Five years have passed since the National Hockey League tried to outsmart its conservative killjoy clubs by introducing the shootout.
And, while it’s true that ties are now taboo, it doesn’t mean all coaches are throwing caution to the wind to get two points in regulation. A disturbing trend has seen many teams not only go into defensive posture in the third period, but continue that through the five-minute 4-on-4 extra frame where their hand-picked shooters or star netminders can then decide the match.
Breaking the logjam before the night drags too long was the reasoning behind some rules experiments this week at the league’s research and development camp at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke.
Using the 2011 draft class as guinea pigs, the league is spending a couple of days reviewing the impact preventing line changes during offsides, forbidding short-handed teams from icing the puck and, most radical, going from 4-on-4 overtime to 3-on-3 and 2-on-2, in three-minute segments before finally resorting to shootouts.
For guest coach Ken Hitchcock, a rule that prevents line changes for a team that goes offside, similar to the current icing regulation, will be a huge difference-maker in getting games decided in regulation.
“For me, too much emphasis is being placed on the shootout,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t like where 4-on-4 is going. It’s going nowhere. Checking players go out on the ice all the time and now there is double-shifting of those players. So you’re playing to get to the shootout where coaches have more control.
“If you keep doing this stuff, you’ll keep stalling the game and it will get stale. A lot of these things will be taken out of our (coaches) hands, but in the long term it’s probably for the good.”
It’s not the idea of the shootout itself that’s up for debate as the league is satisfied with being able to distinguish winner from loser every night.
“I don’t like to hear the words ‘no shootout’, because fans love it,” said hockey operations vice-president Mike Murphy. “I don’t remember a more exciting moment than the Rangers playing Philadelphia in the final game of the year, with an awful lot hanging on it.
“But we want to put an emphasis on deciding a game during the action. One of the ideas put forward here is to change ends going into the overtime. It makes the line change (longer to the bench) that much more difficult, creating space and creating mistakes.
“Some coaches were concerned that the teams start to play for the shootout, so that 4-on-4 becomes a game of shutting a team down. That’s not what it was created for. As we knew growing up. The 4-on-4 was really exciting. If we make it more exciting, where there’s the ability to score more, fewer games will results in shootouts.
“As a hockey man, I think that’s good because I want to see a game decided on the merits of competition as opposed to a single shootout.”
On Wednesday, the overtime was gradually reduced to two aside in a 180-second segment. At bare bones, there was a scramble that produced four goals among the four skaters and lots of other chances and, obviously, put extra pressure on winning the draw outright and using the netminder to aid in the breakout. There was even one offside despite all the open ice.
“I’m not so sure everyone completely warmed up to the 2-on-2,” commissioner Gary Bettman wryly noted, after sitting among a dozen general managers to watch the action. “This is a way to look at things that maybe we’ll never, ever think of doing, or maybe there are some fine-tuning elements we could bring to make a great game even better.
“Statistically, there’s not a lot of difference in the shootouts compared to the number of games that ended in a tie before we went to the shootout. Some have expressed concern they would like to reduce the number of shootouts, but we don’t think it has reached the level of being a problem.
“We’ll see a lot of things here and have to digest them in the usual way: General managers first and competition committee and then the board of governors. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
Hitchcock thought the notion of making teams pay for going offside by staying out an extra shift was an ideal way to put the fear of coach and fan wrath on a selfish forward.
“Some players give it a half-assed effort ... lots of players in the league constantly go offside,” he said. “Now it’s going to cost you. When you’re tired, it’s harder to play defence and both teams today had a lot of tired guys looking at long ice, 150 feet. Offsides are a big deal. You have to work at it.”