Rumblings: Third referee, Caps looking, Wild changes

The NHL rescinded a pair of Rule 48 match penalties over the past week, and it makes you wonder what else can be done to help the refs on the ice get the call right the first time.

Unlike most people, I’m not singling out the refs. The game is faster than ever. Trying to identify illegal checks to the head at that speed isn’t going to be an exact science.

Let’s also be fair to say that the refs are trying to protect the players -- hits to the head have been a huge topic over the past five years -- so they have been perhaps a little too aggressive this season, but the intent is the right one.

Yes, David Backes' match penalty Friday in Detroit was bogus, and so was Andrew Desjardins' penalty Tuesday night. Neither hit was to the head. Both match penalties were ultimately rescinded by the NHL after the fact, but little good that did for St. Louis and San Jose, respectively.

So there’s a lot at stake in a league where the standings are so tight.

But you’re always going to have human error at play because of the speed of the game.

Solution? Here’s an idea I’ve heard that has some merit: Why not have a third ref who watches the game from the press box with access to HD replay, etc.? He could review, on the spot, all the controversial calls and help reverse them in obvious cases like Backes and Desjardins, communicating directly to the refs just like the war room does on goal reviews.

The downside? It further slows down the game, which goal reviews already do.

But it’s something worth thinking about.

Another idea that’s already finding new life after being bandied about in years past is the merit of a coach’s challenge, where a coach could ask for a penalty to be reviewed. Two NHL head coaches reached out to me this week and suggested it’s time to renew that debate.

I don’t mind it but prefer the first idea. My fear with the coach’s challenge is that coaches would want to challenge anything near the end of a game out of desperation. The first idea involves a neutral person.

Caps looking?

So what do you do if you’re the 2-7-1 Washington Capitals?

Well, you start working the phones.

Sources around the league indicate that indeed Caps GM George McPhee has begun to do just that.

That doesn’t mean anything will materialize -- the trade market hasn’t really got buzzing yet with teams too eager to move parts -- but at the very least, the word on the street is that McPhee is inquiring to see what’s out there.

If he does do anything, I’m guessing he deals from his blue-line depth to pick up a forward who can help bolster a sagging offense that is producing just 2.3 goals per game (24th in the NHL as of Wednesday morning).

There was lots of buzz over the weekend when Vancouver’s one-two front-office punch of Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman showed up in Washington for a game against Pittsburgh. But my understanding is that the Caps aren’t interested in Roberto Luongo, as his contract is too much to take on.

I think the hope in Washington is that Caps netminders Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby can snap out of it on their own. Given how well Holtby played last season, that’s not an unfounded desire.

Three things need to happen for the Caps to get going:

1. Get more saves from their goalies.

2. Get Alex Ovechkin to wake up.

3. Get Brooks Laich back in the lineup.

Laich was at practice again Wednesday. Although it’s not clear when he’ll be back, it shouldn’t be too much longer. He’s one of those glue guys in this lineup, and his return should have a nice impact.

Wild changes

One of the NHL’s top lines early in the season has been altered, with Dany Heatley removed from Minnesota’s No. 1 unit Wednesday in practice.

Heatley skated on the second line with Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, while rookie Charlie Coyle got the big promotion with the big dogs Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.

I applaud the move by coach Mike Yeo because his team has been way too reliant on the top unit early in this season. Yeo cautioned to local media Wednesday that these moves weren’t written in stone, but I’m betting come Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks he goes with these changes.

The Wild need to get production from other lines, so this might balance out the scoring a little. Of course, the move is also happening because Heatley has struggled. Perhaps new linemates will get him going again.

Winger Devin Setoguchi (zero goals in nine games) and highly touted rookie Mikael Granlund (one goal in nine games) both began the season on the second line but struggled mightily.

Since scoring a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09 in San Jose, the 26-year-old Setoguchi hasn’t been able to get back to that plateau, putting up 20 goals in 2009-10, 22 goals in 2010-11 in his final season in San Jose and 19 goals last season with the Wild.

It makes you wonder if the Wild wouldn’t be willing to move him. But I was told Wednesday that the team isn’t ready to do that yet. They need to score goals and view him as part of that solution whenever he gets his game back on track.