August 10, 2011
When the NHL creates a new rule on the ice, it's either a reaction to some player safety issue or an attempt to inflate offensive numbers. It's inside the power play that these two aims intersect.
Safer players typically will mean more penalties, or penalties of greater duration, called during a game. The threat of the man advantage for your opponent is supposed to be a deterrent: One careless high-stick can cost your team the game if the other guys convert.
Yet here's the reality: Power plays are, by and large, ineffective. Penalty killing has become a science for many teams. Combine that with the fact that fewer penalties are being called, and the notion that a power play will offer offensive comeuppance seems foolhardy.
Next week, the NHL will hold its annual Research and Development Camp, a.k.a. Camp Shanny. Along with various other offense-oriented rules that will be tested, there will be changes to the power play tested, both subtle and dramatic.
Remember that old line about "casual" sports fans in the U.S. needing more scoring to attract them to hockey?
Get extra batteries for the goal light if these alternations to the man advantage go through. They could revolutionize it.
What's become apparent in the last two seasons is that power-play chances have sharply declined, while conversion rates are creeping back down as well:
|Year||Teams With More Than 340 Power-Play Opportunities||Teams At Or Better Than 19% Power-Play Conversion Rate|
(The power-play opportunities drop-off should help fuel theories about how referees have backed off calling obstruction-related penalties since the lockout.)
Camp Shanny is going to look at four rules that would give NHL power plays some teeth:
1. Icing While Shorthanded
This rule is a holdover from last season's R&D camp, and was infamously demonized when proposed for the NCAA. As in every coach voted against it.That doesn't mean it lacks merit; it just means it's a radical change.
And it would be radical: Defensive players couldn't simply smack the puck down the ice six or seven times and call it a kill. Some variations of this rule have penalty killers needing to gain possession and skate the puck out of the zone; others allow them to chip it out.
Having a shorthanded team called for icing, and then having their exhausted foursome stuck on the ice for a defensive zone draw, would seem to dramatically increase scoring chances for the power play. Or, if nothing else, this rule could end the monotonous 2 minutes of ice-and-chase that currently encompass the majority of NHL power plays.
2. Delay of Game on Goalies
You know how goaltenders often grab the puck around their crease to freeze it, or craftily bat the puck into the stands on the penalty kill to give their teams a break?
Seriously, check out Rule 63.2 and tell us how many times these over-padded cheats pull this crap on the penalty kill:
Camp Shanny will look into strict enforcement of "goaltenders covering puck outside crease," which will help eliminate stoppages in play and effectively take away one weapon from the last line of defense. It's not a power-play specific rule, but it's one that could really affect a goalie's options on the kill.
3. Changing the Delayed Penalty Rule
Before there's a power play, there's a penalty; and sometimes these penalties result in the offended team pulling its goalie and getting some 6-on-5 action before the whistle is blown.
Traditionally, play stops when the offending team gains possession of the puck, although the refs will bend that rule to where a "touch" counts as possession. But Camp Shanny will test a new rule in which the penalized team has to exit their defensive zone in possession of the puck if a penalty is committed while their opponents are on the attack.
Again, this would seem to punish teams for breaking the rules and reward their victims. Kind of a no-brainer, if juicing offense is the aim. Plus it could make for some pressure-packed moments and frantic battles for the puck in the offensive zone. Always a good thing.
4. The '2-Minute Major'
Welcome to the Atom Bomb.
This is truly the nuclear option for the NHL and its power plays, fundamentally changing minor penalties by having every penalty served in its entirety. Score in the first 15 seconds of a power play? Congrats, sirs; now you've got 1:45 to score a few more.
It's the hockey equivalent of those air-blown money grabbing machines.
It's also a throwback to when power plays were really dangerous: Back in the 1950s, when the penalties were served in full and the Montreal Canadiens were scoring so often with their Hall of Fame unit that goal judges would just keep the goal lamp lit for two minutes.
Here's my take on the 2-minute major from FanHouse in 2007.
"Another tweak that would make power plays a far bigger advantage. The average power play was roughly 1:30 long last season, often ending when a goal was scored, but another 30 seconds on each man advantage could potentially increase the power play goals scored in the league by another 20 or 30 per cent. (Given what took place in the first year after the lockout with so many penalty calls, that isn't always a good thing.)"
That parenthetical point is true, but so is the fact that penalty calls are on the decline. And they could decline further should this rule come back. From Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber back in 2007:
"Maybe it further discourages penalties and increases the amount of five-on-five play, worth considering given the special-teams fests now on display many nights."
It could encourage more even-strength play … or it could mean a six-penalty period could yield only eight minutes of five-on-five (in theory). You run the risk of turning these games into power-play fests, which as Mirtle wrote made for garbage hockey back in 2005-06.
Of course, a well-executed power play can be as beautiful as a brilliant 2-on-1 breakaway. The catharsis of seeing the puck cross the line, the players celebrate and then hearing the roar of the crowd over arena rock is as palpable at 5-on-4 as it is at 5-on-5.
We're always going to lobby for changes that increase offensive flow than simply put more pucks in the net, but there's no denying that more scoring probably equals more attention from the disenfranchised basketball fans in the U.S. — hey, somebody's going to see Michael Bay movies, right? Sports are always going to be about the numbers, from fantasy stats to records being threatened; inflated offensive figures on the power play can only mean more attention for the NHL's star players.
Rather than turning the cages into soccer nets or playing 4-on-4 for 60 minutes, tweaking the power play — where goal-scoring is supposed to thrive anyway — could juice the numbers on the scoreboard without fundamentally changing the game. And if it means a player thinks twice about putting his team down a man, all the better.