Rules camp may lead to change

They tried some pretty outrageous stuff at the NHL's rules development camp, but it might wind up helping the game.

Updated: June 10, 2005, 9:44 AM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO – It is strictly a coincidence, but just around the corner from the rink where the NHL is searching for a formula for what ails its offensively constipated game is a pharmaceutical outfit that cranks out aspirins by the million.

Take two thousand and call me next year.

For three days this week at a Canlan Ice Sports complex in Toronto, the NHL has been putting its game under a microscope, bending it over, making it say "ahhhhh," taking a blue line away here, a red line away there, shrinking goaltenders' equipment, expanding the nets, making them oval in shape.

Call it a nip and puck.

Officially, it was called the 2005 NHL Research and Development Camp, three days of outside-the-penalty box thinking using unsigned overage junior players and college kids who amounted to lab rats in a freezer. They played two games a day for three days, concluding Wednesday, which sounds like a San Jose Sharks road trip in February.

They tried the "Bowman" game, suggested by Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, which allowed passes to the far blue line once the puck had been moved past a blue line across the top of the circles in the defensive zone (and then everybody got to skate around with a Stanley Cup).

They tried the "Boston" game, on the suggestion of the Bruins, which effectively eliminated offside passes once players advanced the puck beyond the top of the circles in their own zone (and then forced the NHL to go to arbitration).

They tried zero tolerance on infractions on the puck carrier, they tried games with no red line, they tried games with no blue lines, games with zero tolerance on obstruction away from the puck.

They tried games where the goaltenders couldn't handle the puck behind the net and overtime that featured 4-on-4, then 3-on-3 and then a shoot-out.

In one really radical experiment, Mike Keenan was forced to use the same goaltender for the whole game (just kidding).

Watching the whole thing from above were NHL personnel, general managers and coaches.

The whole idea is to open the game up and create more offense. In case you lost track during the lockout, goal scoring has taken more of a beating in the last 20 years than Glen Sather's reputation.

"It's been a real eye-opener this week," said Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "All the ideas were good, with good intentions. We've said, 'It's OK to talk about it.'"

Call it the NHL's own 12-step program, the first being the admission it has a shrinking offense problem.

Now, don't get the idea that any of the particularly radical ideas are coming to a rink near you any time soon.

But, judging by the mood of the crowd here, a return of the tag-up offside rule, a reduction in the size of goaltenders' equipment and shoot-outs to decide tied games are pretty much a given when the NHL cuts the bolts on the locks.

Losing the red line is probably a 50-50 proposition, judging by ESPN.com's informal poll. All that other stuff amounts right now to pushing the NHL envelope, which has more dust on it than Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs' wallet.

But you could see no-touch icing, no line changes except on the fly, teams unable to ice the puck during penalties and – maybe – bigger nets (eight inches wider and four inches higher was the size here) down the road.

"The whole process was to look at some ideas that were sort of out there, some of them way out there, to see if maybe they could stimulate some more creative thinking to help our game reward the skilled, the speedy, the agile and the strong – and disadvantage the unskilled and the slow," said NHL vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy, who coached one of the teams.

"Some of the radical ideas border on goofy, in my opinion," said Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. "I don't see any of the radical ideas gaining steam."

Maybe not, but at least the NHL recognizes it's in hot water. Just the fact that the NHL is looking at revolutionary ideas is, well, revolutionary, given there is suspicion some of the league's governors and maybe one or two general managers still think the Zamboni is a hell of a new invention.

With rumors here that the lockout might actually end soon, the NHL is seizing the opportunity to repackage itself and come back with a more fan-friendly (read: more offensive) game.

"I don't think the general managers have ever been more receptive to new ideas," said E.J. McGuire, the head scout of NHL Central Scouting, who did a lot of the heavy lifting for the R&D sessions and was a coach of one of the teams opposite Murphy.

It's not hard to figure out why GMs would feel that way.

In the past, a general manager might have opposed any rule changes that challenged the skill set of his roster. The good of the self always overruled the good of the group.

Given that most GMs at this point don't have a roster, the point is moot. For example, the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals each has only four players under contract for next season. Seventeen of the NHL's 30 teams have fewer than 10 players under contract for next season, according to The Hockey News.

There has probably never been a better opportunity to remake the game and start fresh.

But where to start?

Opening up the ice for the skaters and reducing goalie equipment is a great start. The last three days have opened some eyes and some minds.

"One of the things you see are the ingredients in the game," said Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, one of the league's progressive thinkers.

"As these experiments have been tested, you say, 'I think we have too much of this, not enough skating, too many long passes.' Some might say the nets are too big. Then we can go back and zero in on what really matters. What's important?

"It has to be a great game to play starting at an early age, and if it's a great game to play, I would argue, it's going to draw the best athletes – and those best athletes will become NHL players. The other side of the equation is it has to be a great game to watch. It's largely our job to make that happen."

Regier likes the concept of bigger nets and taking the red line out, eliminating the two-line pass and stretching the game a bit.

Murphy would like to eliminate icing the puck during a penalty kill.

"Now the guy has to try and flip it out. Often it's fanned on, captured by the defense and the puck stays in the zone," he said when asked to think out loud. "That's just one little instance.

"There is a combination of little things out there that will make our game better."

So, where to go from here?

The sessions were videotaped and will now be dissected. More opinions will be solicited. The next moves will be carefully considered.

"We've got a bunch of strings where everything is related to everything else," said Regier. "In the past, we've intervened with an intended outcome only to get a different outcome and then had to intervene on the intervention.

"We have to get it right."

The R&D camp might not be a pill for all that ails the NHL on the ice, but it is definitely part of the cure.

Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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