Publish date:

It's Working

After four weeks of play in the reprogrammed NHL, with defenders constrained by the new rules, skilled forwards such as Mario Lemieux are running wild and scoring is way up--just as the league had hoped

The unwitting poster boy for the new hockey is a sweet-faced, anonymous Boston Bruins rookie defenseman named Kevin Dallman, who provided the first telling glimpse of My NHL, as the league's cloying marketing campaign calls the 2005--06 comeback season. When the Montreal Canadiens sprang center Jan Bulis past the Bruins defense last month, Dallman turned and gave chase. As he ignored 100 years of genetic hockey memory and eschewed tugging at Bulis with his stick, a thought bubble seemed to appear over Dallman's helmet: If I give him a little hook, that will definitely be a penalty in the new NHL. And if I get my stick on his arm and he falls down, it'll be a penalty shot for sure. What to do? Dallman basically did nothing, except skate slightly behind Bulis from just short of the blue line to the high slot, at which point Bulis roofed a shot for Goal Number 1 of Game Number 1 of the rest of the NHL's life.

Four weeks into the season, the most radical reprogramming of players in sports history continues. The rewritten rules--including strict interpretation on restraining fouls, the allowance of two-line passes, extra space in the attacking zones and shootouts to decide tie games--have worked, to varying degrees. Skating is in. The hook-and-hold rodeo is out. Skilled players, it seems, are seizing the game back.

After 172 games--14% of the schedule--here's how much the NHL has changed:

•Goals had increased 28% compared to the total scored at the same point in the 2003--04 season, rising from 5.0 per game to 6.4 (though that's still well below the 7.9 average of 20 seasons ago).

•Shutouts had dropped from 33 to 13

•Teams had rallied from two or more goal deficits to win 36 times; as opposed to 23 times in 2003--04.

Last Thursday the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux's five points, scored seven consecutive goals to erase a 4--0 deficit and beat the Atlanta Thrashers 7--5. The next night the Carolina Hurricanes scored eight goals for the first time since 1996 in an 8--6 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Saturday's highlights included a gaudy blowout (Ottawa Senators 8, Toronto Maple Leafs 0) and a thrilling comeback (the Buffalo Sabres scored three times in the third to defeat the New York Islanders 6--4).

"The hockey's entertaining," says Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, whose 1980s Edmonton Oilers were the most aesthetic of dynasties. "It's much faster than it was two years ago. The good players, who drive to the net and compete, either get a scoring opportunity or draw a penalty."

Certainly the NHL is regaining its good looks. The important question: In the process, did the league lose a hunk of its soul? At times the game's physical element has been muted, even as there has been an abundance of penalty calls that have overwhelmed some matches. While the referees' quick whistle on obstruction fouls is laudable--"[The game is] better than what we had, which was wrestling," Montreal right wing Alexei Kovalev says--it has skewed offensive numbers higher and, at times, reduced flow by turning the NHL into a special-teams fest. Power plays are up by one third, to 13.3 per game. In 38 games already, a team has had 10 or more power-play opportunities, compared with five in '03--04. On Oct. 23 the Los Angeles Kings and the Calgary Flames each had 10 power plays in a game that featured less than 25 minutes of even-strength play. For the first time in his nine-year NHL career, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has been preparing three power-play units and four sets of penalty killers.

Although the league has been relentlessly on-message about the improved product, Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn harrumphed late last month, "In spite of everybody saying, 'I love the new game,' I don't love the new game. I don't think it's hockey. It's special-teams situations, and we've got gimmicks [shootouts] to decide games." That frankness cost Quinn a $10,000 fine.

The changes have come at the expense of defensemen, especially those not blessed with particularly quick feet. Many well-established but slow blueliners such as the Colorado Avalanche's Bob Boughner and the Penguins' Lyle Odelein were struggling to keep pace. As Gretzky said, "I've already told our scouts I don't even want to hear about a defenseman who's smart and tough but isn't mobile."

Director of hockey operations Colin Campbell says the new rules were designed to boost hockey in its return the way Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home runs helped baseball shake off the effects of the players' strike that ended in 1995. Permitting two-line passes has yielded grand scoring chances--Tampa Bay's Vaclav Prospal connected with teammate Vincent Lecavalier on one to set up the Lightning's sixth goal against the New Jersey Devils last week--but there has not been a plethora of stretch passes. The no-puck-handling zones behind the nets have not unduly inconvenienced goalies. In fact, some of the least discussed changes have been the most dramatic, especially the rule that prohibits a team that ices the puck from making a line change on the ensuing face-off. On Oct. 25 the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were caught with their fourth line on after an icing call; Kings coach Andy Murray put out a scoring line for the draw, winning both the matchup and the game when Luc Robitaille batted in the Kings' second goal. Said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle afterward, "That was a new-rules goal."

Campbell notes that it is still early "and no one here is patting himself on the back," but the NHL will continue to monitor its referees' vigilance and the offensive numbers. If scoring declines as the season continues, the league will consider more changes next summer--including the nuclear option of larger nets. My NHL: kaboom.


Photographs by Lou Capozzola

UNTOUCHABLE Lemieux, a vocal critic of the old grab-and-hold NHL, last week exploited the new rules for a five-point game.


Photographs by Lou Capozzola

GOTCHA! Mike Leggo and the other referees have been sending off players at a dizzying rate.