Friday, June 25, 2010

Not Seeing the Forrest For the Trees

There exists a system of tweaking the rules of the game for a very good reason: like any sport, the sport of hockey evolves as players, training methods, strategies, and equipment evolves over time, and what once made sense during a different era may not make sense anymore today. But in general, when the rules are fiddled with, the end result usually goes mostly unnoticed by the casual fan. The game, at its core, pretty much stays the same.

Every two years, the NCAA has the opportunity to go over the rulebook and propose rule changes. Usually, these proposals are fairly uneventful and largely agreeable. This year is a different story.

Some of the proposed rule changes, naturally, make sense and will be good to see implemented. For the most part, they are minor tweaks. Many are just common sense.

For instance, hybrid icing will be a welcome addition, giving linesmen the option to wave off icing if it is clear that an attacking player would be first to touch the puck, creating an element of the NHL's touch-up icing while maintaining the NCAA's safety-conscious automatic call. Accumulated suspensions through game DQ's carrying over into the next season for players with remaining eligibility makes sense. Innovations like switching sides before overtime (every overtime, for those playoff games that never end) are little things that won't have a major impact on the game, but could have tangible benefits.

But this year, the committee has put forward a pair of rule change proposals that are completely ridiculous, with one of them being completely nonsensical and facing practically universal opposition.

The rules committee, led by Alaska athletic director Forrest Karr, has proposed to enforce icing for a team on the penalty kill. This is an absurd abomination for a number of reasons.

1) First and foremost, the question has to be asked. WHY? What is the issue that this rule change is supposed to address? Hybrid icing addresses the ludicrous sight of the whistle blowing when an attacker is clearly the first tracking down the errant pass. The overtime rule seeks to shake things up a bit in an age where endless playoff games are becoming more common. But what is this a reaction to? Karr explains:

This change would remove a contradiction in the rules that allows a team that has violated the rules in one area to violate another rule in order to compensate for being shorthanded. This would provide more scoring opportunities for the power play team and could encourage more skilled play from the defensive team.
WHAT?! That's the explanation? Seriously? A "contradiction in the rules?" "Providing more scoring opportunities?"

The median goals per game last season was 2.95, and the median power play scored at a clip of 18.7%. That's not bad! Those are good signs that teams are getting plenty of scoring opportunities, on and off the power play.

Have Forrest Karr and his associates on the rules committee never actually watched a power play? Being down a player is a huge disadvantage. As we saw in Troy last season, being down two for a lengthy period can practically be like conceding a goal. It already requires skill for a penalty killing team to obtain control of the puck and get rid of it in order to make a change. Watch a penalty killing unit that's been unable to do that for a minute or longer and you'll see that it's not easy.

Teams that are down a man are further hamstrung by what is almost always a complete inability to attack for the duration of the penalty. Most teams that are good at scoring shorthanded are simply more adept at taking advantage of turnovers high in the defensive zone that allow them to quickly counter. But by and large, a penalty cripples a team's offensive ability. That's two giant disadvantages right there.

Then there's the effect that the icing rule has on pulling the goaltender late. Some coaches are hesitant to pull their goaltender on the power play despite the instant creation of a two or three man advantage, because it allows the shorthanded team to take potshots at the open net with impunity. If icing were enforced, pulling the goaltender on the power play becomes a no brainer, taking a strategic element out of the game.

The "contradiction in the rules" exists to mitigate some of the massive disadvantage, but it's not significant enough to keep a penalty from being something to be avoided at all costs. Using the argument that we should be reluctant to do anything that would help a team that has violated the rules, why do we allow penalties to expire? Shouldn't we just keep them off the ice until the "cheating" team has been scored upon? Wouldn't that be more fair under that logic?

We don't need power plays scoring at a 40% rate or more, which is exactly what this would cause.

2) College hockey has hired Paul Kelly to, among other things, try to attract more American and Canadian players to the NCAA ranks as opposed to the major junior route. A rule of this nature is sufficient enough to completely destroy any chance of the money that is being spent on Kelly being of any use whatsoever.

The NCAA does not concern itself with being a development league for the professional ranks in any sport, but the reality is that it is exactly the role it plays for a high percentage of participants. In the amateur ranks - which includes major junior whether the NCAA considers it professional or not - there's a big emphasis for players to earn time on special teams, that is, power play and penalty kill units, because it affords them the opportunity to show their versatility in a number of different and important roles. If this rule is put into place, the most basic special teams strategies will change on both sides of the puck. Power plays would play looser with the puck in the neutral zone, and penalty killers will be forced to do more than is asked of them in any other league.

No serious hockey league enforces icing on the penalty kill. No player serious about playing at the next level would agree to spend upwards of four years of his development in a league which does, because the special teams experience gained there will be wasted. This alone would make Kelly's argument of the college route being a better developmental experience for top talent nothing short of ridiculous.

3) There's a safety issue here. Ever seen a PK unit caught out for the majority of a penalty? Two minutes out on the ice is beyond tiring. Fatigued players are more likely to injure themselves, and desperate players are more likely to try things that might lead to injure others. There's no doubt that this rule will invariably lead to longer penalty kill shifts, regardless of a team's ability to display the "skilled play" that Karr and his team are looking for. This rule might have been a little easier to consider before the establishment of the rule that bars a team from changing personnel after an icing infraction, but even then, it would have been pretty dicey.

Seth Appert, in his role as president of the American Hockey Coaches Association, pointed out an additional safety issue - to spectators.
“The other thing we’re going to do is, we’re going to clear pucks into the stands, and that’s putting the fans at risk,” Appert bluntly explained. “Right now on the penalty kill, we work on icing the puck. Well, now, instead of doing that, we’re going to work on clearing the puck over the glass, because now we can get a change and get fresh bodies on the ice. You’re going to see a lot of pucks going into the benches, and a lot of pucks going into the stands.”
It doesn't matter if icing the puck doesn't allow a team to change players or if throwing the puck over the glass creates another penalty - a line that's dead tired isn't going to care as long as the whistle blows and they get a short breather.

4) Appert also outlined just how he would deal with the rule - he'd just keep icing the puck, making a penalty kill situation actually slow the game down if the power play can't maintain constant control:
“From a game-enhancement point of view is, I know what I’ll do with my players if this is passed: We won’t stop icing the puck; we’ll just ice the puck and take the whistle. So what you’re going to see is power plays become like the NBA in the last two minutes [of a basketball game] , where it’s stop-and-go, stop-and-go, stop-and-go. If we’re tired on the penalty kill, I’m not going to encourage our players to make a dangerous play. I’m going to encourage them to ice the puck, and we’re not going to go chase it. We’ll just line up four across, take a knee, get 10 or 15 seconds of rest while the referees go retrieve the puck.”
So the options we are left with are to have a power play running roughshod over the penalty killers, or to have the penalty kill take 10 real time minutes or so. Neither are appetizing for anyone involved - players, coaches, and fans.

5) Air Force coach Tom Serratore touched on another issue - power plays becoming such a game changer that referees will let more penalties go uncalled.
“If power-play percentages go up exponentially — and they’re certainly not going to go down — I’m afraid that the referees are going to become reluctant to call penalties at certain junctures of the game,” he mused. “We could end up having fewer penalties in a game, not because the game is any cleaner, but because the referees are reluctant to call it because the power plays are having such a bigger impact.”
This rule absolutely must be spiked. It is nonsensical in the extreme.

Then there's the other rule that needs to be scuppered - a well-intentioned rule that will lead to the officiating morass becoming an even bigger nightmare.

A rule has been proposed that will, for the sake of safety, require that contact to the head penalties be assessed as major penalties with a game misconduct or a game DQ at the referee's discretion. On its face, it seems like the right thing to do in order to try and cut down on dangerous plays that put players at risk of head injuries.

The committee has said that this rule is going to mandate a major if and only if the contact is a result of a targeted hit as opposed to incidental contact to the head (which will remain a minor), and even then, it doesn't seem that bad.

But this is going to have the exact same application as another well meaning rule that has led to a lot of heads in hands in the bleachers: the checking from behind rule. Far too often, we've seen CFB calls being applied indiscriminately and illogically, dumbfounding the same three principals referred to in the last rule - players, coaches, and fans. The difference between what was CFB and what wasn't changed from night to night, even with the same referees. Further, we have quite frequently seen that once one team was called for CFB, the other team had to be on their best behavior and not even come close to the infraction, or they'd have a player called as well in order to "even up," especially if the first call was a borderline situation in which the referee felt boxed in by the regulations and assessed the major.

If officiating in any of the five college leagues could even passably be described as being competent or consistent, there would be no problem with this rule. But any time you ask a referee to peer into the mind of a player and divine his intent, you're asking for trouble, even if you've got a top notch officiating crew. Sometimes, the best in the game can settle in on an interpretation that makes sense. That has little to no chance of happening here. So in a situation where CFB continues to be applied with no consistency, we're now going to add a CTH major to the mix, making for twice the frustration.

The rules committee is already putting forward a rule that could lead to a decrease in dangerous play anyway - they plan to study the use of half-shields for men's competition as an acceptable alternative to the full-shields currently required. The data is real - you get fewer dangerous plays in a game in which the participants wear less protection. For instance, football players sustain more head injuries than do rugby players, who wear minimal head protection. The rationale behind it is simple - if you and your competitors are open to injury, you're not going to go at each other as recklessly. But if the illusion of safety exists on both sides, a player is more likely to, say rush into the corner with more reckless abandon.

As mentioned, the rules committee has put forward a few rule changes that should be welcomed with open arms - but Forrest Karr and his cohorts seem intent on pushing forward with these two rules, the former of which has been loudly and defiantly shouted down from all corners, and the latter of which is only going to add to the NCAA's officiating problems. He's angling for a WaP photoshop, no question.


  1. "The data is real - you get fewer dangerous plays in a game in which the participants wear more protection. For instance, football players sustain more head injuries than do rugby players, who wear minimal head protection. The rationale behind it is simple - if you and your competitors are open to injury, you're not going to go at each other as recklessly."

    Shouldn't that first sentence read "The data is real - you get fewer dangerous plays in a game in which the participants wear *less* protection."?


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