Goal scoring is down, ties are up and the game of hockey is less entertaining. So how do we change it?
ESPN.com asked its colleagues throughout the network who work on hockey to share their thoughts. We took a look at their suggestions, as well as the rule book, and found many of the changes could be made by simply repealing rules that were introduced because of factors that are no longer present. So before we start messing with the record books by making the nets bigger (we're not opposed to it, it's just not necessary yet), how about moving forward by looking back first?
10. Call the rule book
This is simple. Forget "crackdowns," just call the game the way it says to in the rule book. Call diving, call obstruction and interference, call holding the stick. And it's important that the league support its officials throughout the season. When the league doesn't take the heat for an official, especially when that official is executing a league mandate, the entire group is more likely to become whistle-shy.
9. Bring back the "tag-up" rule
Delayed offside, or the "tag-up" rule, kept the play alive by allowing offensive players who were already in the attacking zone when the puck entered to leave and re-enter the zone onside, provided they didn't touch the puck. The rule was repealed in 1986-87 because of the "ping pong" effect -- forwards would dump the puck in and defensemen would dump the puck out without generating offense. But it also facilitated offensive rushes and aggressive forechecks, something the league has failed to accomplish via obstruction crackdowns.
8. No limit on curvature of sticks
Back in 1967-68, the limit of curvature on a hockey stick was set at 1 1/2 inches. In 1969-70, it was reduced to 1 inch. In 1970-71, it was reduced to 1/2 inch. These rules were put in place because huge slap shots with dramatically curved blades were fast, unpredictable and dangerous -- to fans, because high glass wasn't standard in all arenas, and to goalies who still were playing without masks. Now that goalies are well-protected and all arenas have high glass and safety netting, curved blades should be allowed back in the league. It will give more players the chance to compete for the scoring title.
7. Stop protecting the goalie
... except when he's in his crease. As it stands, a goalie is off limits when he's out of his crease. Yet many goalies abuse the protection by slowing down the play, thwarting the opposition's forecheck and trying to draw penalties. Making the goalie fair game would deter many from leaving the safety of their crease and allow play to continue. And when teams dump the puck in the zone, they actually have the opportunity to chase it. Good stickhandling goalies such as Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco, who move the puck up the ice like a third defenseman, would be limited to passing on line changes, but the continuous play would more than compensate.
6. Serve the full two minutes
Players used to serve the full two minutes of a minor penalty -- until 1956-57, when the rule was amended and the player was allowed to return to the ice if the opposition scored. Because penalty killing has never been better, now is a perfect time to turn the clock back. Average power-play units seldom score in the first minute of a power play anyway, so letting them continue with the man advantage isn't like opening the floodgates. However, teams likely will work to perfect their power plays in hope of taking advantage of the situation. In turn, teams will be more cautious about committing penalties, especially against teams that are superior with the man advantage. The result: an increase in offense and cleaner games.
5. Move the goal line back
The goal line was moved in one foot from the boards in 1990-91 and another two feet in 1998-99. As a result, the neutral zone shrank from 60 feet to 54 feet, reducing the amount of real estate offensive players had to operate and defensive players had to cover. Today's bigger players need more room to work behind the net, but a full three feet? Instead of widening the lines to create bigger zones, why not move the lines back two feet to where they were in 1990-91 and see what happens? If it doesn't work, we'll put them back and make the net bigger.
4. Amend the instigator rule
The league wants to control the level of violence in the game, but its concerns about public perception are having an adverse affect. The rule, which gives a player a minor penalty for starting a fight then suspends him for each subsequent instigator penalty, is too hard on players who play the role of policemen. As a result, skilled players are continually clutched, grabbed and hacked at partly because officials can't catch every offense and partly because the offenders don't fear physical retribution from opponents. Back in 1991-92, the year before the instigator rule was introduced, there were 6.96 goals and 1.75 fighting majors per game -- and the San Jose Sharks entered the league. Last year, there were only 5.24 goals scored per game and 1.29 fighting majors. Are they related? Who knows. Drop the instigator rule and see what happens.
3. A better schedule
The number of games in an NHL team's season has risen from 74 during the league's first expansion in 1967-68 to an all-time high of 84 in 1992-93. It currently stands at 82. It has been pointed out that many of the lackluster games in the NHL are a product of teams playing six games in nine days in six cities. Two of the more popular solutions are shortening the schedule or eliminating intraconference play. Both suggestions would cut down on the amount of travel, allowing players to rest and practice more between games, and cultivate more rivalries. And a shorter schedule would prevent the Stanley Cup final from reaching into June. But as with many of the other suggestions, there are financial and cultural implications: Reducing the schedule would cost owners money, and separating the conferences would split the Canadian teams, which rely heavily on each other for fan interest and attendance revenue.
2. Fix the standings
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a consensus as to how. Suggestions run the gamut from simply eliminating the point for an overtime loss to eliminating the overtime loss and offering three points for a win in regulation, thus undermining plans to go for a tie. Then there is eliminating overtime losses and ties by going to a shootout (see below). Bottom line: The NHL is the only league with standings that aren't determined by winning percentage, and with the general public's aversion toward math -- and anything different, like the OTL column -- the less multiplication and addition the better. The intent of awarding three points is well-founded, but the application is unwieldy. Which leads us to ...
With the NHL on pace to break the record for ties in a season, there is agreement that something should be done to discourage ties, if not eliminate them altogether. However, hockey purists and even most players have a difficult time wrapping their brains around this one. After all, what's the point of an entire team playing 65 minutes of hockey (we'll keep overtime) when the game is going to be decided by a handful of skill players and the goalie? Well, if teams don't want a game decided by a shootout, they can win it in regulation or overtime. If not, give the fans what they want to see. Only during the regular season, though.