By Stu Hackel
Watching a real live NHL game for the first time since June — Senators vs. Maple Leafs in their opening preseason tilt Monday night (insert joke here about equating “Sens-Leafs preseason” and “real NHL game”) — meant making some adjustments after a summer of baseball. You really can forget how fast the NHL is — faster than ever – and it’s stunning how quickly players react, how they manage to make plays and close gaps, and how the best ones figure out ways to create space for themselves and burst from traffic.
There were some very impressive players on Monday night. The Leafs have to be pleased by the performance of Tyler Bozak, who looked very confident on this play:
It was the first of his two goals. Center was not a strong position for Toronto last season — actually. it’s been that way ever since Mats Sundin departed — but if everyone gets and stays healthy, Bozak with Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Matthew Lombardi could make a solid four.
For the Sens, you had to be impressed with two newcomers, Nikita Filatov and rookie defenseman Jared Cowan, who also scored twice. Filatov’s speed and quick stick were often factors as he displayed the great skills that made him the sixth overall choice by the Blue Jackets in 2008. On Cowan’s first goal, a forechecking Filatov stole the puck in the corner and circled behind Toronto’s net. Cowen recognized the chance and barged forward from the blue line, his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame demanding room as Filatov whipped a pass out from below the goal line. Cowan fired it past Jonas Gustafsson and opened a lot of eyes in the process. Impressive work by both.
Toronto and Ottawa could both finish out of the top eight in the East, but last night at least, they showed some flashes that give their fans hope. And hope is what the preseason is about.
Shanny, Schneider Speak: The NHL sent players video of the two major rule changes for this season: on hits to the head and boarding, narrated by the league’s Brendan Shanahan and the NHLPA’s Mathieu Schneider. Seeing these two guys working together is a good sign in league-player relations, especially in the highly charged area of player safety.
Too often in the past, the league set rule changes with little to no imput by the PA, but that’s all history now. The already-existing friendship between these two guys, who were teammates in Detroit, coupled with their experience as players in efforts to move the game forward, provide some confidence that we’ll have swifter and more adequate resolution to on-ice problems than in the past.
Here is a summary of the changes, and below is the video the players received, broken into segments, which details and illustrates the rule changes. The first segment is an intro. Shanahan says he’ll give “a few important points on how he will approach the job of managing player discipline.” His most important point is that the league has set up a video room in New York to monitor all games solely for reviewing incidents that might require supplemental discipline. Previously, the Toronto video room, which is also involved in things like review, did both jobs. So there’s now a division of those functions and presumably the increased attention will help both processes. Schneider also makes two important points here: that the rule changes are things the players had a voice in formulating and that Shanahan is going to invoke a stricter standard on penalizing illegal checks to the head. The goal is to get head shots out of the game, reducing plays that lead to concussions.
This segment goes through the language of the new Rule 48 on hits to the head (which has yet to be posted in the online NHL Rulebook). The blindside and lateral elements of last year’s rule are gone and Shanahan explains the exceptions: when the head is not the principle point of contact (intentionally or by recklessness) and when a player puts himself in a vulnerable position right before or simultaneous with contact. It’s important to keep in mind that Rule 48 now calls for a minor penalty. It’s no longer a five-minute major and a game misconduct, as it was last year. There will be lots of discussion whether that on-ice penalty will deter players. On the other hand, the referees might be more willing to call it if it is only a minor. It’s not said here, but we’re assuming that a player can also receive a match penalty if the refs consider a headshot to be a deliberate intent to injure.
Here are the illustrations of Rule 48 and the examples given all involve plays that were considered legal hits last season.
Where problems could arise are in the exceptions to Rule 48, shown in this segment. The examples presented are highly useful, but these exceptions reveal the NHL’s intent to maintain body contact as long as the head is not targeted. The key is for the checker to make full body contact. But here is also where problems can arise. What if a player puts himself in a vulnerable position, but full body contact is not made and the head is the principle point of contact? A good example of that is this Mattias Ohlund hit on Phil Kessel from two years ago (video). Plays like this are going to depend on the refs’ judgement as to the timing of the player making himself vulnerable.
Here’s the language on the new boarding Rule 41.1 and, admittedly, this relies heavily on the judgement of the officials. The language clearly puts the onus on the checker to avoid a dangerous hit on a vulnerable player unless that player makes himself vulnerable while or after the checker is committing himself to the check, as it has been in the past. What is new is the addition of pushing a player to commit the foul and new language which classifies the player hit as “defenseless” (as opposed to “vulnerable”) the mandating the checker can now minimize contact instead of entirely avoiding it. And it provides more specific language to help the referees determine what constitutes the player putting himself in a defenseless position that would excuse the penalty, that being “immediately prior to or simultaneous with contact.”
Here are examples of the penalty.
Here are illustrations of the exceptions.
We’ll be seeing these rules in action all season and we’ll certainly have a learning curve from all parties — players, coaches, GM’s, referees, linesmen, Hockey Operations, media and fans. There’s little doubt there will be rough moments. But as it was last season with the first version of Rule 48, everyone began to figure it out and both the strengths and shortcomings became obvious. The same will likely happen this season.
Take Off: The first game involving an NHL team from Winnipeg goes tonight at the MTS Centre when the Jets host Columbus and everyone is expecting a thrilling atmosphere, even though the game won’t count in the standings. “It’s exciting. It’s the first time the NHL is coming back here and to play in front of a sold-out barn is going to be something else,” the Jets’ Kevin Clark told The Winnipeg Sun. Clark played last season with the AHL Manitoba Moose. “It’ll be surreal, but you don’t think about how historical it is right now. You just want to do what everyone is trying to do here, which is making an impression.”
The Jets announced they’ll have many of their vets in the lineup, including captain Andrew Ladd, defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian, forward Nik Antropov. For Big Buff, playing in front of the new home fans will provide a sharp contrast from the news he got earlier today that he had been charged with operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, refusing to be subjected to a blood or urine test, and boating without proper lights and without enough flotation gear for the people on board.
It will also be a strange day for half the Jets, who will be playing the other half of the Blue Jackets in Columbus as the teams have split their squads for tonight. They’ll be missing out on the festivities.
But it might be most strange for guys like Tim Campbell, who covered the original Jets for The Winnipeg Free Press, then the local team when it was a minor pro squad. He’s now in the NHL again, with the group that has gone to Ohio and he wrote today about the changes in the NHL scene from 15 years ago. The salary cap. The media universe (all Jets games will be televised; only 15 were in ’96). New cities. New rules for airline travel. Shootouts. Two referees. The concussion epidemic. The rules on head shots. A minor penalty for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone. And, in Winnipeg, no more portrait of the Queen hanging in one end of the arena.
Tim Campbell has got to be hockey’s version of Rip Van Winkle.