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Friday, August 19, 2011
R&D: What should stay, what should go

By Scott Burnside

About a year ago, we were en route to Toronto for the first World Hockey Summit.

The four-day event examined big-picture issues, from the impact of North American junior hockey on teenage international hockey development to the struggles to grow women's hockey to the cantankerous relationship between the NHL and some international bodies to the very thorny issue of NHL participation in the Olympics. At times, attending the event felt a little like attending those big university lectures that left you doodling in your book.

About the same time, new NHL executive Brendan Shanahan was gathering some young players, coaches, GMs and scouts and throwing a bunch of hockey stuff against the wall at the NHL's first research and development party (for lack of a better term).

R&D Camp
Dave Nonis, Rob Blake, Brendan Shanahan and Brian Burke watched new concepts such as removing the trapezoid and SuperSkills events at this past week's R&D camp.

The latter event spawned a second gathering this week in Toronto. Judging from the responses, it has gained a real foothold on the hockey calendar even though the camp comes in the middle of summer with training camp still a month away. The seats at the Leafs' practice facility were filled with media, scouts, NHL executives, GMs and the like. This isn't meant as a put-down of the World Hockey Summit. Every four or five years, we think it's a great idea, especially if the NHL is going to continue to lend its players to the Olympics. The summit reinforces the notion of hockey as not just a global game but a vibrant global village.

But Shanahan's gig is micro compared with the summit's macro view. The gathering of top-notch coaches (this year, it was defending Jack Adams Award winner Dan Bylsma and 2010 winner Dave Tippett) and blue-chip draft prospects is like opening up the hood of the game and simply tinkering.

What would happen if you added this kind of filter? Or added this to the carburetor? Or used these kinds of tires and attached this to the ignition?

Will any of the stuff trotted out the past couple of days ever appear on an NHL ice surface? Does it really matter?

We often talk about the importance of grassroots hockey, hockey at its basic level for kids everywhere, a place to plant the seeds of interest and participation. It's the kind of thing the myopic owners in Atlanta never quite got, and, in part, it cost them a franchise.

The R&D camp is grassroots mechanics -- a chance to blue-sky whatever you want, a chance not just to debate the minutiae of the game but to see what things actually look like in practice.

Here is what we liked and didn't like from this year's gathering:

• We know the NHL will install curved stanchions in every arena this season after Zdeno Chara's unfortunate hit on Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre this past season. The stanchions, curved and spring-loaded, were on hand at the R&D camp.

• Hard to argue with the goal verification lines that also likely will be in place this season. With so much time spent trying to figure out whether a puck actually crossed the goal line, it makes sense to add a line the width of a puck beyond the red goal line that would take at least some of the guesswork out of it. Thinner mesh on the goals and high-definition cameras mounted inside also will help ensure goals are accurately called. This also could be in place this season.

• Shanahan is also hopeful that shallower nets (40 inches deep instead of 44) will get a look in preseason play. More room to move behind the net is a good thing and will keep defenders and goalies hopping to prevent easier wraparounds and short-side passes. Nothing wrong with that. Conversely, the extra room should give defensemen more space to make a first pass from deep in their own zone.

• We don't quite get as bent out of shape about the shootout as some GMs and coaches do, and we likewise don't mind the extended overtime that was tested for a second straight year. After four minutes of four-on-four play (instead of the current five-minute frame), there were three minutes of three-on-three hockey. The theory is the increased space on the ice in the second overtime session greatly enhances the chances a game will be decided before a shootout.

Fair enough, although if the issue is that too many hockey folks think the shootout is a gimmick, is it any less gimmicky to have three minutes of what amounts to pond hockey with three skaters on each side? Once you decide you don't want ties -- and the league seems married to this notion -- you have to come up with a way to break the tie in a timely fashion in the regular season. So, pick your poison. Regardless, teams will always complain the system doesn't work when they're not very good at the tiebreaker, whatever form that tiebreaker takes.

Nets
One of the concepts tested this week: shallower nets, which would keep defenders and goalies hopping to prevent easier wraparounds and short side passes.

• Love the idea of teams serving out the entire time for a minor penalty regardless of whether the opposing team scores. That was the case for years in the NHL -- until the 1956-57 season. If the goal (if you'll pardon the expression) is to see more goals scored, why not return to a rule that also has a strong historic component to it?

• Much of what was tested was aimed at creating more offense; as a byproduct, there were a number of punitive options assessed (see: serving the entire time on a minor penalty). We favor a move to eliminate the ability of penalized teams to ice the puck. As some attendees noted, you can't do it when you're at even strength, so why should you be able to do it when you're killing penalties?

• Along those same lines, we've never quite understood the logic of allowing players to make a hand pass in their own zone but not anywhere else. How does that make sense? If a player has fallen or lost his stick and can make a play by shoveling the puck with his mitts, why not let him do it anywhere on the ice as long as he doesn't close his hand over the puck and throw it (which should be called a penalty under existing rules anyway)? If you don't want them doing it in the offensive or neutral zone, stop allowing them to do it in the defensive zone. It's called consistency.

• We have long been a proponent of removing the trapezoid behind the net and allowing goalies to roam where they want. As time goes on, the markings that restrict where netminders can play the puck beyond the end red line seem to accomplish little of what hockey minds thought they would accomplish when they were introduced after the lockout -- i.e., creating more scoring opportunities. Goalies playing the puck should be part of the game. Some play it well, some play it poorly; let them have at it. Also, removing another set of lines from the playing surface is more visually appealing and presumably less confusing to new sets of hockey eyes.

• We like the idea of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke's so-called bear hug rule, which would allow a defender to wrap his arms around an opposing player as he's taking him into the boards to prevent dangerous hits into the boards. But it's an idea that might be better in theory than in practice; it seems a small step removed from the clutching and grabbing that had threatened to destroy the game before the lockout and the implementation of a new set of officiating standards. Plus, we're already asking officials to make judgment calls all over the ice; this seems to be too much to ask.

• Speaking of judgment calls, we do like the hybrid icing that was on display Thursday. This modification, as its name suggests, would help eliminate the sometimes cataclysmic collisions between players on a potential icing call by blowing the play dead when it is apparent the defender is going to reach the puck first and the puck crosses the end red line. The judgment comes into play when the linesman determines the offensive player has a chance of reaching the puck first and allows the play to unfold. More work for the linesmen, but we're OK with that (easy for us to say, no?).

• As for playing the puck, we've always been a big fan of forcing goalies to keep plays alive rather than freezing pucks just to slow things down. We know officials encourage goalies and other players to keep the puck moving, but there should be sanctions for goalies who ignore those instructions. For instance, if an official yells to play the puck, the goalie must keep it alive or risk being assessed a delay of game penalty. We especially hate when a goalie waits until an opposing player comes close and then smothers the puck when he's had plenty of time to make a play. Enough.

• One of our pet peeves from last season, especially in the playoffs, was the interminable amount of time spent watching players line up for faceoffs. At the camp, there was a second line that a player had to retreat to if he didn't set up properly when first approaching the faceoff. We like it. Whether it's the players or the linesmen dropping the puck, there has to be a better way to get players to line up and get the play going.