Believe It or Not: NHL Season is Back

It is the end of September and hockey fans everywhere are counting down until the start of the NHL season. Much has changed since teams last stepped onto the ice, as rules have been altered, a cap has been introduced and a number of players have switched teams in a frantic offseason.

Hockey has long generated the lowest ratings of the four major sports. Part of this is due to a recent defense-oriented trend that has resulted in low-scoring games. In response, the NHL is placing a new emphasis on interference penalties. Players are no longer allowed to grab at opponents with their gloves or sticks. As NHL Director of Officiating Steven Walkom puts it, the new rules are designed to emphasize “speed, quickness, skill, intelligence and hard work.” In short, the league hopes to inject some much-needed offensive adrenaline into the sport.

In addition to offensive-minded enforcement, the NHL has made some fundamental changes to the game. Although hockey rinks are still the same size, the offensive zone has been expanded by moving the net two feet closer to the backboards and the blue line two feet towards center ice. This extra space should prove especially important on power plays: it gives the offense more room to cycle the puck around and makes it that much more difficult for the defending team to clear the puck out of its zone.

The ability of the goalie to stickhandle out of the net has also been restricted. The netminder is now only allowed to touch the puck in front of the net and in a newly-added trapezoidal zone directly behind it. Although the prohibited space is small, it takes away the zones where the goalie is most likely to try to stop pucks circling around the backboard. This will make it easier for forwards to dump the puck into the offensive zone and retrieve it.

Icing the puck will also carry a heavier punishment now. Teams often ice the puck to bring about a stoppage of play that can be used to switch lines, and the only penalty used to be a face-off in the offending team’s offensive zone. Now, the team that ices the puck can no longer perform a line change. This gives its opponents the advantage of sending out a fresh line against one that is fatigued

The offsides rule, which calls for a stoppage of play if any player enters the offensive zone ahead of the puck, has also been amended. Instead of immediately stopping play, referees will now give players a few seconds to race out of the offensive zone and tag up. This allows for more continuous play and should help attacking teams develop more of a rhythm than in the past, when forwards faced a whistle even if they were only inches ahead of the puck.

Taking a hint from the Olympics, the NHL is implementing a new shootout rule. Regular season games that ended with the same score used to have one period of sudden death, four-on-four overtime. If neither team scored at the end of this period, the game ended in a tie and both teams were awarded one point in the standings. Now, however, after one period of overtime, teams square off in a three-on-three shootout. Whichever team scores more goals wins the game and is awarded two points. If there is still a tie after three rounds, a sudden death shootout takes place. This new system eliminates ties altogether, offering viewers the chance for thrilling, straight-up offensive action at the end of every game.

The most important change to this season has been the introduction of a salary cap. Before, wealthy teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs would dramatically outspend their opponents, ensuring an unbalanced league year after year. The $35 million salary cap will encourage a much greater degree of parity. The results can already be seen, as low-grossing teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators have drawn top-tier talent, while perennial contenders such as the Colorado Avalanche have gone into fire-sale mode to get under the cap.

Whether all these changes are enough to take the sting out of a year-long strike and bring people back to hockey remains to be seen. But one thing that is for sure is that the 2005-2006 NHL season will be a far cry from anything fans have ever seen before.