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.
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.
“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.”
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.
THE WAY I SEE IT
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.