The NHL should take notes during the Olympics

For those of us used to watching National Hockey League games, it has taken some time to adjust to some of the crazy notions put forth by the Olympic version of the sport.
If one listens intently, phrases like “odd-man rush,” “cross-ice pass,” and “end-to-end action” can be heard dotting the broadcasts from Nagano. The resurgence of these terms — which have almost gone the way of the dinosaur in the clutch-and-grab NHL — are refreshing reminders that hockey doesn’t have to be about neutral zone traps and 2-1 scores.
The smooth style of play employed so far in the preliminary men’s hockey games also gives extra amplification to those who have been screaming for the NHL to amend its rulebook to increase scoring chances.
And rightfully so.
Since the 1993-94 season, scoring in the league has decreased by 1.21 goals per game. If this trend was simply a product of better goaltending and less-skilled offensive players, the changing the rules of the game might not be as warranted.
But it isn’t just scoring that’s down — it’s also scoring chances, quality breakout passes and players skating in the open ice.
A segment in Sports Illustrated a few weeks back examined six possible options for increasing scoring opportunities in the NHL:
ù Make it illegal for goalies to handle the puck behind the net, thus creating more loose pucks in the offensive zone.
ù Create more space between the nets and the end boards.
ù Allow two-line passes.
ù Enlarge the goal-mouth from its current size of four feet high by six feet wide.
ù Outlaw neutral zone traps.
ù Let power plays run a full two minutes regardless of how many power play goals a team scores.
Most of these proposed changes seem drastic, however, when compared to one that has become readily apparent in the past week: change the configuration of NHL rinks to that of an Olympic rink.
Regulation NHL rinks are 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, whereas Olympic-sized rinks are the same length but 15 feet wider. The nets are also placed about two feet further from the boards in Olympic competition than they are in NHL games.
Although the size difference might seem subtle, it is an important one nonetheless.
Increasing rink sizes to Olympic proportions would help abate the biggest cause of reduced scoring chances — the neutral zone trap. Although Sweden showed a trap can still be effective on a large ice sheet against the United States, more room to roam means more chances to break it down.
The trap, which is essentially hockey’s answer to basketball’s zone defense, would at least be easier to break if the ice surface was 15 feet wider. Defenders would have to extend their box, creating more room for offensive attackers either along the boards or up the middle.
In terms of overall productivity, Olympic-sized ice sheets have exhibited some scoring advantages at the college level. Three of last year’s 10 WCHA teams — Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Alaska-Anchorage — played their home games on Olympic-sized sheets, and six of the league’s top 11 scorers were on one of those teams.
Although overall team scoring averages in the WCHA were the same for games on large ice surface compared to smaller sheets, the frequency of top scorers who played on large rinks lends credence to the idea that skilled players thrive when they have more space.
While reconfiguring NHL rinks to meet Olympic standards would require some headaches — the loss of some seating, for instance, to accommodate for the larger rink size — it would be a good move in the long term.
It would create more offense without drastically altering the game. In turn, fans would get an opportunity to see players exhibit the skills that spurred hockey’s growth in the first place.
— Michael Rand is the sports editor at The Daily. He welcomes comments at [email protected]