As the NHL returns to the ice, it will do so under vastly different rules.
The biggest shakeup for hockey purists will be the institution of a shootout, to ensure that every regular-season game will have a winner.
How the rules work will be monitored by a competition committee made up of four players, four general managers and one owner. Colorado defenseman Rob Blake, Calgary's Jarome Iginla, union president Trevor Linden and Detroit's Brendan Shanahan will represent the players.
"While all of the constituent groups will never reach complete agreement on what the changes should be, we felt it was our obligation to recommend a slate of changes that will succeed in doing one thing: entertaining our fans," said Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations.
Following is a summary of the major changes to be implemented for the 2005-06 season and Scott Burnside's take on why they'll work, or not:
- The neutral-zone edges of the blue lines will be positioned 64 feet from the attacking goal line and 75 feet from the end boards in the attacking zone. The addition of four feet in each of the offensive zones is intended to encourage more offensive play, particularly on power plays.
- The goal lines will be positioned 11 feet from the end boards, two feet closer to the end boards than before.
- The size of the neutral zone will be reduced to 50 feet, from 54.
- The blue lines and center line will remain 12 inches wide.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: This should provide much-needed room to create offense, especially on the power play. It should also cut down on the mindless cycling of pucks in the corners and behind the net.
Stoppages and flow
- Passes from behind the defensive blue line to the attacking blue line will be considered legal. The center red line will be ignored for purposes of the two-line pass.
- The "tag-up rule" will permit play to continue if offensive players who preceded the puck into the zone return to the blue line and "tag" it.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: Actually the center red line will physically appear on NHL rinks but passes from inside the defensive zone to the opposing blue line, traditionally whistled down as a two-line pass, will be allowed. This change came only after terrific debate as critics like Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella and Ottawa GM John Muckler say teams will merely retreat to their own blue line to set up a defensive trap. But proponents say the threat of the long pass will stretch defenses out and create more odd-man rushes. If the league cracks down on obstruction the way it says it will this rule will be a keeper. "People say you're going to kill the game," said director of hockey operations Colin Campbell. "But what are we going to do, kill the 2-1 game." As for the return of the tag-up offside, it should help improve flow by reducing the number of stoppages in play. But as for any direct offensive result it will be limited.
Icing the puck
- Icing the puck will result in a faceoff in the defensive zone of the offending team.
- A team that ices the puck cannot make a line change prior to the ensuing faceoff.
- "Touch icing" will remain, although the linesman will have discretion to wave off apparent infractions if deemed the result of an attempted pass. Providing the discretion to the linesman is meant to reduce the number of situations in which a race for the puck might result in an injury to a player.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: It's a small thing but should help improve flow. This goes hand in hand with a rule that will see teams given a minor penalty if any player shoots the puck out of play from the defensive zone. Previously that rule applied only to the goaltender. This should lead to both more power-play opportunities and more turnovers in the defensive zone, as teams will be cautious about simply slamming the puck high off the protective glass.
Limits on goaltenders
- The dimensions of goaltender equipment will be reduced by more than 10 percent. In addition to a one-inch reduction (to 11 inches) in the width of leg pads, the blocking glove, upper-body protector, pants and jersey will also be reduced.
- Goaltenders may play the puck behind the goal line only in a trapezoid-shaped area defined by lines that begin six feet from either goal post and extend diagonally to points 28 feet apart at the endboards.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: Although the pads received most of the media attention, things like form-fitting sweaters and dramatically reduced pant size will be the real factors in giving shooters more net at which to shoot. A violation of the new standards will result in a two-game suspension for the netminder, a $25,000 fine for the team and a $1,000 fine for the equipment manager. Goaltenders will also be forbidden from playing the puck in a trapezoid-shaped area directly behind the net. A similar rule had little effect in the AHL and is likely to have only a modest effect on creating more offense through a more effective forecheck.
- A player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game will receive a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. The length of suspension doubles for each additional incident.
- The player's coach will be fined $10,000 in that situation, as well. And that fine doubles for each such incident.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: It doesn't quite take fighting out of the game, but this should push the hockey goon even closer to extinction. It should also help reduce the number of fights that end up on highlights and reinforce the game's negative image in much of America.
Officiating points of emphasis
- Zero tolerance on interference, hooking and holding/obstruction.
- Goaltenders who play the puck behind the goal line, but outside the designated puck-handling area, will be penalized for delay of game.
- Goaltenders will be penalized for delaying the game if they "freeze" the puck unnecessarily.
- Any player who shoots the puck directly over the glass in his defending zone will be penalized for delay of game.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: The zero tolerance on interference, hooking and holding/obstruction is the granddaddy of all changes and it's really a regurgitation of previous attempts to give the league's skilled players an opportunity to showcase their talents. The league has tried for years to erase the holding and hooking that passes for legitimate defense in both the neutral and defensive zones. Now officials are counting on a unified acceptance of stringent calling of the rules to finally clean up the game. If the league is successful, a wide-open, exciting game should be realized. If it isn't, then all the shootouts and new dimensions will mean little to the overall product. To help with this mindset players, coaches, managers and officials will meet next week at a Toronto rink to go over exactly what will be called and how. "Realistically there will be a time period, obviously an adjustment period for the obstruction," Shanahan said. "I think coaches who know how to exploit defenses and take advantage of these opportunities will get hired more. So I think all of the benefits of these rules won't happen on Day 1. They have to develop."
- In a tie game, following a scoreless five-minute overtime, three players from each team participate in a shootout in the order the coach selects.
- Each team takes three shots. The team with the most goals after those six shots is the winner.
- If the score remains tied, the shootout will proceed to a sudden-death format.
- Regardless of the number of goals scored during the shootout portion of OT, the final score recorded for the game will give the winning team one more goal than its opponent, based on the score at the end of overtime.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: This one is a no-brainer. One interesting wrinkle is that NHL officials believe it will be possible for ice resurfacers to give a dry scrape between the end of overtime and the start of the shootout. This isn't done in the AHL and the chewed-up ice prevented many shooters from deking goaltenders.
- In addition to the minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct/diving that may be assessed by the referee during a game, the league's hockey operations office will review game videos and assess fines to players who dive or embellish a fall or a reaction, or who feign injury in an attempt to draw penalties.
- The first such incident will result in a warning letter being sent to the player.
- The second such incident will result in a $1,000 fine.
- The third such incident will result in a $2,000 fine.
- The fourth such incident will result in a one-game suspension.
- Public complaints or derogatory comments toward the game will also result in fines.
SCOTT BURNSIDE'S TAKE: In theory, the public humiliation of a player hearing his named over the public address system being called for "unsportsmanlike conduct, diving" should eliminate this odorous offense. The reality is that the pocketbook method of discipline is always more effective. Embellishing a hook or slash will always be part of the game. This should continue to keep it at bay. The real teeth to the "sportsmanlike" element of the rule is the threat of hefty fines that should keep managers, coaches and players from carping about officials to the media. The habit of baiting officials, especially during the playoffs, has been well-documented in recent years and includes rants from Pat Quinn, Mike Milbury and Darryl Sutter to name just a few. This will dove-tail with the league's efforts to make players, coaches and managers understand and accept that the game is going to be called in a dramatically different fashion than in recent years.
More Burnside analysis
THE COMPETITION COMMITTEE: Although the competition committee was struck prior to the completion of the collective bargaining agreement, it remains a critical element of the game's revival. There was criticism of the makeup of the group (four players, four GMs, one owner and one union official all under Campbell's watchful eye). But the group is streamlined and has a mandate to bring in expertise from other groups including coaches, officials, broadcasters and the media as warranted. They appear to have the needed power to facilitate change as witnessed Friday when Shanahan helped shepherd the rules change package through the board of governors.
THE OLYMPICS: Bettman announced the NHL would appear in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, which will ensure the game will be seen on the world's biggest stage. Americans love the Olympics and what better way to invigorate interest in the NHL? Canceling the All-Star Game in Olympic years is also a smart move.
DRUG TESTING: The NHL doesn't feel it has a problem with performance-enhancing drugs, which is probably why it felt secure in implementing a stringent drug testing policy that will see players subject to up to two random tests per year. Suspensions go from 20 games for a first offense to 60 games to a lifetime ban with a third positive test. What better way to keep performance-enhancing drugs from becoming an issue? This will also help, at least in a small way, with the league's profile given the problems the NFL and MLB have with performance-enhancing drugs.
BETTER ACCESS, HIGHER PROFILE: Although this remains a work in progress the NHL will be looking at better, different camera angles during games, microphones on coaches and players, more involvement with high-definition television and a more open relationship with fans and the media. Shanahan put it best. "There are things that the fans want. In hockey we've always been a very modest group. We don't want to wear microphones; we don't want to let cameras in the dressing room. We don't want fans and media to see us in the highest of our high emotions and the lowest of our low emotions. And the fans are telling us that's exactly when they want to see us. And not 15 minutes after the game is over when we've already been in backroom and broken some chairs. They want to see us break some chairs."
Burnside: Changes that didn't make it
EXPANDED PLAYOFFS: It's believed Bettman favors expanding the playoff pool to 20 teams from 16 with a preliminary play-in round involving the seventh- through 10th-place clubs in each conference. Trying to get the 2005-06 schedule into place in a short time frame means the expanded playoff roster will likely appear next season.
BIGGER NETS: What was once believed to be an outlandish notion received much more favorable response from GMs during testing earlier this summer. If this new slate of rules doesn't provide the desired increase in offense, bigger nets are on the horizon.
BLUE-LINE WIDTH: Blue lines will remain 12 inches in width instead of the 24 inches the AHL experimented with last season. Good call. Any benefit was more illusory than real.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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