SUN Hockey Pool

Breaking the rules

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

The NHL is looking at jazzing up the game. We are talking no-touch icing, shootouts, 4-on-4, 3-on-3, white on rice, refitted uniforms, obstruction rules with more bite than a hungry ferret and maybe even blue ice.

It's like my Dad used to always say: as far as zealots go, the convert is always worse than the Pope.

My colleague Al Strachan filled two pages with the proposed changes in yesterday's Sun.

Just ideas, said Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey ops who came up with the a list that stopped just short of a requisite human sacrifice (damned insurance) to kick-start the gate.

On a related marketing note, the NHL is recommitting itself to family marketing in the U.S., meaning it wants to get more than one family at a time in the rink.

One of Campbell's notions would see the inclusion of 10 teams from each conference in the playoffs. As it stands now, only eight teams per conference qualify.

The idea is a sort of pre-playoff, playoff with the seventh- and eighth-best teams from each conference, as well the new kids, the ninth and 10th teams, playing a week-long, best-of-three tournament before joining the big boys.

It's a fascinating question because it speaks to the very heart of what makes the season go: the Pavlovian relay supposedly imbedded in every fan to buy tickets if they think their team can get into the playoffs where, as we all know, anything can happen and very rarely does.

For fun, I dug out the 2003-2004 standings. Just in case you forgot, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Really.

The good news is that under the proposed system, the New York Rangers still wouldn't have made the post-season so you know, we are talking something short of a total overhaul.

The East would have featured a mini-tourney between the Buffalo Sabres, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. The West would have pitted the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, the Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild.

For these teams, an 82-game grind would come down to one week of pre-playoffs, likely with seventh versus tenth and eighth versus ninth.

Here's the problem with the plan. The top team in each division is allotted one of the first three playoff seeds. If you don't win your division or finish fourth, fifth, or sixth, you're in a heap o' trouble.

The Canadiens, who went 41-30-7-4, would have found themselves with an additional round, in this case against the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that won eight fewer games but with Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, a dangerous opponent.

DOWN IN FLAMES

Look at this another way. Had this system been in place, the Calgary Flames, who finished just three points out of seventh, would have been just a stumble away from another playoff round. Never mind a hot opposition goalie, the wear of an extra week means that under the system, a seventh- or eighth-place team has a much scantier chance of advancing deep into the springtime.

And so the NHL is considering a system that is both generous and punitive. The league can extend playoff fever into more markets than ever but the idea unduly punishes legitimate playoff teams by locking them into a one-week duel with inferior teams capable of pulling an upset.

In other words, it's absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The NHL has reinvented itself. Whether the final game plan includes the elimination of the blue line, moving the nets back to where they belong, reconfiguring the neutral zone or changing the tag-up rule, some headsnapping changes are coming.

In caricature, the league is no longer the smug, self satisfied banker but instead, a fiery radical.

Hard times will do that to you.


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