It’s that time of year again. Skates are sharpened, sticks are taped and 12 packs of Molson Canadians are flying off the shelves. That’s right, boys and girls. It’s Christmas in October. Hockey is back, and it comes with a lot of new changes, including new divisions and new rules. The two biggest rule changes in the National Hockey League this year are a larger space behind the net, a new hybrid icing system and a few changes with the game’s longest pastime, fighting.
Who doesn’t like a little more room to dangle? This year, the nets have been changed to an overall dimension of 96 inches to 88. This is not the scoring area, the target the player has to shoot on, but instead this refers to a new six-inch space behind the net that the players have never been able to explore before. Wayne Gretzky could have had least 100 more goals if this change occurred during his time. With this new space, there should be a more open style of play behind the net with a lot more looks to out front and maybe a few more wrap-arounds.
Hybrid icing: yes, I was confused too. But don’t worry, friends, I’m about to break it down. In the past, icing was called when a puck was shot down from above the center ice line into an opponent’s zone, and if said opponent touched the puck first after it had crossed the end line, it would be called icing. If a player from the team who dumped the puck touched it first, the game would continue. This is no longer the case. The call is now up to the referees’ discretion. It starts out the same: the puck is dumped in from above the center ice line, but now if an opposing player is closer to the puck when it gets to the bottom of the in-zone faceoff dots, the referee will blow the whistle. It is based on the notion that the closest player to the puck should be the one to touch the puck. This won’t happen all the time. Very close races to the puck, where the referee legitimately thinks a player can beat out the icing call, will still result in the same kind of icing calls we saw last season. The rule was put into place to avoid unneeded injuries caused by icing. After all, it is two or more players skating headfirst into the boards. However, the system has already resulted in some botched calls in the preseason and in the first few games of this young season. Yes, the new hybrid icing reduces chance of injury, but it can also slow down play in the offensive zone with a reduction of stretch indirect passing and the dump and chase.
Lastly, I’m going to quickly address the rumors on the topic of fighting. Yes, there are some people (Gary Bettman) who want to take fighting out of the game, but that hasn’t happened yet (thank God) and it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. With that being said, they took a step forward on shutting down the fun. When two players find themselves in a fight this year, they will receive an automatic two-minute penalty, on top of the five for fighting, if they remove their helmets prior to engaging in fisticuffs. This really hasn’t stopped anyone from doing so, though. As we saw in the first game of the season between the Canadiens and the Leafs, hockey is a game of gentlemen, and as such the two players participating in the first fight of the year made the gentleman’s agreement to both remove their helmets and each receive a two minute penalty. Good show, boys. The rule was not put in place because Gary Bettman doesn’t like us to have fun. Its original context was in safety in hopes to reduce concussions caused by helmetless players falling to the ice. But as previously stated, that really hasn’t stopped anyone yet.
The biggest thing that we can’t forget, even with all the new rules, is that hockey is back. And it’s merely a week old at this point. I won’t go too much into what has happened so far, for as a true hockey fan knows, anything can happen from this point on. But don’t be cynical. Every game counts. With that being said, here are some of my early season predictions. For the Eastern Conference, the Penguins are starting off strong and are an obvious contender again. But I want to bring attention to two teams who lost in the first round of the playoffs last year: Toronto and the N.Y. Islanders. Both teams are off to a great start. The Islanders’ fire power is finally starting to produce at the rate every Johnny Tavares fan had hoped for, and Mason Raymond on Toronto is pulling out spin-o-rama goals like he can just tap the right joystick. There is a very good chance you will see both of these teams having deep playoff runs this year.
In the Western Conference I’m seeing big turn-around years for the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers are much like the Islanders in that all the puzzle pieces have started to fall into place. Their offense is becoming potent, with a deadly array of young weapons, while their defense has shown that it can pull it together.
Colorado, who finished last in the Western Conference last year, is still undefeated up to this point. With the angriest man to ever play the game behind the bench, Patrick Roy, I wouldn’t want to lose either.
At the end of the day, the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks could very well be the first repeat offenders since 1998. But as every real hockey fan knows, anything can happen in this young season. In the words of Wayne Campbell, “Game on!”