On the first day of their annual March meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., NHL general managers were asked to do a good thing – blue-sky any and all ideas and innovations, in the hopes of making the overall game better.
This initiative – a research-and-development exercise – is something the NHL has let slide in recent years and so its return, even in an informal setting, was welcome.
The GMs broke off into discussion groups and pondered all sorts of wild notions – from shifting the faceoff dots to the middle of the ice to limiting the ways a team can block shots.
It was a promising start to a 72-hour meeting that eventually devolved into a lot of the same-old, same-old by the end. When the GMs left for home Wednesday evening, their major recommendation was that teams should be prevented from calling a timeout after an icing play in order to rest tired players.
That was it. That was all – a tweak so small and inconsequential that you wonder why they bothered at all.
These are changing times at the NHL's GM level and it is fascinating to see how the generational shift among the group may be affecting policy decisions. The GMs are essentially the gate keepers of the professional game and it looks as though the younger, more inexperienced, managers have been slow to find their voices at the table.
Collectively, the GMs tend to be conservative. They move at a glacially slow pace, partly because some of the changes that they've previously pushed through did not have their intended consequences. Backtracking on rule changes that have failed them – stuffing the genie back in the bottle – takes courage, and when given the opportunity to do just that this past week, they mostly opted for the safe and easy status quo.
Instead, what they should have done is:
Eliminate offside challenges
When the GMs originally introduced video review, they all agreed on why they were doing it. They wanted to get calls on the ice correct and help the linesmen overturn any egregious errors that might have led to an offside goal.
All good in theory. In practice, however, coaches have perverted the system the way they love to do. Now, more often than not, it's a hope call. They have monitors on the bench and if they even think a goal is probably okay, they roll the dice and ask for a review anyway because the cost – forfeiting their timeout – is negligible.
Invariably, the play is so close that the video evidence is inconclusive. Almost always, the momentum of a game grinds to a halt, no matter what the verdict may be. When players, coaches and managers make mistakes, they usually issue a pro forma mea culpa and that's the end of it. But when an official misses a call, teams practically want to bring in a special investigator to ponder the unfairness of it all.
Human error is part of the game, for everyone on the ice – players and officials. Offside challenges have hurt, not helped the game. That's one rule that needs to be repealed.
Many teams are upset that the bye weeks – five-day mid-season mini-vacations for each team – produced some underwhelming performances coming out of the break, a development that misses the point. The issue isn't how a team plays one game out of 82, but the effect of a compressed schedule on the remaining 81. This year, regular-season play started five days later than a year earlier, thanks to the World Cup, but ends on the same date, April 19. If you add in the bye week, it means they've had to cram the regular 82-game schedule into 10 fewer days. That has resulted in many fatigued performances where good teams just flat out didn't have it.
If they truly value the health and well-being of the players, then there is an obvious solution: Either trim six games from each team's schedule or, more practically, significantly reduce the length of NHL training camps and play a maximum of four preseason games. The players are all in shape going into camp anyway, and most everybody views the exhibition season as a necessary evil – from the veterans sleepwalking through the games to the fans paying for less-than-riveting entertainment.
If you started the season 10 days earlier and then used the time more productively to give players time off in the regular season, it would make the night-to-night product better (and maybe even safer).
Foot-dragging on the Olympics
Most of the rhetoric coming out of the GMs meetings was discouragingly familiar, with commissioner Gary Bettman on message the same way he's been for years. The NHL doesn't want to go to Pyeongchang to compete in the 2018 Olympics, unless the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation sweeten the pot and convince the league that it is in its best interest to change course.
Of course, if the NHL really truly didn't want to go, it could have said no by now. The fact that it has left the door ajar suggests the league will allow its arms to be twisted if for no other reason than it could face a massive backlash from its core supporters, especially in Canada, where fans want to see best-on-best played at the Olympics and would be outraged by a B-level competition.
Deep down, you'd have to think the IOC knows how important NHL participation has become to the overall spectacle, and Bettman, as shrewd a negotiator as there is in pro sport, knows that, too. Somewhere, amid all the posturing and preening, you'd think this massive game of chicken between Bettman and IOC president Thomas Bach is still going to result in the right decision. If not, feel free to organize that boycott of NHL games during the 2018 Olympics that some advanced thinkers on social media have helpfully proposed.