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Red line rule won’t make NHL safer

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The NHL game is faster because the players are in better shape and there’s less obstruction to slow them. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

The NHL’s general managers will gather for their annual March meeting next week and hints have been dropped by some to members of the media that they’d like to revisit the rule that makes possible one of hockey’s most exciting plays — the two-line stretch pass that leads to a breakaway.

Ostensibly, this would be the GMs’ way of helping address the game’s concussion problem, the idea being that the NHL has gotten too fast in part because the two-line pass increases players’ speed and thus the force of collisions and the possibility of concussions. But various league sources say the GMs as a group won’t allow this rule — if it makes it onto the agenda — to be overturned. While there is certainly ongoing concern about concussions, the notion that the game is going to be somehow slowed to prevent them is not the direction the majority of managers want to take. Some of the less progressive GMs are still trying to turn back the clock, but they are in the minority.

It’s funny how when calls arise to end fighting or other overtly violent types of play, the defenders of those acts say banning them would reduce the game’s appeal and damage the product, but you don’t hear those objections when someone proposes something like reducing the game’s speed by reintroducing the two-line offside pass. Wouldn’t that reduce the game’s appeal and damage the product?

Put the two-line offside back in and goals like this would be called back.

So would this:

And this:

There’s already been a decrease in scoring around the NHL. Right now, we’re seeing slightly more than five goals scored per game, down a full one from the 2005-06 season. Today’s scoring may be on a par with the pre-lockout dead puck era, but at least the product is far more exciting and the play is more wide open, which is all anyone wants. Put the offside pass back in and you won’t have the scoring, plus you won’t have the same entertaining quality of play.

And you wouldn’t see dramatic saves like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or many more.

Let’s put this in context: There have been GMs who opposed the post-lockout rules from the day they were announced and, six years later, some still don’t like them. Those managers didn’t object at all to the boring neutral zone trap defensive game that had descended on the NHL in the decade prior to 2004. They liked it because the game was more in control. Their coaches could contain the skill guys on opposing teams and give themselves a better chance to win (or get a point for a regulation tie). After all, skill guys score goals and make plays and are more expensive for a GM to sign than checking forwards. And there are a lot more checking forwards to be found than skill players. If you’re a GM who can keep your payroll down and still win, you make your owner happy and, even if the fans are not jumping out of their seats, it could save your job.

But when the game opened up in 2005, all that changed. It hasn’t stopped some GMs from militating for a rollback on the new rules, even six years later.

The dangerous part of this, however, is that the most recent rollback effort piggybacks on the very legitimate concern about concussions. Yes, the game has sped up, and yes, taking out the offside pass has been a contributing factor in the increased speed. But that’s hardly the only reason the NHL has a faster product today. The players themselves are faster, and better conditioned than ever. They take shorter shifts than they did even 10 years ago, so every second they are on the ice is one they can play at full speed. And a part of the game’s speed has also come from the whole package of rules that eliminated obstruction tactics all over the ice.

Restoring the offside pass (or “putting the red line back in,” as it is termed in hockeyspeak) would do very-little-to-nothing when it comes to slowing the game inside the offensive zones. Last week, we discussed Eric Nystrom’s hit that concussed Kris Letang and the speed involved in that play. Here it is again:

You could have the two-line offside pass in the game and this hit, that happened so quickly, would still take place. Speed is everywhere in the NHL, not just coming through the neutral zone. Unless the NHL is prepared to roll the game back to Dead Puck Era standards of play, that speed is here to stay and we’re going to have to look at other ways to prevent concussions.

Almost every time the general managers have gotten together for their in-season meetings during the last couple of years, some recent incident has taken the spotlight, created big headlines and gotten all the attention. Nothing’s happened yet, but we’ve still got a few days of hockey left.

This past fall, the GMs met right after Milan Lucic plowed into Ryan Miller, and that got the managers to emphasize that goaltenders need to be better protected by the officials and the league.

Last season’s March GMs meeting came in the wake of Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty — one year ago Thursday — an incident that helped strengthen Rule 48 plus spark the movement to create a safer rink environment for players (and it’s heartening to see how well Pacioretty has rebounded this season from his fractured vertebrae and concussion and resumed his ascension as a top scoring forward for Montreal).

Two seasons ago, the GMs coincidentally met twice shortly after each of two disreputable blindside head checks — the October 2009 one by Mike Richards on David Booth, and the March 2010 hit by Matt Cooke on Marc Savard – that were legal at the time. They resulted in the GMs’ proposal for Rule 48; historic in that, for the first time, they would put the onus on a checker to avoid certain sorts of contact with the puck-carrier’s head.

And it’s quite something to see how the Penguins’ Cooke has modified his style of play, yet he remains very effective after his Rule 48 violations of last season. If we want to see the game get safer, Exhibit A should be Matt Cooke. He’s really become the perfect example of how NHLers can alter the way they behave on the ice and change the game for the better.

But it took some suspensions and some stern words from his own team for Cooke to finally figure it out. And that’s a big part of the problem: The league and the teams have to have the will to enforce the rules and enact sufficient supplementary discipline. While accidental collisions and injuries will always be part of the game, the league does itself no favors when willful hits to the head remain meekly punished.

We don’t need a return of the Dead Puck Era to make the game safer. We should never consider going back to that.

That’s the late great Jimmy Sabater on vocals and he co-wrote the song with Joe Cuba. A few years later, a tamer version got a lot of airplay over FM rock radio on this Santana-like version by the Blues Magoos.

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  • Published On Mar 08, 2012
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