effect in the AHL, and I have to say I don't enjoy it in practice. I'm sure everyone will formulate their own opinion on it during the trial period in the 2013 Pre-Season. To me, it's yet another case of adding another subjective decision into the officials' hands (this time, the linesmen). I'm sure they can mostly handle it, but it just adds another confusion factor for the players. Injuries on icings tend to happen when one player is unsure if the play in question is icing, and this could potentially add to that confusion.

Personally, I feel that if you want to go the hybrid route, you might as well go to the no-touch icing. Not only will it decrease injuries, but it will add time to the clock; especially in the dying seconds of a game. The few seconds of the clock that tick as a player takes to reach the puck - especially if he's moving Erik Karlsson slow - might not seem like a long time, but ask the London Knights how important the final seconds of a game can be.

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