- Craig Custance
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The rules will be debated. If you get 30 general managers into one room, break them off into small groups and charge them with improving the game, debate is inevitable. And with some of the game's best players still out with concussions, safety remains an issue despite serious strides the past couple of years to clean up the game.
But if you're hoping to see the return of the red line, or removal of the trapezoid or the addition of hybrid icing, there's a fairly big obstacle standing in the way. Most in hockey really like where the game is right now. Attempts to slow it down in the name of safety will be met with resistance, which means this week's general managers meetings might be light on change.
"I like the game. I like our game," said Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. "It's a fast game, it's a physical game. Having played it, I know there are certain risks that go with playing games. I think all the players know the risks and accept the risks. I think the league is doing the right thing to make changes and tweak our game to protect our players, but I like the game. I like the way it's played."
The general managers begin their three-day annual March meetings this morning in Florida, and these three issues will be at the center of the debate:
Returning the red line: There's a belief that bringing back the red line would improve player safety because it might increase puck possession and cut down on the wear and tear that comes with being a defenseman who has to go and get the puck after it's dumped in. St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, one of hockey's great minds, thinks that is the case.
"There's no puck possession now," he told the Edmonton Journal. "A red line would bring back the playmaking center. The center who buys space and time would be back. Those nifty guys we saw before, they're not around much anymore."
But there's resistance. The red line would slow the game down too much for some as coaches look for an edge.
"Instead of trapping at the blue line, they'd trap at the red line. They'd move it up," said Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown. "There'd be a lot more icing. It'd slow the game down."
Removing the trapezoid: There's growing momentum to get rid of the trapezoid, and the logic is sound. If you allow goalies to play the puck more often, you can eliminate some of the hits a defenseman charged with puck retrieval inevitably is exposed to every game. There also would be fewer races for the puck that can result in a scary injury.
"I would love that," Columbus defenseman Brett Lebda said of removing the trapezoid. "One of the stresses as a D-man is to get back and get the puck; sometimes it means taking a hit."
By not allowing goalies to play the puck, an entire skill set is eliminated from play. Removing the trapezoid would free talented puck-handling goalies such as Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils to make plays while making things interesting for goalies who aren't as skilled. Plus, some feel as if the trapezoid is getting a bit antiquated.
"It's useless," Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis told The Vancouver Sun. "I don't know what effect it has any longer. The game is played at such a high pace now, I don't think goalies have a chance to go out to the corner to get the puck. If they do, they risk getting checked, and so I don't think the trapezoid is that big a deal."
Hybrid icing: This should be a no-brainer. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is a proponent of it, and it's been extremely successful in the USHL. Injuries that occur as a result of the current icing rules don't happen often, but, when they do, it can be devastating. Having a race to the faceoff dot rather than the boards keeps that element of the game intact while removing some of the danger. Last year at these meetings, there was a long discussion regarding hybrid icing but not enough momentum for a rule change. At some point, it will happen.
The one rule change nearly everyone wants to avoid is no-touch icing.
"The foot race for the puck is still an awesome thing," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "If you want to go to Europe, where it's automatic icing, it's the worst thing in the world. Guys are lining up for faceoff before the whistle blows."
• I recently ran through a few of the proposed rule changes with Darryl Sutter, and, after we were through, I asked him what changes he would make to improve player safety. He said his focus would be on equipment. He thinks sticks have evolved to a point that players can shoot so hard now that it's dangerous. "When you have shots breaking knee pads, it never used to be like that. That's the stick," he said. In some cases, such as elbow pads, he thinks the equipment is too big. In other cases, such as ankle guards, he doesn't see enough protection. But equipment changes are a bit more challenging for the general managers than rule changes because you have to get the NHLPA involved. That CBA negotiations will heat up soon complicates things even further. "Everything has to be passed, voted, revoted, legalized and all that stuff," Sutter said.
• The Tampa Bay Lightning's addition of Mike Commodore at the trade deadline didn't make headlines, but it was an important move for Commodore, who wasn't seeing much playing time with the Detroit Red Wings under Mike Babcock. That has changed in Tampa, where he's getting nearly 15 minutes of ice time per game in an attempt to get his NHL career back on track, as Damian Cristodero pointed out. "I know I can still play," Commodore told Cristodero. "Can I do everything I once could? Maybe not. But I'm not old. I feel like I still have something left in the tank." Lightning coach Guy Boucher likes Commodore's coolness under pressure. "He's been a really good addition for us," Boucher told the Tampa Bay Times.
• Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic is ready to give the Hart Trophy to Evgeni Malkin, and he gets no argument from me. Malkin had three more assists in the Pittsburgh Penguins' win over the Boston Bruins on Sunday, giving him a league-best 84 points this season. At this point, the MVP award is his to lose. When Kovacevic asked Malkin about the Hart Trophy, he said he wasn't thinking about it. When Kovacevic pressed him, he came clean.
"A little bit, maybe, of course," Malkin said. "I see the signs up there when I warm up. People are asking me to sign pictures with MVP. But I'm just focusing on the games."
Unless Steven Stamkos and the Lightning make the playoffs, Malkin's biggest challenger will be New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. But as long as the Vezina Trophy exists, it's going to be hard for a goalie to win the Hart. The Rangers' recent struggles aren't helping the cause, either. Lundqvist has given up at least three goals in all five March games in which he has played. His save percentage this month is just .879, down from .951 in February.
With the NHL's 30 general managers meeting in Florida this week, Craig Custance takes a look at three major rules issues that will dominate the discussion.