Defencemen having trouble grasping new rules

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

Confused about how physical a defenceman can be when it comes to clearing out opposing forwards?

You're not alone. So are lots of fans. For that matter, so are lots of players and coaches.

"That's the one area of the new approach that is the most misunderstood," a veteran referee said.

Then he explained what the standard is supposed to be -- although he admitted that even some of his colleagues don't seem to be clear on the point.

You may have heard announcers say that if the stick is parallel to the ice when it is put upon an opponent's body, it's an infraction. Not necessarily.

Pretend for a moment that the stick isn't there. A push is legal; a punch is illegal.

Now put the stick back. A push is legal. A cross-check is illegal.

Some defenders are catching on. In fact, one veteran defenceman was vigorously moving a defender away from the crease recently when he glanced over to see if the referee was watching. He was. And he urged the defender to keep it up. The stick was being used but no cross-check was being applied.

The people who are responsible for the new approach don't want to remove physical play from the game, just interference and restraint. But not everyone has got the message.

On another matter regarding the new rules, coaches cannot change personnel after an icing call.

But in every rink, right near the penalty bench, there's a little light. When it's orange, it means that there is to be a television timeout at the next stoppage.

So coaches have reminded their players that they shouldn't worry too much about easing the pressure by icing the puck when that light is on. They'll have to stay on the ice, but they'll be able to rest for at least a minute while the TV people make their money.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

The way the early season is unfolding, it may be a tough year for Rick Nash. And a good one for Jason Spezza.

Coming off a great year in Switzerland and an excellent performance at the world championship in Austria, Nash seemed poised to lead the National Hockey League in goals.

But during the Columbus Blue Jackets training camp, he suffered a high ankle sprain, one of the worst injuries that a hockey player can endure. When it comes to ankles, a sprain can be worse than a fracture.

When Nash eventually comes back, he probably won't be as effective as he would have been had he had a full training camp.

While this is all bad news for Nash, it's a golden opportunity for Spezza, who makes no secret of his desire to be named to the Olympic team and whose chances improve every day.

Even though Spezza was not invited to the Olympic orientation camp in British Columbia in August, Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky made it clear that he would be open-minded toward any player who had a great season. He even mentioned Spezza by name.

If it appears that Nash is not ready to go, Spezza would have a good chance of being his replacement because of the desire of Team Canada officials to keep stoking the furnace.

They don't want to go with veterans all the time, then find themselves facing the kind of transition problems that are afflicting the Americans at the moment.

"I can play on that team," Spezza said. "If I start well, do well and play a lot, hopefully they'll recognize that."

POINTS TO BE HAD

How long will it take coaches to catch on to the fact that there are points to be earned by excellence in five-on-three situations?

With the new rule interpretations the five-on-three, a rarity in the past decade, is now commonplace.

But before that, five-on-threes, while not frequent, were not all that unusual. And in those days, coaches demanded a different approach than would be taken during a five-on-four.

During a normal power play, the standard format is to get the shot from the point, then go for the rebounds or the tip-ins.

But the better coaches used to insist that the point men never shoot on a three-on-five. You have such a manpower advantage that the defencemen can move in and make a quick pass to someone who will either have a clear shot or a clear pass to someone who is open. With three defenders, you can't cover five attackers one-on-one.

Granted, knowing whether to pass or shoot in that situation is a skill. But it's a skill that can be developed. That's why you practice five-on-threes, something most coaches are not doing with sufficient frequency.

TIE ONE ON

There were 144 tie games in the 2003-04 season. If this season produces similar results that means that because of the shootout, there will be an extra 144 points up for grabs. It's not hard to figure out that shootout success could be the difference between playoff participation and early golf for some teams.

THEY SAID IT

Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire: "I don't care if it's the new NHL. I want my team to play to win, not to play to gamble to win"... Peter Forsberg on the throng of Swedish media and throng of NHL media waiting to talk to him after a morning skate: "Why don't you guys just get out in the ice and play a game against each other?"


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