A year ago, the anxiety and buzz ahead of the NHL’s GMs meeting in the wake of the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident was palpable, the hockey world was on edge as head shots once again dominated the conversation.
In that emotional setting, the March meetings eventually led to the June announcement of an updated and polished Rule 48 (hits to the head), which was more all-encompassing than the previous one.
That kind of anxiety to act doesn't exist this year. Not unless there’s an egregious incident over the next few days before the GMs open shop Monday in sunny Boca Raton, Fla.
If last year’s theme was head shots, this year’s can easily be defined by three letters: C-B-A.
The expiration of the seven-year collective bargaining agreement on Sept. 15 has obviously fueled some uncertainty heading into the offseason. GMs will look to the league in Boca Raton to give them guidance as to how they should proceed this summer.
On the surface, the league plans to keep the CBA quota as light as possible at the GM meetings. But the league can’t control how many questions the GMs will have and that’s where I think the meetings will get bogged down to some degree.
"I intend to give a brief overview of where we are in the collective bargaining process and obviously we’ll try the best we can to answer whatever questions the managers might have," Bill Daly, the NHL’s Deputy Commissioner, told ESPN.com Thursday.
I wrote a few weeks ago about what especially will be of concern to the GMs in the strange summer that could be at hand. In late June, the league will need to introduce an updated salary cap number (both upper limit and lower limit) in order to set up the opening of free agency on July 1, as per the terms of the current CBA. Based on expanding league revenues, the $64.3-million upper limit for the cap is expected to go up yet again, perhaps as high as $69 million. The problem, of course, is that it’s a cap number that is simply temporary for the summer before the new CBA brings in new financial parameters. And if the owners and league have their way, there will be a lower salary cap for next season.
So, GMs face the bizarre scenario where they get handed a higher salary cap for July and August with the knowledge that it likely will be lower when the puck drops next season. So how much should they spend this summer? Hence, they’ll have questions for the league in the meetings next week.
Aside from the CBA, here are some items that are also expected to be on the agenda at the three-day in Boca Raton:
The league, with the support of the NHL Players’ Association, has tested prototypes for streamlined shoulder pads all season. About 15 or so NHL players have used them in practice and games.
The hope is to introduce these leaner, less dangerous shoulder pads next season, although the league will need manufacturers on board and the blessing of the NHLPA to transition to them. There’s no guarantee there.
It’s been an issue for years in the NHL and the Department of Player Safety, led by Brendan Shanahan, will have an update on this for GMs at the meetings.
"We’re still working with the equipment manufacturers and the NHLPA," Shanahan told ESPN.com Thursday. "The goal is to find a shoulder pad with a smaller profile."
And to find a standard that measures both the ability of the shoulder pad to protect in conjunction with the measure in which it exudes impact, added Shanahan. The goal is to minimize the impact of shoulder pads in terms of causing head injuries through contact.
Of course, concussions
Compared to the past two years heading into the GMs meetings, there isn’t the same kind of anxiety revolving around concussions and head injuries. But it remains a significant issue and it will still be talked about at the meetings.
"I wouldn’t underestimate that it continues to be a high priority for this group [GMs] and for the league generally in terms of monitoring where we are in head injuries and what we can be doing better, whether that’s rule related, or process related, or management and treatment-related," said Daly, who oversees the league’s concussion protocol.
"I imagine we’ll be spending a fairly significant amount of time on that issue [at the meetings]."
Shanahan, as part of his overall Department of Player Safety update, will talk to managers about the ongoing education process of players regarding head shots, including video examples of do’s and don’ts from this season.
Bring back the red line?
Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has added to the agenda a discussion of the center ice red line, as in whether it should be brought back and whether that would help slow down the play in the neutral zone and bring down the injuries that could be caused by it.
"What’s happening is that scoring is not up, but injuries are up," Tallon told ESPN.com Thursday. "Is [having no red line] causing injuries? That’s basically what I want to discuss. A lot of defensemen are out."
The theory, though not proven, is that the increased speed in the neutral zone caused with the absence of the red line has forecheckers coming in so fast that defensemen are targets.
On the flip side, some GMs no doubt will argue that slowing down the game doesn’t sound too good.
"I don’t know if it’s slowing down the game," said Tallon. "What’s happening with no red line is that the teams that are playing 1-2-2, are playing it closer to their own blueliner than they are closer to the other team’s blue line. What we’re doing is the stretch play and the chip and chase. With the red line [before 2005], people were coming back deep, there were more guys together making plays and coming up as a five-man unit. ... I’m just worried about injuries is all. I just want to discuss it and see what happens."
Take out the trapezoid?
Also expected to be on the agenda is a discussion of the trapezoid, the area in the corner of the ice where goaltenders since 2005 have not been allowed to play the puck. Some GMs believe the trapezoid should be killed, the idea being that again it needlessly makes defensemen targets from oncoming forecheckers who crash into them with reckless abandon. Why not allow goalies to play the puck there instead and save on those injuries?
Sharks GM Doug Wilson first brought up the idea of eliminating the trapezoid a few years ago at a GMs meeting. It didn’t have much support at the time, but has seemingly grown in numbers since. We’ll see if there’s enough next week to recommend a change.
Icing has been beat up as a subject for years and years at GMs meetings. Again, the concern is that touch icing is producing needless, dangerous collisions.
The idea of hybrid icing, similar to what exists in the USHL where there’s a race to the faceoff dots that decides icing -- instead of the end boards -- has gathered momentum over the years.
There’s no appetite among GMs for simple automatic icing, which is used in international play and the OHL. That kills too many good races for the puck. But the hybrid idea has merit and will get talked about again next week.
GMs may also talk about on-the-fly line changes, as in the fact some teams are taking advantage of them, making them long changes.
Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford believes it’s somewhat out of control how players are jumping on the ice in transition way before they should be and it’s thwarting the offensive rush.
"You’ve got five guys that are 30 feet from the bench with the other five guys already having gone on the ice and they’re already in the play where the play has transitioned to," Rutherford told ESPN.com Thursday. "It’s happening every game with every team -- our team does it, too. Line changes have really gotten out of hand."
So if GMs agree on this, look for the league to direct on-ice officials to keep a closer eye on this.