Commentary

Fighting is lead topic at GMs meetings

Updated: March 8, 2009, 8:44 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- For the first time in recent history, the NHL's general managers will begin a detailed study of fighting and its place in the game, a study that seems destined to change the role and function of punch-ups in the game, if not today, then down the road.

At least that's the theory when the game's 30 general managers, along with the NHL's brass, convene for their annual midwinter confab this week in sunny Florida.

A number of ugly and tragic incidents, mostly outside the NHL, have prompted the league to assess how, why and what happens when players drop the gloves. By the time the three days of meetings end Wednesday afternoon, look for GMs at least to push for players to be forced to wear helmets during fights or face severe sanctions.

[+] EnlargeFighting
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSome believe many of the serious injuries from fights result from players' heads hitting the ice during a scrum.

The belief is that many of the serious injuries result from players' heads hitting the ice during a fight, like minor league player Don Sanderson. The Whitby Dunlops defenseman went into a coma after his helmet was knocked off and his unprotected head hit the ice as he fell during a Dec. 14 fight. He died Jan. 2.

Sources tell ESPN.com the GMs will examine the history of fighting, the types of fights -- including the loathsome appointment fight, in which two players agree to fight just because, well, that's what they do -- and how the league has tried to address fighting over the years, including the introduction of the instigator rule.

Don't expect this to be an easy one to get through, though. Fans love fights, and most, if not all, GMs believe there is a place for fighting in the game.

Other important issues that may come up over the course of the meetings:

• Detroit GM Ken Holland has proposed an adjustment to the tiebreaker system. Holland would like to see the first tiebreaker go from games won to regulation games won. The logic is simple: Reward the teams that win games outright during the regular season, as opposed to winning in overtime or a shootout, when the opposing team also gains a point.

Some GMs favor a move to a three-point system wherein a regulation win is worth three points and an overtime or shootout win worth two points, with the team losing in extra time still gaining a single point. That will never fly, given its chilly reception in the past, but Holland's suggestion has significant merit and is a nod to rewarding teams that get the job done in regulation. In terms of impact, such a rule change should induce coaches to go for regulation victories as opposed to sitting back late in a tie game hoping to secure at least a point. Holland also suggested making the second tiebreaker the most wins in regulation and overtime.

As of Sunday morning, three points separated fifth from 10th place in the Eastern Conference, and five points separated sixth from 11th in the West. So this proposal, if introduced for next season, could have significant impact on which teams qualify for the playoffs and which teams end up with home-ice advantage or a more advantageous playoff matchup.

• We love St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau's suggestion that on a delayed penalty, play should continue until the team about to be penalized clears its zone. Currently, play continues until the team about to be penalized gains control of the puck. The logic behind Pleau's suggestion is it would create even more offense and dovetail nicely with this season's new rule that sees all faceoffs after a penalty moved to the offensive zone.

• One contentious issue that will get another hearing is the "punishment" of players who are selected to the All-Star Game but do not attend. Everyone remembers how the NHL prevented Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk from playing in Detroit's first game following the January All-Star break because the two star players played right up until the break but did not attend the Montreal festivities.

The Wings lost that game to Columbus. Surprisingly, some of the concerns about the policy weren't voiced by Detroit, but rather teams that are chasing Columbus for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. They think the punishment affects competitive balance. To us, this makes more sense than teams' keeping players out of the lineup for days on end leading up to the trade deadline, as the Islanders and Coyotes did. Don't expect the NHL to budge on a policy that was introduced at last year's GMs meetings.

To maintain the integrity of the All-Star Game (boy, is it hard to write 'integrity" and "All-Star Game" in the same sentence), if you are asked or voted into one of the lineups, then you have to have missed at least the last game before the break or will miss the first game back. If a player is nursing an injury but attends the events, as Sidney Crosby did this year, no punitive action will be taken. Seems fair enough.

• Toronto GM Brian Burke will once again push for a change to the collective-bargaining agreement that would allow GMs to retain part of a player's salary when making a trade. Given the lack of meaningful trades, not just at the trade deadline but also throughout the season, Burke may be getting more support even though league officials hate the idea. The NHL believes that if a team could eat, say, $1 million of a player's salary in order to move him, it loosens the salary cap. Further, some believe having this ability favors big-market teams, which can afford to pay that money.

One GM told ESPN.com recently that his owners would never let him make that kind of deal, eating salary of a player they were dealing. The other side of the coin, however, is teams might be able to acquire a player they might not otherwise have the financial wherewithal to acquire. For instance, let's say Glen Sather wants to move Scott Gomez and his seven-year deal. Let's say Phoenix is interested but can't afford him. If the Rangers were able to absorb $1 million annually, money that counted against their salary cap so that it's still part of the overall hockey revenues pie, maybe the Coyotes do the deal and everyone is happy.

• Other topics expected to get a hearing include further discussion of blows to the head; plans for specific measuring of goaltenders' equipment; whether there is a way to curb the cost of equipment, like sticks and skates; an update on ice conditions around the NHL; and whether the ice should be scraped (not flooded) at the end of regulation as opposed to scraping just a strip of ice down the middle of the surface before a shootout. NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly and director of player affairs Glenn Healy will also be in attendance.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com. Fellow ESPN.com NHL writer Pierre LeBrun contributed to this report.