By The Book

We’ve witnessed crackdowns by NHL officials on various infractions before, only to see proclamations from head office fade away and the status quo return. A month or two or three, maybe even most of a season, where games are called by the book, only to return to the same old, same old – usually when playoffs begin.

Fans of the Edmonton Oilers can only hope the latest crackdown — an emphasis on calling hacking at the gloves and arms of players — which we saw on display in split-squad games against the Calgary Flames Monday night, has more legs than that. That it lasts. That this isn’t a case of Lucy pulling the football away again after the by-the-book period wanes.

With the most talented player in the game, Connor McDavid, and one of the more skilled line-ups in the league, the crackdown we witnessed last night – the Oilers had 12 power plays in a 5-2 win at Rogers Place and seven more in a 5-4 win down in Calgary – and a by-the-book approach is nothing but good news. Simply put, if the league really wants more scoring, call the game in a way that lets skill take over.

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Will it last this time? We’ll see. You’d think that the number of penalties we saw in those split-squad games between the Oilers and Flames will decrease by the time the regular season schedule begins as players get the message. We’ve been told, starting as early as last summer, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and officials are serious this time. Sure.

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“Over time, it became a whack-fest in and around the hands, and players were getting hurt,” Stephen Walkom, NHL vice-president and director of officiating, said during NHL meetings in New York. “If you slash a player’s hands with force, we are looking to shore that up, because we’ve let it go for too long. If we really want to increase scoring in the game, why are we allowing players to wield their sticks six or eight feet away from the puck? It’s an area, I believe, we let slip.”

And this, from Mike Murphy, senior VP of hockey operations, referencing hand injuries suffered by Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Marc Methot, who almost had a finger severed by a Sidney Crosby slash: “This was a direction given to us (by general managers),” Murphy said. “Guys are breaking hands and fingers. There will be a spike initially in slashing penalties, but the players will conform eventually.”

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With McDavid, who led the league in penalty differential – he drew 51 penalties and took just 13 for a plus-38 in 2016-17 — and Leon Draisaitl in the fold, it goes without saying the Oilers would be among the teams to benefit most if the NHL stays with a plan to let skill carry the day. Rob Vollman wrote a piece for NHL.com on the McDavid effect here. It’s worth a read. There’s another good read by Darcy McLeod here.

The Oilers finished fifth in power play percentage in 2016-17 at 22.9 per cent (56-for-245), but those 245 opportunities left them just middle of the pack (15th). How many more power play chances might the Oilers get this season if officials (and NHL head office) stick with the edict that is in place now and insist that opponents not poke and hack away at McDavid when he has the puck? Same goes for other elite players around the league.


I’ll believe the NHL’s commitment to letting its stars shine is for real when the same penalties we saw last night are being called in April, May and beyond. When McDavid and Gaudreau and Crosby and the other elite players people pay big money to see are allowed to do their thing without fighting through stickwork and risking broken fingers and hands along the way.

If the NHL stays with it, we’re going to see an increase in goals and excitement and we won’t have to start changing the size of nets and employing other imaginative measures to get it. If players don’t adapt to the game being called by the book, we’ll see more power-play goals. If they do adapt, which I suspect they will as long as calling infractions remains consistent, elite players like McDavid will be better able to entertain us with their considerable skills. That would be a welcome change, indeed.

By the book works for me.

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  • OriginalPouzar

    Ultimately this is a great thing.

    Listening to Saravelli on TSN Radio this morning, he mentioned that the competition committee (or DPS) looked at four games in the playoffs and there was anywhere between 70 and 120 of these types of stick infractions/game.

    Last night was a little much – Oilers have a nice PP but I don’t want to see 8 plus PPs / game / team.

    With that said, the players will adapt. It will take some time but they will adapt. The refs will call it tight at the beginning of the regular season – that will disapate a bit but they will still call more and that, combined with the players adapting, should lead to a better game.

    Wild card is what happens in the playoffs – it was insanity this past spring.

    • ricardo2000

      My rule for stick infractions would be simpler: using two hands is a penalty; using one hand on the hand would not be a penalty. Obviously, the referees would have discretion for energy and intent of the stick work. So, a slash or punch to the head, or other vulnerable area, would still be a penalty.

    • ricardo2000

      My rule for stick infractions would be simpler: using two hands is a penalty; using one hand on the stick would not be a penalty. Obviously, the referees would have discretion for energy and intent of the stick work. So, a slash or punch to the head, or other vulnerable area, would still be a penalty.

  • CMG30

    Impressed when the same infractions are being called in April? Nail on the head! Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic but I don’t see this lasting. Already the message boards are filling up with gripes over the number of penalties. Hockey fans and refs alike need to realize that players must adapt to the rules, not the other way around.

  • CMG30

    The other issue is that the NHL expanded too much which diluted the talent. Allowing the hooking and slashing is yet another way that the refs and the league can ‘manage’ the game to ensure that otherwise noncompetitive teams can stay in, or even win games.

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    We won’t believe it until we see these calls in April – for sure. But it won’t be official even then until we see Getzlaf and Kessler sitting in the box. It’s one thing to cracking down on the third and fourth line guys. Call me when they start finding their whistle when all the players that the refs have man-crushes on are skating.

    Last night meant nothing.

    • Last night did mean something — it’s part of setting the standard of what will be allowed — but your point is taken. Players like Kesler will have to adjust because laying a stick on an opponent, as he did every chance he got against McDavid in the playoffs, is a big part of his game. One saving grace for Kesler is that he’s a terrific skater and can rely on that. Same for Getzlaf — he’s a stickman who’ll have to find another way.

  • tileguy

    Perhaps we can put a bright orange line halfway up a stick, any two handed stick contact above that line is a penalty, below that a stick check, providing it does not break the stick is legal.

  • madjam

    Have no problem with the crackdown on slashing , or new faceoff rules when flagrant and effect the game . I do have a problem calling penalyies with ones that don’t really effect the game/play , and fall under the pansy ass touch category that do not really effect the game .

  • madjam

    Are we seeing a shift towards offence and protecting star players more like football protecting quarterbacks , like in CFL . We also see in football , the extra space receivers now receive and interference calls on backs far more prevalent than in the past , opening the game up further for star receivers , etc.. Player safety picks up momentum , but so does skill and offence to a marked degree – both of which are favorable .

  • madjam

    Off Topic : Oilers site lists group A practice today ( early looks to be our team) , while Group B looks to be outsiders to grab a spot on team . In Group A we have Kelly , Khaira and Yakamoto as part of the 14 forwards . Slepychev not listed as yet , so that might be 15 . On defence Auvitu pulls into top 8 with Fayne at this stage . Talbot and Broissoit the two goalies . Waiting to see if cuts are coming today .

  • singlemalt

    Unfortunately, this is the only game I can think of in the world when the “rules” change depending on which time or period the infraction occurs, what the score is, or when in the season that particular game is played. And the reason I hear most is that the refs should not decide the outcome!! Actually by deciding what to call when instead of consistently enforcing the rules does the opposite. It puts the ref and his subjectivity front and centre in influencing the outcome!! I have been watching hockey since before the glory days and I as frustrated now as I was then in how the refs influence the outcome of the game while vehemently denying the obvious. Either change the rules or enforce them as humanly accurate as possible.

    • Dr

      I agree totally. If they call the rule book as it’s written, it’s not the officials deciding the game, it’s the players committing the infraction.
      I remember in the late 90s, they decided to crack down on interference, so they started calling “obstruction hooking,” or “obstruction holding.” Hooking and holding were already in the rule book. I don’t understand why they even have refs.
      Now, the NHL is saying that the goalies won’t have to wear the smaller equipment just yet. Why not? Every decision they make, with rules, equipment, etc., takes years to implement. In almost everything they do, they look bush league.

  • madjam

    The rules are fairly clear , but the officials and league often are at odds in how far or extreme to impliment all of it . Calling everything destroys a normal flow of game and integrity of the game , as well as media time, etc. . Slowly the NHL is taking more physical aspects of the game out . Fighting , obstruction , hooking , holding , stick work and face offs getting further restricted . Dangerous play , down to even clean hits also targeted . Even failed attempts to create an infraction are coming into effect with much more frequency , and penalized as though the infraction took place . Most is being implemented thru cover of player safety . Disgression of officials has always been a bone of contention and will continue to be so . Still beats computers or robots officiating and calling everything from a computer base above the game . Finally , why has the 5 minute drawing of blood been abolished and basically made a double minor ? The 5 minute major more a deterrent to careless use of stick in my view .