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NHL GMs try to reduce shootouts, make sense of new playoff format

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
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TORONTO – As the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman left the building Tuesday, he was asked if he liked anything in the general managers’ meeting.

“Lunch,” he deadpanned.

If you’re hungry for big news, the November meeting is usually unsatisfying. The GMs talk over ideas for one day and essentially decide what they will discuss more seriously at their three-day March meeting.

But there were a few morsels to chew on this time, including extended overtime, goalie fights, the playoff format, hybrid icing and bullying. The highlights:

Overtime

For years, the Detroit Red Wings’ Ken Holland has pushed for a way to de-emphasize the shootout. He said there is more support than ever before to do something – more 4-on-4, maybe some 3-on-3 – though the GMs have not settled on exactly what yet.

Though 262 games this season, 14.89 percent of games have ended in shootouts, the second-highest percentage since the shootout was introduced in 2005-06.

Holland has proposed 10 minutes of overtime, with five minutes of 4-on-4, followed by five minutes of 3-on-3, followed by a shootout. But some GMs think 3-on-3 is too radical, some see problems with ice conditions and some have other ideas, including more 4-on-4 time and switching ends so teams have long line changes.

“My proposal’s 10, but I would take seven or eight right now,” Holland said. “The more games that are decided in a 4-on-4 or 3-on-3, personally, I like better, and I think that sort of has been the feeling in the room.”

Yzerman said: “Personally, really, I think 4-on-4 overtime is extremely exciting. Regardless of the teams playing, I always find it to be some of the most exciting moments of the game. So I’d certainly support extension of 4-on-4.”

The St. Louis Blues’ Doug Armstrong said: “I’m not sure about the 3-on-3 yet, because I don’t see it enough in our regular games – in the 60 minutes or in the overtime – to see what an effect that would have. But I like the ideas of extended 4-on-4, or Lou Lamoriello brought up switching zones to make it a little bit harder for the change. That might accomplish things, too. I think maybe we can see if we can tweak it a few different ways before we do a radical change of going to 3-on-3.”

The Boston Bruin’s Peter Chiarelli said: “I’m kind of on the fence. I think anytime that you can maybe create a more real hockey situation to determine the game, I think it’s good. But I like the shootout. It’s an entertainment factor that I think a lot of fans appreciate.”

Fighting

There continued to be no push to stiffen the penalties for fighting in general.

“If there’s different ways to further regulate it, that may happen,” Chiarelli said. “Over time that may happen, and it probably will. But it’s such a deep-rooted part of our game, and I think it plays an important role. There’s just incidents and types of fights that don’t look good.”

But there was a push to address one type of fight that doesn’t look good – goalie fights. The Philadelphia Flyers’ Ray Emery raised the issue when he pummeled the Washington Capitals’ Braden Holtby recently. The GMs will discuss possible solutions in March, maybe an automatic suspension if a goalie leaves his end of the ice to start a fight with another goalie.

“We’d like to do something,” Holland said. “We don’t really like to see goalies fighting.”

The Playoff Format

When the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association settled on a realignment plan and playoff format, they created a wild-card and crossover concept. Now some GMs are unhappy with it.

The top three teams in each of the four divisions will make the playoffs. The next two teams in each of the two conferences will earn wild-card spots. The top team in each conference will play the wild-card team with the lowest point total. The other division winner will play the wild-card team with the second-lowest point total. If a wild-card team wins in the first round, it will stay in the same division for the second round, even if it crossed over.

Realignment was supposed to highlight division rivalries and reduce travel. But under this format, even a conference is evenly split – with four teams in each division making the playoffs, instead of five in one division and three in the other – you could have non-divisional matchups and long travel. Some GMs would like to tweak the format so that if four teams in a division make the playoffs, they stay within the division, even if the fourth-place team has fewer points than the fourth-place team in the other division.

“My personal opinion is wherever possible to stay within the division,” Holland said.

Yzerman said: “We’ve made a change. Let’s see how this change works out. If the wild cards have to cross over, they have to cross over. At some point, maybe we can get it more divisional, if that’s possible. At the end of the day, it probably isn’t a perfect system. Let’s see how this one plays out.”

Hybrid Icing

Some GMs have been concerned about the enforcement of the new hybrid icing rule. NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom confirmed that it is a race to the puck decided at the faceoff dots, not a race to the dots. He also said the league has been averaging 8.5 icings per game this season, compared to 8.4 last season, an indication the linesmen are calling it correctly.

“It’s remarkable,” Walkom said. “It’s almost the same, and that’s with taking the attainable pass out. … All the players, coaches and the officials have been on a fast-ramp learning curve to get this rule right, and so far we’re getting better at it, and we haven’t had anybody slamming into the boards, and we’re having the same number of icings, so that’s probably a real good thing.”

Bullying

In response to the NFL bullying controversy, the NHL wanted to make sure a similar problem wouldn’t happen with one of its teams. Chiarelli mentioned that with smartphones and social media – and even behind-the-scenes TV shows – that the sanctity of the locker room isn’t what it once was. If something is going on, it might get out, not that it should have been going on in the first place.

“I think you’re on a higher alert, and it’s a workplace environment,” Chiarelli said. “It’s not the same workplace environment as here on Bay Street, but there are parameters that you have to stand by. It’s just a discussion we had to be aware and know that as managers and coaches you’re responsible.”

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