Wednesday, May 17, 2006

College hockey blog roundtable: Improving the game

I've been kicking the tires on this idea for a while. I want to get thoughts from other college hockey bloggers about the game at the collegiate level.

I think anyone who has watched a lot of the NHL playoffs would concede that the pro game has improved. The league has done a good job of enforcing the rulebook and removing a lot of the clutter that slowed the pro game down over the last ten years. These changes in enforcement have made NHL hockey much more watchable and much more entertaining than it was before the lockout, and while these changes probably should have happened before the lockout, it's better late than never, I guess.

Lately, we've seen some of the clutching and grabbing, and some of the "slowdown" game, make its way into the college ranks. I still contend that Denver used that style to slow down Maine in the 2004 national title game, which they won 1-0. And stickwork has become as common in the college game as the presence of amateurs.

So I go to my fellow bloggers with a question: Am I the only one who sees room for improvement in college hockey, especially now that the NHL has taken so many positive steps to improve their game? Feel free to blog answers to the following questions, and I'll post some of your answers in the next week or 10 days.

Has the college game truly seen in increase in stickwork in recent years?

I think the answer here is obviously "Yes". And it's too rare that teams get called for hooking and holding, especially in the defensive and neutral zones. I think the physical brand of forechecking that we've seen in the NHL playoffs underscores the fact that you don't need that hooking and holding to have teams forechecking hard.

I'm not here to point fingers or name names. Frankly, I don't think there's a team in college hockey that's completely innocent here. Some, of course, are more guilty than others. But this isn't about calling out teams, players, or coaches. It's about improving the overall quality of the college game.

Do officials do a good job of calling "clutch-and-grab" infractions consistently?

I think it's getting better, but it's not where it needs to be. Even in the playoffs last year, I remember seeing a lot of hooking and holding called that involved players who didn't have the puck. That's a step in the right direction, but it could always be better.

I still think enforcement is a bit inconsistent, and I still think that officials need to do a better job calling penalties late in close games and in overtimes. But I think officiating in the WCHA in 2005-2006 was better than it wsa in 2004-2005. I hope it improves again in 2006-2007.

What do you think of the "checking from behind" crackdown?

There are some cases where it's not a bad idea to take the subjectivity and discretion out of the officials' hands. To me, this really isn't one of them anymore.

I liked the idea at first. After the well-publicized hit on Robbie Bina in the 2005 Final Five, I was in favor of anything that ejected players for obviously dirty hits when the official didn't do his job on the play. However, the enforcement went too far in 2005-2006, as any player who was called for a hit from behind along the boards was automatically given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. It led to players being unfairly thrown out of games, and it led to officials calling boarding/cross-checking/charging instead of checking from behind so they didn't have to throw players out of games.

In the games I witnessed in 2005-2006, I'd say the batting average on these hits was pretty good. There were only a handful of blatant hits from behind on the boards that didn't lead to the ejection of the offending player. However, there were more than a few incidents where players were thrown out of games for hits that weren't from behind, or weren't nearly bad enough to warrant an ejection.

I don't know what the answer is, because as the Bina hit illustrated, the old way wasn't really working. But I think it's a mistake to completely take the discretion out of the hands of the officials. As much as we rip officials, they need to be allowed to make these judgments on the ice, instead of having a rules directive do it for them.

What NHL rules change would you like to see adopted in college hockey, and which one do you want college hockey to stay away from?

Of the changes in the sizes of the offensive zones, the addition of the shootout, the changes in goalie pads, the trapezoid, the "no line change after you ice the puck" rule, or any other actual rule change made in the NHL this year, which one do you think would be a good fit in college hockey?

I'd be in favor of making the offensive zones bigger (thus making the neutral zone a bit smaller), as well as moving the goal lines back toward the back wall. I think that, as athletes get bigger, giving the players a little more room to work is a good thing.

Also tempting is the rule that keeps teams from changing lines when they ice the puck. Teams that want to try to play a slowdown game now are forced to at least carry the puck to the red line before they dump it, or they can't change lines. And if the team isn't real good on faceoffs, constantly icing the puck can lead to problems.

Of the other changes, the one I would least like to see (without it being done a certain way) is the shootout. A 35 (or so)-game season is too short to have all these games potentially decided by something so silly. The shootout works in the NHL because it's an 82-game season where so many teams make the playoffs (so if you don't make the playoffs, there was probably something wrong with your team - more than just "we didn't get lucky in those stupid shootouts"). College hockey's season is less than half as long, and power ratings are too important to allow something like a shootout to have a heavy influence. If you wanted to have shootout results count in conference standings, but not in the RPI or PWR, then maybe we can talk. There's no doubt that NHL fans loved the shootout, so it certainly could work in the college game if it was done properly.

Then again, if you were going to implement a shootout that doesn't really count, why bother?

What do you think of the increased use of replay in college hockey?

I got my digs in over what happened in Denver, so this isn't about that. Well, it is, but it isn't.

The incident in Denver involving a disputed UMD goal in their playoff series underscored a couple problems I have with college hockey, one of which I'll address here, and other in a few minutes.

The replay system is a great idea. Some plays are just too bang-bang to expect officials to always get the call right. However, I think the WCHA made a grave mistake in not allowing television cameras to be used for instant replay. Granted, not every game is televised, but that shouldn't matter, especially in the playoffs. The league needs to use every available resource to get the calls right, and they're not doing that right now. Use the television camera angles as well as the overhead cameras, and you give yourself a better chance of getting calls right all the time, instead of most of the time.

What is one random change you'd like to see made in hockey?

This can be anything from a rules change not covered above to a change in how recruiting is governed to a change in how NHL teams raid college rosters to something else. Anything you want.

For me, I think the fans' enjoyment and understanding of the game could both be greatly improved with better communication from the officials.

Over the course of a full season, something will happen that makes you curious about the actual ruling and why the ruling was made. The deal in Denver is a good example. No one knew what the officials had eventually ruled before going to look at the replay, and no one at the rink fully understood why the goal was waved off (some of us still don't).

Mic the referee. When there is a controversial call, he turns on the mic and explains to the fans and everyone else what was ruled and why. It's a small, subtle thing. Football does it really well. No other sport does.

Now that NHL officials are miced, we know it can happen.

Whenever replay is going to be used in a game, the official has to get on the mic and tell everyone what the ruling is and that the play is under review. And when the review is complete, the final judgment must also be communicated. That stuff shouldn't be the job of the PA announcer. It should be the job of the referee.

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