Commentary

Talk is good, but too many changes could alienate fans

Updated: November 30, 2007, 6:35 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- When does introspection become self-obsession? When does self-medication become hypochondria?

These are questions worth pondering as the NHL's board of governors ended their two-day gathering here on the left coast, discussing, once again, the state of the game.

Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the game's gate-keepers having regular, healthy debate over how to make things better. All good corporations do just that, and those that don't run the risk of becoming irrelevant or falling into disrepair.

Topics of Discussion

The NHL's board of governors finished their two-day meeting in Pebble Beach without making any changes to existing rules. These were among the topics that were discussed Friday:

• Standards of officiating: Although some coaches and GMs have grumbled that the standards have eroded since the end of the lockout, video of games from before and after the implementation of the new standards were juxtaposed and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the differences are still "night and day."

• Bigger nets: There was some discussion of bigger nets, but Bettman said it remains off the radar in terms of potential implementation.

"I think there is a natural reluctance to go in that direction, but with recognition that if you felt that there was a sufficient problem and that was the only way to address it, it would be your last resort. I don't think anybody's careening out of control in that direction," Bettman said.

• Salary cap: There was further discussion of the salary cap which will rise again next season. Board of governors chairman Jeremy Jacobs said the players will be paid more than they've ever been paid (although Bettman said that's not necessarily the case).

"It is what it is," Jacobs said. "It isn't like we're spending too much based on something out of control. It's staying within a very controlled environment and they're being enriched and rewarded for the success of the league. Hopefully, we'll be giving them more money than that in the future. Hopefully the business will continue to grow."

• No discussion of expansion: There was speculation before the meetings that expansion may have come up during the talks, but Bettman said the issue did not surface. Las Vegas, Kansas City, Houston, Winnipeg and Hamilton, Ontario, are still rumored to be potential NHL destinations.

-- Scott Burnside

But no other sport spends as much time chasing its tail trying to "fix" itself.

What is the casual fan, the fan the game is desperate to lure into the fold, to make of the constant self-recrimination and debate over what's wrong with the game and what's to be done about it?

Too little scoring, the trap, bigger nets, illegal defenses, goalie equipment, bigger ice and a host of other issues and potential solutions constantly muddy the waters surrounding the game.

Who could blame them for saying, "If the game needs that much work, then why should I waste my time?" Or, simply, "Get back to us when you're done."

Many in attendance here seem to share the sentiment that the NHL needs to be careful about the messages it sends to the very people to whom they're trying to appeal.

"The more you talk about it sometimes, the more it makes it seem you've got things that you've got to do. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," suggested Toronto GM John Ferguson. "There is so much that's already great about the game. Let's let it evolve. Let's let the players' talent show. There was really a focus on showcasing our stars and providing access and a real commitment to doing that."

Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi was happy to hear his colleagues talk about being more cautious about making changes.

"I think the most important thing they said in there, which I think is accurate, is that maybe we've got to spend a little more time on research when we make changes, which I've always kind of advocated," Lombardi said.

"It's sort of like we did [with] the crease rule and Brett Hull's toe ends up in it. These are things I think we probably could do a better job in projecting the potential liabilities," Lombardi said, referring to Hull's controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1999 that, according to league rules, should have been disallowed. "Basically it's the way we do things versus what we're doing."

Buffalo president Larry Quinn made a formal proposal to the board of governors, asking that the league set up a research and development program to hammer out what changes would make the most sense to the game.

"We just talked about what the essence of the game was and whether we should do [research] so we can determine what the effect of proposed rule changes would be," Quinn said. "If somebody wants to go to a bigger net or a smaller catching glove or anything, we have the desired outcome at the end by researching it before we do it. And I don't know how it was received. It'll be interesting to see what people thought.''

No one is suggesting the game is perfect. Or even close to it. And the pursuit of perfection is an admirable goal if it doesn't obscure what is already good and unique about the NHL.

Spend some time around the NFL or Major League Baseball or the NBA, and there is little of the kind of ruminating that dominates much of the discussion of the NHL. There are changes periodically, and, sometimes, like the three-point line in basketball or lowering the pitcher's mound in baseball, they are significant changes. But the alterations do not become central to the game's identity.

Alexander Ovechkin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSome NHL GMs believe it's the scoring chances, not the goals themselves, that make the game exciting.

In some ways, that has become the reality for the NHL because of significant changes made to the game coming out of the lockout, including the removal of the center red line, the introduction of the shootout and the first real and true crackdown on obstruction fouls.

Now, in its third post-lockout season, the ramifications of those changes are still being felt and are evolving. Sometimes the effects of the changes aren't what was expected or desired. The elimination of the red line, for instance, hasn't opened up the game as expected. Still, it has been a factor in how some coaches, especially those on slower, less skilled teams, have found ways to clog the neutral zone by playing passive 1-3-1 or 1-4 styles that disrupts the flow that's key to the game's appeal.

"What we said is, goal scoring is going down, we don't think the zone trap is what our fans want to see, and we've got to find a way to get it out of the game without damaging the game. And that requires a lot of research and development in my opinion. So it was a good discussion," Quinn said.

Fair enough. No one wants to see a trap. But the reasons goal scoring is down are multi-layered -- a precipitous decline in the number of power-play opportunities and power-play goals is another factor which suggests players are actually learning not to hook and hold.

San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson said many of the game's poor skaters have been weeded out because the pace is so much greater since the end of the lockout.

"We've taken just about every bad skater there was in the league and he's not playing," Wilson said. "That's especially true on the back end. That's a good thing; but on the other hand; it's a bad thing for offensive hockey. I wish we had all the bad skaters playing defense so you could skate around them. Now, everybody's eliminated their bad-skating defensemen and now they've all learned how to defend, generally speaking."

The debate on scoring also assumes that having more goals should be the game's Holy Grail. It shouldn't.

"Does [the decline in scoring] make it a bad game necessarily? A lot of people ask that question," offered Jim Devellano, senior vice president of the Detroit Red Wings and a member of the organization for 26 years. "I grew up in an era in the '50s and the Original Six when I used to see games that were 2-1, 3-2, we had ties, 1-1. And I thought the games were terrific, so I don't know that we need to put as much emphasis on scoring a lot of goals to make the game interesting.

"The biggest concern I have is that you can't every year change the style of play ... because what happens is, you're always saying there's something wrong with your game or your product and I don't that that's healthy."

Anaheim GM Brian Burke agrees.

"People wring their hands about that but I don't think goals sell our game. It's scoring chances," he said. "I've said that for years and I've built my teams on that in terms of entertainment value. If you go to a game, there's a series of events that entertain you -- scoring chances, a fight, a big hit. Our goal is to provide as many of those per period. We don't need more goals.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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