SUN Hockey Pool

NHL orders another round

Many proposals recently put forth by Colin Campbell, NHL executive vice-president and director of...

Many proposals recently put forth by Colin Campbell, NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, could change the face of hockey. (Toronto Sun File Photo)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

It's likely four more teams and an extra round will be included in the playoffs when the National Hockey League resumes play, the Toronto Sun has learned.

According to sources, the NHL is considering adding two more teams from each conference and a best-of-three preliminary round added to the four best-of-seven rounds that exist now.

It is expected NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will reveal the details when he announces that the owners have ended their lockout, something that could happen later this week.

The league also is considering some other significant rules changes, including adding three minutes to regular-season overtime and a three-man shootout if the teams remain tied.

These are just some of the many proposals recently put forth by Colin Campbell, NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations.

And although Campbell does not have the authority to institute these changes himself, his recommendations to the board of governors almost are certain to be rubber-stamped.

Under Campbell's proposals, playoff qualification would be tiered with the top 10 teams in each conference qualifying.

The teams finishing seventh through 10th would then have a best-of-three playoff, probably seventh versus 10th and eighth versus ninth.

The precise format of that playoff has yet to be determined, but it is understood that it has to be completed within six days before the next round. Once the season ends, there will be an off-day, followed by back-to-back games, probably a home-and-home matchup.

Then there will be another off-day followed by the third game if necessary. After one more off-day, the full playoffs with 16 teams playing best-of-seven series will begin.

This means a team could now need to play 31 post-season games to win the Stanley Cup, rather than the existing maximum of 28.

In his memo to the general managers explaining the rule recommendations, Campbell expressed a number of admirable aims. But he's walking a very wobbly tightrope.

He said that one of his aims was to increase the number of scoring chances while maintaining the "physicality" of the game.

He wants to let the more skilled players exhibit their talents and take away the defensive team's tools while giving them to the offensive team.

But at the same time, he proposes a two-point system that, in the eyes of some general managers, will merely encourage defensively oriented coaches to become less offensively minded than ever.

It is the league's theory that the new format will militate against defensive coaches. If the game is tied after 60 minutes, the two teams will play a five-minute, four-on-four overtime.

If nothing is settled, they will then play a three-minute three-on-three overtime. If the game remains tied, the shootout begins. The eventual winner earns two points; the loser gets none and there can be no tie games.

The league contends that the fewer players there are on the ice, the harder it is to play defence. Therefore, coaches will try to open up and win the game in regulation before being exposed to four-on-four or three-on-three.

Some GMs fear, however, that the league has underestimated the abilities -- and defensive passion -- that these coaches exhibit. No matter how few players are on the ice, the numbers are still even and a good checker still has only to break even in a one-on-one battle.

As for the shootout, the debate over the format had been solved.

Most GMs expected a five-man shooting rotation, as is the case in international hockey, but some had suggested a full 18-man rotation with every non-goalie taking a shot before any player had his second crack.

Campbell, however, prefers a three-man format, perhaps because some teams don't have five genuine snipers.

These are just some of the highlights of Campbell's proposals, but there are many other recommendations that will change the nature of the game as fans have come to know it.

The reduced size of goaltenders' equipment has been well reported. Also, goaltenders will be limited in their puck handling.

But there's also a new twist. There will be a crackdown on freezing the puck by goaltenders, removing the leeway that had crept in over the course of recent seasons.

The red line will be removed as a factor in off-side calls. Again, this is an area of contention with general managers. Some feel it will open up the game -- and if the league were awarding three points for a regulation-time win, rather than two, that might be the case.

But many GMs are worried that some coaches will just drop defenders back and set up the trap in a slightly different location, thereby making offensive forays even less frequent.

The goal line will be moved back two feet to increase the size of the neutral zone by four feet, and there will be a slight change in the role of the blue line, which has been widened.

The puck will no longer have to cross the entire blue line in order to make the play onside. Now it just has to gain the blue line.

There will, of course, be the mandatory annual crackdown on restraining fouls, and perhaps this time, with all the other changes in place, the enforcement will remain enthusiastic for more than a month.

But Campbell's recommendations include: Zero tolerance on obstruction away from the puck; a re-emphasis on slashing and cross-checking infractions; reduced tolerance on hooking and holding close to the crease; and a general increase in the teaching of the new approach to the players.

In that vein, the officials -- who will now work in established teams over much of the season -- will meet with the team captains and the coaches before each game.

The icing rule also will be changed. A number of hockey people had demanded no-touch icing in the hope of reducing injuries that seemed to be needless. Others said that the integrity of the game required a chase for the puck.

Campbell has come up with an alternative. Next season, there will be a race for the goal line, but a player doesn't have to touch the puck. The player who can first put his stick over the line will be designated as having touched the puck. Using that criterion, the linesmen will either call icing or wave it off.

To no one's surprise, the tag-up rule will be reintroduced even though some GMs, notably Glen Sather of the New York Rangers, remain opposed to it.

The rule allows play to continue even if a player has preceded the puck over the blue line. Instead of immediately whistling the play dead, linesmen will raise an arm to signal a delayed off-side.

The player or players who had entered the zone too early can come out over the blue line and "tag up", just as a baseball player must go back to the base and tag up if he wants to advance after a fly ball has been caught.

There are also some new rules governing the conduct of players, both on and off the ice.

The current instigator rule will be unchanged, with one exception. If a player gets an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of regulation time, he will be ejected and suspended for a game. His coach will be fined $10,000 US and if the league finds out that the team paid the fine (fat chance) the team will be fined $100,000. Each subsequent infraction in a season earns a doubling of the previous penalty.

Diving also is to be discouraged and it is the members of the league's hockey operations office who have the advantage of video replays, not necessarily the referee, who will determine whether an infraction has occurred.

The first incident earns a written warning. The second instance calls for a $1,000 fine and puts the player's name on a list that is to be circulated throughout the league. A third infraction calls for a $2,000 fine and further public notification.

If a player is foolish enough to get caught four times, he is suspended for a game with no right of appeal.

As for players who make derogatory comments about the game or the officials or their decisions, fines will be in order. Their magnitude is still to be determined as part of the ongoing negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement.

Two other oft-proposed changes to inhibit the game-slowing tactics of the defensively minded coaches are to be introduced.

A player who shoots the puck into the stands from his own defensive zone will receive a two-minute delay-of-game penalty. This rule has long applied to goalies so it only makes sense to apply it to the rest of the team.

Also, a team which ices the puck will not be allowed to make a personnel change.

In the past, coaches have told their players that if they're tired and under pressure, simply fire the puck down the ice.

Now, those tired players will have to stay on the ice while the other coach is allowed to send out fresh troops and get a matchup that is to his liking.

These changes form a comprehensive reformation of the game and should allow the coaches to create an entertaining spectacle.

But will they do it or will they continue to find ways around it?

We'll find out next season.

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LONGER PLAYOFFS

- 10 teams from each conference would qualify.

- The four teams seeded 7th to 10th in each conference would play a best-of-three round to be completed within six days of the end of the regular season.

- The two winners from each conference would then join the 12 other post-season qualifiers to create the current 16-team playoff.

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RULE CHANGES

Other major changes proposed:

- A three-minute, three-on-three period of overtime added in the regular season if the five-minute, four-on-four period doesn't produce a winner.

- If a game is still tied, a shootout involving three players from each team will take place until a winner is determined.

- There will be no ties. Winners get two points, losers none.


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