Hockey’s back!

Those of you who don’t like hockey might just want to skip this one…

Comcast is offering a free preview of their Center Ice package this week, so I’m watching Avs vs. Oilers tonight, which is great. Aside from the fact that Forsberg’s gone, I’m excited for the new hockey season, even though the Avalanche are more or less playing like crap tonight (miraculously, they’re only down 3-2 as I write this).

Overall, I’m a fan of the new rules changes, though the change that immediately jumps out isn’t a rules change, just an “emphasis”; namely, the renewed emphasis on actually calling obstruction penalties. It’s obviously going to take a while before the players get used to it, as there have been at least four penalties in this game (EDIT: more like eight) which not only wouldn’t have been penalties in previous years, but would have been solid defensive plays. Once the players make the adjustment, it seems clear that the obstruction emphasis, along with the elimination of the red line and the re-implementation of the tag-up offsides rule will result in more speed and flow.

Of course, this is exactly what the NHL was trying to do in implementing these rules (which is actually kind of disturbing…the NHL getting something right?) and everybody’s been talking about/predicting exactly this. However, it remains to be seen whether these same obstruction calls will be made in the playoffs, which is really the most important time, anyway.

The most surprisingly effective rule, at least to me, is the lengthening of the offensive zone. The extra two feet on both ends seems to have made it much harder for teams to cover their defensive zone. The biggest winners would appear to be dynamic offensive defensemen; forwards just don’t seem to be able to get up to the blue line fast enough to bother them when the puck is being cycled around the zone (which should be great news for Avalanche fans, given Blake’s shot and Lille’s skills). So far tonight, though, the Oilers are taking the most advantage: they’ve been just living in Colorado’s zone (although Colorado’s getting some better possession here in the third period).

The one rule change I’m not a fan of is the new shootout-decides-a-tie rule. For one thing, though they make for great Sportscenter highlights, shootouts aren’t a very good measure of hockey merit; they’re a pretty arbitrary way to decide a hockey game (or a soccer game, for that matter), especially since hockey is such a team game and shootouts are devided exclusively by individual skill.

Dammit! Just missed a goal by Brisebois because I’d flipped to the baseball game during commercial and forgot to flip back. And now that the game’s tied with only 5 minutes left, we may see a shootout before this game’s over (and now I just missed the Angels scoring two to take the lead…needless to say, trying to track two different games in different sports while writing at the same time doesn’t work very well).

Anyway, my problem with the shootout isn’t so much that it’s a relatively arbitrary way to decide a game, because it would be silly to have the marathon overtimes that the playoffs are famous for during the regular season and any alternative solution will be pretty arbitrary. Personally, I’d prefer to have the NHL take a more NFL-like approach to overtime: make the overtime period long enough that there’s a good chance (Damn! Oilers goal) of a goal being scored (say 10 or 15 minutes) and leave a tie at the end as a tie. Of course, there’s still the problem that teams have a much bigger incentive in the NHL than in the NFL to play for the tie (since there are so many more games), so that might not work, either.

Tangents aside, the biggest problem with the new “no ties” policy is that teams still get a point for losing the shootout…which means that, in the waning minutes of regulation of a tie game, teams have an incentive to play for overtime to pick up that guaranteed point (though anecdotal evidence bears against this theory tonight). If you’re going to have shootouts to prevent games ending in ties (and, moreover, market this as aggressively as the NHL is doing), then it’s rather silly to still give teams points in the standings for ties. If you’re going to dance with the devil, you might as well go all out and make a shootout loss just as bad as any other loss, which would have the salutary effect of making that five minute overtime much more important. Aggressive metaphors aside, one way to capture some of this effect while still rewarding teams a little bit for going to overtime might be to take the soccer approach to standings and award three points for a win instead of two. Then, instead of being half a win, a tie is two-thirds of a loss, so there’s greater incentive to go all-out in overtime to avoid the arbitrary outcome of a shootout.

Game over…4-3 Edmonton.

Aside from that down note, I’m looking forward to the hockey season and what looks like a more exciting style of play (though we’ll see how quickly teams adjust defensively). In fact, the only real down note is that games are going to be more difficult to find on TV; though I’m pleased to see OLN is planning to televise 2 or 3 games a week, that won’t match the coverage ESPN had been able to spread over their two networks the last few years. For 129 buck, the Center Ice package is looking pretty enticing, though from an actually getting work done perspective I’m pretty sure it would be a bad idea.

One Response to “Hockey’s back!”

  1. Dave Says:

    I’m glad to see hockey back, but I agree that the shootout is not a good idea. Personally, I never had a problem with ties, but I understand that a lot of people want to see a winner after investing so much time watching. But a shootout is just a letdown after everything the players have put into it. A shootout is too simple to decide such a tough competitive game. I think a tie with a point each is pretty fair.

    And of course I’m disappointed that ESPN isn’t showing hockey this season. Their broadcasts just look so much better than everyone else’s. I saw one game on FSN this season and I thought at first it was a replay of an old game because it just had that “old time” look to it. Hopefully next season ESPN will be back in the mix.

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