Posted: Monday October 2, 2006 3:21PM; Updated: Wednesday October 4, 2006 5:50PM
Last season, Sean Avery (prone) of the Kings took a couple of dives that relieved his wallet of $1,000 plus another $1,000 for complaining.
Darren Eliot will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Last season, the rule book was literally thrown at the game to largely rave reviews. The impact was felt in many ways, from the rise in obstruction calls to increased scoring, but most vital was that the NHL presented its new standard of enforcement as a collective, unified initiative that promoted skating -- with and without the puck.
Referees held true to their mandate to curb hooking and holding, and players and coaches mostly kept the griping and sniping to themselves. Teams adjusted their style and intensity accordingly, and even throughout the playoffs, the new standard remained intact. Teams found themselves dealing with it as a matter of course.
So, what about this season? After introducing a sweeping culture change, the league has added a few modifications. The new blade curves are bigger, but that is just a modernization and standardization measure that will have little effect other than to rid the game of the 'illegal stick' call. More pleasing is the league's focus on eliminating diving and embellishing. As a logical course, if the referees consistently call restraining fouls, players need not take the plunge to draw added attention to the tactics that are being used to slow them down.
With so many power play opportunities at stake, diving has become acceptable with the rationalization that a well-timed disguised flop may yield yet another man advantage. To counteract that pervasive mindset, officials will now vigilantly flag divers -- no more 'unsportsmanlike like conduct' euphemism -- effectively robbing teams of power play time by evening up the manpower situation.
Both the stick curvature and diving issues are largely cosmetic. That's not the case with the crackdown on goaltender interference. One of the byproducts of the new standard of officiating was that goaltenders had to contend with more crease-crashing than they were accustomed to, as players swooping in off the wings -- no longer illegally impeded or re-routed -- were arriving at the blue paint at top speed. Additionally, interloping forwards lingered longer in search of rebounds -- no longer fearful of punishing crosschecks. All of that is good for the game overall, but the goaltenders' ability to make plays on the puck without restriction caused by collision or congestion had to return.
As NHL Chief of Officiating Steven Walkom has stated, you'll see some 'tweaking' to the officiating this season. To him, that means the inclusion of the above points. In the grand scheme of things, though, Walkom is adamant that officials remain diligent in applying the standard set last season. He is fervent in his belief that if the officials do their part by consistently applying the rule book on hooking, holding, slashing and cross-checking, the game is better for it.
I agree. As Walkom understands, this is a very important year in the process because the players and coaches have established a level of conditioned expectation. Look for players to be even more accustomed to keeping their sticks on the ice and moving their feet on defense. Watch for increased intensity in one-on-one puck battles, as players and refs are more comfortable with what is allowable in such situations. Finally, look for hitting to continue to evolve -- not disappear -- as the hit along the boards returns as a skillfully-timed move by defensemen to eliminate hard-charging wingers.
Add those developments to the original mandate -- to accentuate skill and skating, the elements that make hockey uniquely breathtaking -- and everyone should have enormous expectations for the quality of play during the 2006-07 season.