The annual March meeting of the NHL’s General Managers is in full swing in Boca Raton, Florida, as the GMs split into four breakout groups on Monday to discuss various rule changes. The two proposals that appear to be the most likely to be approved were brought forward by the same breakout group of 7 GMs: hybrid icing and outlawing hand passes in the defensive zone.
Both suggestions are reasonable and make perfect sense. Hybrid icing is designed to reduce injuries and outlawing hand passes in the defensive zone is designed to increase offence, both of which are major points of emphasis this year (and every year). As Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said, “Every time we make a rule it’s about safety or scoring more goals.” Hybrid icing has been recommended several times in the pass and is currently in use in the NCAA and USHL. It seems likely that this is the year it will be approved by the 20 of 30 GMs necessary.
The new proposal regarding hand passes was tabled by Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who suggested that anyone who makes a hand pass in the defensive zone be assessed a two-minute minor penalty.
Up until the part about the two-minute minor, this sounds like a great idea. Hand passes are not allowed anywhere else on the ice, so why should they be allowed in the defensive zone? Outlawing them everywhere just makes sense and it could potentially lead to more offence, particularly on the powerplay, which is when I most frequently see hand passes in the defensive zone.
It also removes one of the advantages for players taking faceoffs in the defensive zone, which is why it’s surprising to see this suggestion come from Mike Gillis. Canucks faceoff ace Manny Malhotra frequently uses his hand to bat the puck back when his stick gets tied up on defensive zone faceoffs. He’s not alone in using the tactic, but his uniquely low faceoff stance seems to allow him to use it more effectively than others. Then again, it’s possibly because he has watched the defensively-minded players on his team like Malhotra that has made him aware of how much allowing the hand pass in the defensive zone gives an unfair advantage to the defence.
Outlawing the defensive zone hand pass is a minor change, which is why it seems likely to get approved. There isn’t much appetite for large scale changes, particularly since there isn’t a hot topic on the agenda like head shots, so minor adjustments to reduce injuries or increase scoring are going to get more attention. A simple, common sense adjustment like disallowing hand passes unilaterally on the ice might have been ignored in a previous year.
The only thing that might kill it? The ridiculous suggestion that it’s worth a two-minute minor.
Everywhere else on the ice, a hand pass simply stops play for a faceoff. The only issue with doing the same thing in the defensive zone, and likely one of the reasons hand passes were allowed in the defensive zone, is that tired teams could intentionally make a hand pass in order to get a line change. That’s the only possible reason I could see for Mike Gillis proposing that a hand pass in the defensive zone be assessed a minor penalty.
While the proposal evidently saw support among the 7 GMs in the group, it was apparently up in the air whether a penalty or a faceoff would be the result. The penalty seems an extreme punishment for such a minor action, while a faceoff would potentially lead to abuse for teams needing a line change, so the idea could potentially stall when presented to the larger group of GMs.
There is a simple solution that already has precedent in the league, however. A hand pass in the defensive zone should be treated like icing: it leads to a defensive zone faceoff where the defending team is not allowed to make a line change.
In this way, no advantage is gained by the defending team and the team on offence gets the advantage of sending out a fresh line for the faceoff, matching up with whatever line they wish. It’s the same solution that I wish they used instead of the automatic delay of game penalty when the puck is cleared over the glass in the defensive zone.
That, incidentally, was one of the foci for the breakout group that included Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who tabled a suggestion that, when a team is already shorthanded, the two-minute minor for delay of game be added to the end of the original penalty rather than turning it into a 5-on-3 situation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that such a kooky solution to the problems caused by an automatic penalty for what is frequently an unlucky play was shot down by his fellow GMs. Treating it like icing, however, is a simpler solution.
It’s also the simpler solution for the defensive zone hand pass.