You have all committed the new realignment configuration to memory by now. Quick, are the New York Rangers, who are within spitting distance of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Atlantic Division? No. Good. Carry on. -- But you might have forgotten some of the more subtle rule changes that will go into effect this season.
For instance, you might have read that the NHL is cracking down on style violators, insisting that all players keep their jerseys uniformly untucked. This means you, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and never mind that thousands of youngsters have imitated the style because it looks cool in a retro-Gretzky way.
The move to uniformity came out of the last GMs’ meetings and was part of the discussion at the summer competition committee meeting. We sort of get it. You don’t want players freelance accessorizing their gear, adding buckskin fringe à la old Neil Young or sequins or laces with bells on them. As one GM told ESPN.com, some of the guys were starting to look like “hobos.” So a little decorum isn’t a bad thing.
But does it really matter if a player tucks in his jersey? Really? If it makes officials’ jobs easier because they can see the numbers more clearly, we get that, but the player’s name on the back should also help in terms of identifying players for a foul. And does the NHL want to add more work for its officials? We can’t get the head shot rules right, but let’s make sure players all look the same, and we’re going to give on-ice guys more work to do to make sure that happens. After the embarrassing show put on by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in the preseason, it just seems a little small of the league to have identified this as an issue that must be addressed.
The sweater tuck is just one area of equipment use where the league has mandated conformity. They are also requiring that jersey sleeves be worn into the cuff of the player’s glove and pant legs aren’t ripped or altered in any fashion.
The other major equipment issue this year is the mandatory use of visors for all players who have played 25 or fewer NHL games. The only shocking part of this rule is that it took this long for the players’ association to get on board with mandating the maximum protection available to its membership. But better late than never, and this ensures that within a few years only the dinosaurs will be venturing onto the ice without a visor.
Goaltenders’ pads will be also be reduced this season. If you’ve got a degree in advanced physics from MIT you can actually follow the formula used to determine the vertical allowance in pad size for each individual goalie. Otherwise, just take our word for it, they’ll be shorter. Pads will be limited to 11 inches in width. While the goalies don’t like it, as long as this doesn’t impugn their safety, we’re good with it. Any edge shooters can get back after years of trying to find a hole in bloated goalie gear is a good edge to get back.
NHL nets will also have a different look this year, as some four inches have been shaved off the width of the goal. The actual area into which the shooters will shoot (and the goalies will naturally defend) remains constant, but the narrower width will allow for more space behind and to the side of the net. The theory is this will provide more room for offensive players to maneuver and thus create more scoring chances, although it also provides more room for defenders to make plays. Regardless, more space is better while maintaining the historical integrity of the goal size.
The players voted at the end of training camp to adopt the new hybrid icing that has been discussed for several years and was tested during the exhibition season. Basically, linesmen determine who will reach a puck that can be called for icing (i.e. will cross the end red line) based on whether the offensive player or the defending player reaches the defensive zone faceoff dot first. So, if the attacking player beats the defender to the dot, the play remains live, and conversely, if the defender reaches the dot first, the play is automatically blown dead. This is a good rule even if it puts more pressure on the linesmen to determine whose skates reach the dot first, but anything that keeps plays alive as often as possible while at the same time reducing the potential for cataclysmic injuries during collisions on icing calls is a good thing.
As an adjunct to hybrid icing, the league has taken the "attainable pass" language out of icing rules, meaning that if a player misses a pass that goes for icing, the linesmen won’t wave off the icing unless the offensive team touches the puck first (see above). In the past, if there was a clear attempt at a pass, the linesman could wave off icing even if no contact was made with the puck. We will actually miss this rule.
There are some changes to the fighting rules as well. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that went to a player who instigated a fight while wearing a visor has been taken out of the rule book. Also, any player that takes his helmet off before a fight will earn an extra two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, which has led to at least one instance where players took each other’s helmets off at the start of a fight (Krys Barch and Brett Gallant figured out this loophole).
The league should ban fighting outright, just so it doesn’t have to introduce nonsensical rules like this. The league seems prepared to allow its players to flirt with serious head injuries during the course of a fight when it’s entirely likely one or both combatants' helmets will fly off, and they will try and penalize players who take their helmets off to start a dust-up. This is a reminder that in many ways this is still a very curious game. Try explaining this one to the next group of aliens that drops into your backyard on a Saturday night.