Summer camp full of fun for NHL brass

TORONTO—The rink was almost empty about 8 a.m. on Thursday. The junior prospects were preparing in the dressing rooms. Most of the NHL executives and reporters hadn’t arrived yet.

Kris King was alone on the ice, except for a cameraman standing behind him. King, the NHL’s senior vice president of hockey operations, shot puck after puck off a curved piece of Plexiglas at the end of one of the benches.

At least he was trying to.

“I was just hoping to hit the damn thing,” cracked King, known more for firing with his fists than his stick when he played in the NHL. “I’m glad not a lot of people were here. I’m glad I had a big bucket of pucks, too.”

This was the purpose of the NHL’s research, development and orientation camp—to try new things and simply see what happens. It’s one thing to identify a problem in the game. It’s another to suggest a solution. It’s yet another to discover what new problems that solution might create, or at least to pin down all the particulars.

“A lot of the things that I dream about at night, it sounds like a good idea,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. “Then you put it into reality, and it’s not the same or it’s not as good.”

Yes, some people dream about this stuff at night.

In the case of the curved glass, it came out of a nightmare. The Boston BruinsZdeno Chara(notes) ran the Montreal CanadiensMax Pacioretty(notes) into a stanchion in March. Pacioretty’s head bowed the padding, and he suffered a concussion and cracked vertebra. There was debate about the play and an uproar, at least from some, when Chara was not suspended. There was also concern about the stanchion itself.

The Toronto Maple Leafs immediately increased the padding on the stanchions at Air Canada Centre from one or two inches to five. But more padding wouldn’t absorb enough force when a player, especially one with as much mass at the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Chara, directed a speedy opponent like Pacioretty into it.

The league came up with an innovation. Install curved glass at all termination points (or, in the few instances where there is a post, recess it 18 inches). No abrupt endings. No padding needed. Players simply glance off the glass, which is cushioned by springs.

“If it makes it safer,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said, “let’s do it.”

The curved glass will be installed by the start of the regular season.

Alas, it’s not that simple. How does the puck react when it strikes the curved glass? It doesn’t happen often, but one time could cause another player safety issue or determine the outcome of a game. If the puck hits the curved glass, should the play be blown dead?

The puck struck the curved glass maybe once in three scrimmages at the RDO camp. So King shot some pucks of his own with the camera rolling. Sometimes the puck came right back at him. At certain points the puck would either deflect into the bench or straight into the slot.

Players generally don’t fire puck at the bench area, because they don’t want to hit anyone. But league executives don’t want skilled players giving it a try now, hoping to bank a pass into the slot, and create another hazard. They will study the video. It will help them determine whether to blow the play dead if the puck hits the curved glass—the likely recommendation—and give them something to show officials so they know what to expect.

“You don’t really know until you try,” King said. “And why not do it here instead of an exhibition game?”

The NHL tried many other ideas Wednesday and Thursday, mostly experimenting for the future, not testing for immediate changes. These were the most intriguing:

— Goal verification line: How often is evidence inconclusive, even though the league now has HD cameras overhead for instant replay?

The league painted verification lines—trying the colors yellow and green—slightly more than three inches behind the goal line. Three inches is the width of the puck. So if the puck is touching the verification line, you know the puck has completely crossed the goal line, even if you can’t see the goal line.

The league also tried clear plastic along the bottom of the net near the goal posts, so officials could have a better view of the puck from the corners, and clear plastic atop the net near the crossbar, so the cameras could have a better view overhead, too.

— Shallower nets: If you didn’t know, you probably wouldn’t have noticed. The players didn’t even notice until they were on the ice and saw the effect.

The league used nets with frames of 40 inches instead of 44 inches. Four inches doesn’t sound like much. It doesn’t look like much. But why not give today’s Gretzkys more room to work in their offices. Skaters noticed they had more space; goaltenders noticed that wraparounds came a lot quicker.

The only concern seems to be that nets might tip over more easily.

— No change after offside, puck returns to offending team’s end: The coaches loved this one. They could exploit matchups in the offensive zone against tired defenders, just as they do after icing calls. It also could keep the game moving.

“Now there’s going to be some people that say, ‘Is it too much of an advantage, just because you go offside?’ ” Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “But the one thing offside does, if you think of offside and you think of icing, it stops the game. … Basically you’re penalizing for stopping the game, so don’t stop the game. Play fast, but there’s going to be a consequence if you stop it for icing or an offsides. That’s a rule that has some merit to it.”

— No icing on the penalty kill: Looking to put more power in power plays, the league tried a few things. Players serving full two-minute penalties is too drastic. If a penalty is called for the loss of a scoring chance, one goal is enough to even it out. Two-man advantages could be even more deadly and perhaps become more rare, especially at key times.

“Boy, it’s a tough, tough penalty to pay,” Poile said. “I’m just thinking, late in the game, when you’re shorthanded, would an official have the strength to call the second penalty?”

But there is sound logic for not allowing icing on the penalty kill: Why reward a team for breaking one rule by allowing it to break another?

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said penalty killers would continue to ice the puck and use the break as a rest period. “We were actually in our discussions saying … ‘You could only ice it two times; the third time is a penalty,’ ” Bylsma said. “As coaches, we’d say, ‘Just fire it down the ice.’ “

Still, the team on the power play could make a change and take advantage of a matchup with tired penalty killers. Attacking teams would spend less time retrieving pucks and breaking out, more time in the offensive zone. It would be worth the added whistles.

— Hybrid icing: There is little appetite for no-touch icing, when the play is blown dead as soon as the puck crosses the goal line. But there is support for hybrid icing, in which a linesman would determine who would win the race for the puck when the players reach the faceoff dot. It preserves the excitement of the race, but eliminates collisions that could cause catastrophic injury.

“I think it’s fair,” Poile said. “I don’t think there’s that many situations that are that close to call, and I also think it’s a safety issue for the players.”

A good counterargument: Why add another tough judgment call for the linesmen when icing shouldn’t be an issue anyway? Contact is already prohibited on icing plays unless it involves reaching for the puck. Bad injuries are rare. Enforce the rule strictly, and there should be even fewer.

But legs and sticks get tangled. Accidents happen. And as soon as a multimillion-dollar defenseman goes down with a catastrophic injury, how loud will the wails be for somebody to do something?

— Three-on-three and long line changes overtime: Since it was introduced after the 2004-05 lockout, many hockey people have sought to deemphasize the shootout. Make that “enhance overtime,” in the words of a smiling Brendan Shanahan(notes), the NHL’s vice president of player safety and hockey operations, who ran the RDO camp.

At a time when parity reigns and points are at a premium, coaches and GMs don’t want games decided by a skills competition, at least not as many, even if research shows the fans love it.

“I think if you asked anybody, they would love to see the games settled by some form of hockey,” Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “I understand the shootout, and I understand why it’s in the game. From the fans’ perspective, there’s a lot of excitement generated there.”

The anti-shootout crowd had stats on its side last year: In 2009-10, almost 15 percent of games were decided by shootouts, the most ever. But in 2010-11, only 12.11 percent were, the second-fewest ever. That has taken some steam out of the debate.

Still, the league tried four minutes of three-on-three after four minutes of four-on-four, with the teams switching ends to create a long line change. Three-on-three hockey doesn’t happen often, but it does happen and is more native to the game than a series of penalty shots.

“If they take a penalty on you, what happens then?” Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau wondered. “Is it a 3-on-2?”

You could go to 4-on-3, adding a player instead of subtracting one. But at the RDO camp, no idea is a bad idea. A reporter mused about a 3-on-1 two-man advantage.

“That would be cool,” Boudreau said, smiling. “Then you could pull the goalie, and it would be pretty interesting.”

Maybe they can try that next year.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 18, 2011