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The Player: NHL realignment, fraternizing with the enemy and the shootout

The Player
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(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

Many of you have written in with questions about life in pro hockey. Here are some answers in our latest mailbag edition:

Q. What are your feelings about NHL realignment next season? (J. Smith)

A: I would say I have mixed feelings about realignment.

Geographically, it makes more sense, with the exception of the Florida teams being in a division with the teams from the Northeast. The way I understand it is that travel will be significantly improved for some teams – particularly for the likes of Winnipeg, Dallas and Detroit. The creation of a true Central Division is a positive thing for all the teams in that time zone. Likewise, moving Detroit and Columbus over to the East makes so much sense simply because they are in the eastern time zone. To have had them in the Western Conference at all was quite an ask for those teams.

There are so many things about the realignment that make sense. One could even argue that the extra home dates with the Canadian teams, Boston, and Detroit will help the bottom lines of the Panthers and the Lightning.

Having said all that, there are quite obviously some things about the new format that make no sense.

How can you have two divisions with eight teams and two with seven when access to the playoffs is in large part determined by the division standings?

Is this the best we can do, and how did some of these teams in the East agree to this?

You don't have to study the new divisions for very long to figure out that making the playoffs just got very difficult for a few teams.

This is a major issue, despite what those at the League office would like you to believe. Players want to play in the playoffs for the obvious reason of having a chance to win the Cup. Beyond that, playoff performances, perhaps moreso in hockey than in any other sport, can make a player's career.

In the playoffs, the eyes of the hockey world are on you. A good showing does wonders for a player's reputation, and often his pocketbook. As such, I think a lot of players are concerned with having at least an equal chance to experience playoff hockey.

The inequity seems so strange in some ways that one has to wonder if NHL isn't working on expansion behind the scenes. Getting to 32 teams might be the solution they have in mind.

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Q: Does changing coaches in midseason work? Why does it sometimes not work? (Fred)

A: It's tough to answer this question in general terms, because every team and every coaching change is different. However, I will say that I think that the success, or the lack thereof, of a coaching change might have more to do with the team than with the coaches.

I say that because it seems that there are two types of midseason coaching moves that a GM can make. In one case, a coach is fired because his team, which is perceived to be a good team, is underachieving. In another case, the coach is let go because his team is bad and the GM wants to go in another direction.

I would say that a midseason coaching change is much more likely to be successful in the case of the former rather than the latter. This is true because a good team can be shaken out of a funk by a new coach. Recent examples include the 2008-2009 Pittsburgh Penguins who went on to win the Stanley Cup after Dan Bylsma took over midseason. Lou Lamoriello has also never been shy about replacing his coaches on the eve of the playoffs if he feels that his New Jersey Devils are underachieving.

A different coach can make a big difference if the potential is there. On the other hand, it's much more unlikely that a bad team will miraculously become a good team simply because a new coach is calling the shots.

Q: How far can you punt a football? (Andrew O’Brien)

A: Probably farther than you.

Q. How important is who has a letter on their jersey? Does a team respond to a guy any more or less just because he's a captain? Does the wrong guy wearing a letter negatively affect the team or will they rally around the guy who should be wearing it? (Peter Plevritis)

A: I think most players will tell you that it's not overly important who has the letters on their jerseys. The cliché is that you don't need to have a 'C' or an 'A' on your chest to be a leader – and I think for the most part that's true.

In my experience, it's also rarely an issue because the guys who end up wearing a letter are the prominent leaders on their teams. It is as it should be.

I have seen instances, however, in which a player is named captain or assistant captain, but doesn't command the respect of his teammates needed to assume those roles. Ironically, though, this usually means very little in real terms. Players are going to follow, gravitate to, and defer to certain players naturally, regardless of titles. It simply means there is a disconnect between how a player is perceived by his coaches and management and how he is perceived within the dressing room.

Q. What do you think of the spin-or-rama in shootouts? (Nate)

A: I don't like it, and I think the League has to come up with a more clear definition of what is and is not allowed in the shootout.

I can tell you that most players and goalies don't even know what the rules are governing the penalty shot/shootout. Consequently, there is heated debate in front of the TV every time someone tries a questionable move.

The way I understand it is that the puck can move backwards but it can not stop. The problem I have with the spin-o-rama, aside from the obvious goalie interference, is that in a lot of cases the shooter completely stops his forward motion and actually ends up heading away from the net, back in the direction from which he came.

To me that's ridiculous. That's not a breakaway that's something completely different. I don't think you should be able stop. You should be able to slow down as much as you like and cut as hard as you like but your motion should always be forward.

Q. How are guys who are called up from the AHL for a game or two treated by the team? I ask this not so much for on the ice, but off the ice. Are they treated like a part of the team off the bat, or more like guests? Are guys being called up from the AHL seeing as "just a tryout" and a bit of a nuisance. (James Doist)

A: I think that, in general, call-ups are treated very well. Obviously a player who is called up is on the cusp of being a full-time NHL player, so they have most likely attended multiple training camps and have spent at least a season or two on the AHL team. As such, they aren't strangers by any means. They have probably met all the guys on the team at one time or another and might be close with one or two of the younger players, having been teammates in the minors.

A call-up is probably going to take a few friendly jabs, but overall the emphasis will be on making them feel comfortable so that they can perform that night. Even a veteran player who might have reason to feel threatened by a call-up will do what he can to ease the transition because ... well ... that's what hockey players do.

Most of us are good teammates. It's part of the culture and we understand that in most cases more team success means more individual success as well.

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Q. In the arenas, I have noticed that there is often a colourful reflection on the ice from the advertising video board that is around the rink, usually between the 1st and 2nd levels of seats. My question is if these or any other lighting in the arenas ever bother the players while the game is happening? (Murray Robb)

A: In short, no. I have never been bothered by any light or colors coming off the scoreboard or the ribbon board around the rink.

The one thing I will say is that some players are bothered by the difference in the level of light from rink to rink. Madison Square Garden has always been dark, like you were waiting for them to turn a few more lights on. I'm not sure if that has changed with the renovation or not. In Montreal, it is light enough on the ice but the stands are very dark. It takes a little while to get used to.

Q. Do players of opposing teams ever casually talk and joke with each other during games? (Andrew Myrland)

A: Sometimes. It's definitely not like baseball where you see the first baseman and the base runner asking each other about their families and making dinner plans. One reason is that the game moves so much faster that you rarely have time at a face-off for friendly banter. The other is that you're much less inclined to share a laugh with someone you're going to try to run through the boards a few seconds later.

Having said that, players do talk sometimes. If I have a friend on the other team I will try to say “hi” to him in warm-up or at a face-off if we're lined up next to each other.

Aside from that I don't say too much. I prefer not to get too familiar. I think it makes playing the game easier. I also need to focus on what's about to happen when the puck is dropped. I'm not good enough to multi-task.

I think if you have the personality to pull it off, building a rapport with other players can help you in the long run. I once played with a guy who had a great sense of humor and would always be cracking jokes to the opposition during stoppages in play and at the face-off. He is a skilled player, and under-sized. I have no doubt that his approach has benefited him more than once. Half the guys in the league who are supposed to be trying to take him out think he's a great guy even though they've never really met him.

Q. Most of you guys all know each other, and know the nicknames you are called by. Do you guys ever call an opposing player by name on the ice in an effort to trick him into giving you the puck? (Eddie Iacobelli, Jr.)

A: I can't remember ever doing that, although I may have in a weak moment. Doing something like that is frowned upon, to say the least, and could get you in trouble.

I would suggest you make sure that you are bigger and tougher than the player you are trying to trick.

Q. Question for the player: How do players react inside the locker room if a guy like Kaleta is on your team and he makes a dirty play like he did on Brad Richards? Is he ostracized? Are players like that (Kaleta) looked at differently amongst teammates compared to a guy with a good reputation? (Ben DeSantis)

A: Of course I have been in a situation in which a player is scratched unexpectedly and is unhappy about it. Typically, though, that plays itself out in private and not in front of the cameras. I have never been a part of any team-led suspension of a teammate, nor I have I heard of such a thing happening.

I think the media and the fans sometimes think that players have more influence over coach's decisions than they do.

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Q. What do you think of a coach's challenge? (Andy)

A: I like the idea of a coach's challenge.

I think one coach's challenge per game would not only lead to fewer missed calls but it would be good television. I assume that most fans would be familiar with the concept of the challenge from watching the NFL. I don't buy into the argument that it would slow the game down to a significant extent. I mean, has anyone noticed how long it takes them to make a decision back in the booth in Toronto these days? It can't get any slower than that.

The League already reviews goals so the obvious question is what types of plays would be eligible for a coach's challenge/review.

Two plays that immediately come to mind for me are off-sides and high-sticking calls. If we had a coach's challenge to review off-side, I think Matt Duchene might be minus one goal this year.

As far as high-sticking goes, sometimes a player embellishes when a stick hits him on the shoulder or the chest. Other times the player is hit in the face with a stick but it belongs to his teammate.

These are tough calls for the referees and they can change the course of a game or a playoff series.

Why not have another chance to get it right?

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