There has been quite a bit of chatter about rule changes for the upcoming 2017-2018 NHL season, especially with the first batch of pre-season games in the rearview mirror. More specifically, chatter about a new rule involving faceoffs, and stricter enforcement of slashing penalties that will leave many seasoned hockey fans perplexed at the number of whistles being blown this season. Let’s take a second to break down what has changed, what we can expect that to mean for the Blues, and what is going on in the minds of Stephen Walkom (VP and Director of Officiating for the NHL) and his boss, Colin Campbell (Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL).
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First and foremost, don’t be surprised if you start seeing penalties called during and before puck drop. A new face-off rule gives refs the power to enforce a 2-minute minor penalty for improperly setting up in the faceoff circle. There are two things that can trigger the penalty. First, if a player does not have their skates behind the red line on their side of the dot. If they are lining up too close to the faceoff dot they will be given a warning and asked to correct. Failing to correct will result in a penalty. Second, if the faceoff takes place outside of center ice, the defensive zone player must put his stick on the ice first. An offensive player jumping the gun, or a defensive player not willing to do so, will be given a warning and asked to correct. Failing to correct will result in a penalty.
Stephen Walkom was on NHL Network Radio discussing the potential for other changes in the faceoff circle. It is already the case that in both the NHL and in international competition a player cannot use a hand to win a faceoff. The IIHF, the governing body for international play, does not allow players to use their skates to win a faceoff, either. This rule change may be coming in the future for NHL play. However, for the NHL to change that rule (and it has been mentioned at GM and owner meetings in the past), the GMs would have to vote it into place. I do not predict such a thing occurring anytime soon, especially as teams cope with the new enforcement mechanisms in place for this season.
Let me be very clear here: this new rule for faceoffs is intended to create more scoring. The idea stems from Ron Francis, GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, and was proposed back in 2015. The concern over the past few years, at the league administrative level, has been too few goals being scored. They have debated making the nets bigger, shrinking the size of goalie equipment (an idea that may come to fruition relatively soon), and now changing the rules in a way that could lead to more man advantages. There is a reason for this rule, and it seems it will serve its purpose well. It appears to be doing just that in pre-season matchups thus far.
Many teams and players (particularly those teams and players known in the NHL to ‘cheat’ a little in the faceoff circle, for lack of a better word) are getting fired up about this. Brad Marchand, two days ago, called the new rule “an absolute joke.”
What does this mean for the Blues? Well, probably not much. The Blues do not have centermen known to be cheats on the faceoff dot. In fact, as we continue to draft and develop rather large-bodied centermen (Thompson is a towering 6’5”, Adam Musil is 6’3”, and Thomas, Barbashev, and Kyrou are all 6’0”, while we have a number of tall centermen in the locker room already) it could be the case that refs forcing smaller players back to their red lines and refusing to let them encroach the white area between the dot and line might give the Blues players a slight advantage. Another big upside is that these kids are all coming into the league now, with this new rule in place, forcing them to adapt on the fly and grow their game with these rules in mind.
The other thing to watch out for is the increased enforcement of slashing penalties. Slashes with a players’ stick that result in stick-to-stick contact will now more frequently be called a penalty, especially if contact is made further up the stick close to the mitts. Down by the blade and the lower part of the stick shaft is still fine, but the NHL is attempting to reduce injuries and discourage players from making less-than-calculated decisions with their sticks. This change to the NHL season, in my opinion, is less about generating more man-advantages and more an honest attempt to improve player safety. Of course, that is only my opinion, you are welcome to disagree.
The end result this season will be several more penalties than normal. The Blues were the 10th-least penalized teams per games played in the NHL last season at 8:57. That statistic is more appropriate as it accounts for the various changes made to the lineup. The overall number of penalties however puts us in a slightly worse situation, as we were the 14th-least penalized team with 320 penalties called all season (Calgary was last with 378, Carolina was first with 225). As a Blues fan, there is no real reason to be concerned about these changes. The addition of Brayden Schenn (one of the top-producing forwards on the powerplay) may even make Doug Armstrong look like a genius by the end of the season. Fingers-crossed on that one though.
When all is said and done, these do not represent huge changes to the game, in the sense that the additions of an offside/forward pass (1929) or icing (1937) rule significantly changed team strategy and planning. Players who excel at faceoffs by ‘cheating a little’ may need to rethink their approach, and those teams getting away with lack enforcement of faceoff procedures will have to reign in their players. Sidney Crosby, I’m looking at you bud.