Help could be on way for goalies

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Two years ago, when the National Hockey League's general managers last met here, they introduced a number of rule changes that were downright spectacular. But the euphoria soon faded.

First the NHL Players' Association filed a grievance on the grounds that rules couldn't be changed without its approval.

Then commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the season so the matter became moot.

But when hockey finally came back, many of those proposals were put into force and became the genesis of the game we are watching today.

This time around, the general managers do not plan do do anything as drastic as they did two years ago. For the most part, they just want to tinker with those rules.

They feel the game is much better but that, as might be expected after such a dramatic change, there is some fine tuning that can be done. Even so, they still can make changes that will change the nature of the game.

Right at the top of the list is goaltender protection. This is a tricky area, the one problem that has so far proved to be too difficult for the general managers to overcome.

This is, after all, a professional game. Sportsmanship and ethics are not high on any coach's list of concerns when he draws up a game plan. He wants to get every edge possible and if that means one of his forwards sees the need to flatten a helpless goaltender, he won't object.

But if it's his own goaltender who gets flattened, that a different story.

But the goaltenders aren't without blame. They scream for protection, and when they get it, they abuse it.

They go out of their way to throw blocks behind the net, knowing that if a forward touches them, he'll probably be penalized. They spear the league's best forwards because they know that when they indulge in a stick foul, they'll probably get two minutes for roughing, whereas a forward who did the same thing would get a major and perhaps a suspension.

Any hockey fan who is not a neophyte remembers the travesty of the video-replay rule that was instituted to set up a demilitarized zone near the net.

Goalie protection is a problem that has existed in the NHL for decades, not years, and it has never been successfully resolved. Now, in this salary-cap era, it is exacerbated.

The goaltender is the heart of the team and as such, likely is to be among the highest-paid. But throughout the league, there are minimum-salary buzzbombs who do little of consequence but run into people. If they can take out a goalie, that's even better that taking out a star scorer.

And if a top team's goalie goes down, chances are good that the salary cap militates against getting a replacement who can come close to filling the bill.

So this is the primary problem which will get the GMs' attention. If they can solve it, they'll have done better than generations before them.

But there are other items on the agenda, most of them relating to the new rules. Are they working? Do they need tweaking? The answer is in the affirmative in both cases.

Also on the GMs' plate will be the matter of realignment. As revealed in the Sunday Toronto Sun, it's coming. It's just a matter of how extensive it will be and how soon.

Also coming under serious scrutiny will be the heavily unbalanced schedule and its over-weighted divisional play.

There also will be a debate about the new sweaters and socks that will be imposed for the Olympics and are scheduled to come to the NHL. The problem is that no one likes them except the league's New York office and the people who make them, both of whom see them as a nifty source of profit.

And yes, the GMs might also indulge in a bit of golf and gambling.


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