Research project shows game can improve with minor tweaks

by | Staff Writer

Brendan Shanahan drew a big laugh from NHL Network host Brian Duff at the conclusion of the interesting league research project this week just by answering a question so, well, honestly.

"There are a lot of things we did in this camp that I don't think could really happen," chuckled Shanahan, the NHL's VP of business and development and the driving force behind the two days of experiments that took place in suburban Toronto.

Tomas Kaberle has spent his first 11 seasons with the Maple Leafs. (Getty Images)  
Tomas Kaberle has spent his first 11 seasons with the Maple Leafs. (Getty Images)  
But some could and maybe sooner rather than later, despite Shanahan's insistence that the goal of this research and development camp wasn't to fix things notwithstanding.

Chances are though they won't come from any of the over-the-top ideas that were tested by the 17-year-old volunteers, many of whom will be first-round picks next June. If it wasn't weird enough seeing the second referee perched above the ice like a tennis official, think about the reaction of owners realizing they are obstructing the view of high-priced seats and you'll figure out pretty fast why this one won't happen.

And as far as changing the look of the ice surface radically to have three faceoff circles instead of five -- with the defensive zone ones directly in front of the goal -- according to a lot of the GMs there, that didn't appear to be worth the effort.

Still there were a number of ideas that showed potential, some of them that could be described almost as tweaks. They could have a real impact though because the game is still about entertainment, and in hockey, providing that tends to be widely viewed as requiring a lot of offense. The NHL has done much to create conditions conducive for more goals and scoring chances since the lockout, and Shanahan's efforts during the work stoppage when he was a player had a lot to do with it. But even if those changes have had their desired effect for the most part, the camp this week showed things can be opened up even more and in subtle ways.

Like forcing a team called for a delayed penalty gain control of the puck and clear the defensive zone before play is whistled dead. That was one of the rules tested, and it would be something that players wouldn't have to get used to as much as work harder at.

Now pending shorthanded players only have to touch the puck to stop play, but gaining control is a lot tougher and getting it past your blue line even more so. It's a bonus for a team about to go on the power play, giving it some added risk-free ice time with their goalie pulled before it even starts and if nothing else, creates more exciting offensive zone time.

Switching of sides if overtime is required should be a no-brainer as well. Teams defend the same goal they do in the first and third periods in an overtime, but statistics show that the highest number of goals come in second periods when players have to skate a longer distance to the benches for line changes.

There were some other ideas with merit, particularly when it came to faceoffs and to icing rules that could help protect players from injury in most instances. Those will take longer to build a consensus on, but what seems clear from all this is the league's determination to open things up as much as possible.

"We want to reward skill," Shanahan said.

News: Tomas Kaberle is still with Toronto.

Views: It's a bit of a surprise since the effort to trade Kaberle has been so public. Toronto GM Brian Burke thought he pulled off a deal to trade the defenseman to Boston at the 2009 draft only to see that fall through. And beginning with this year's draft, Burke had a window through Aug. 15 when Kaberle's no-trade clause was not in effect. Burke did his best to drum up a trade market this summer, but ultimately didn't like any of the offers. So Kaberle remains, presumably to finish out the last year of his contract, in what has to be an uncomfortable situation. The guy has been a lifer with the Maple Leafs, one of their steadiest and often their best players during that time, and a good soldier to boot, but his father told a Czech hockey magazine this week that his son doesn't expect to be in Toronto for much longer. No doubt at $4.25 million a season, the offensively-talented Kaberle is more valuable right now as a commodity to the rebuilding Maple Leafs than he is as a player, and Burke wants to make the most of his asset. But that won't get easier as the trade deadline approaches. And in the meantime, Kaberle has to deal with a situation that sees him with one foot out the door.

News: Antti Niemi still without a job.

Views: Goes to show how tight the money is these days around the league. Niemi won a Stanley Cup as a rookie for Chicago a few months ago and he ended up pricing himself out of the picture even though he would have earned about half the guy he pushed to the end of the bench. Problem for Niemi is despite his Cup win, there are those who question if he was a one-hit wonder, and more important few jobs available. Niemi says he wants to play in the NHL, not in Europe, but with training camps still a month away, that could require a lot of patience on his part.


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