The NHL preseason is only a few days old, and the out-of-the-gate head-scratcher is the league’s new emphasis on faceoff etiquette.
The emphasis on calling slashes around the hands? Like Johnny Gaudreau, we get that. No more timeouts after you’ve iced the puck? Sure. A minor penalty for offside challenges that are overruled? OK, although we can sense the disappointment from the Penguins’ Andy Saucier.
But Monday night brought a spate of faceoff violation penalties as centers – none of whom apparently knew (or believed) this was coming – quickly went to school on what the rule book says about where they are allowed to position themselves for draws.
Perhaps the Penguins will go to school tonight at Penn State when they open their preseason schedule at Pegula Ice Arena against Buffalo.
To be clear, there has been no change in faceoff rules, just a change in how the NHL has decided to enforce them in September. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to be called in overtime during the Stanley Cup playoffs; by then the NHL will say players “have adjusted.” Wink, wink.
And yes, in many cases the importance of faceoffs is overstated, as the Pens proved last spring. At the moment, this is much ado about nothing; if the NHL breaks precedent and calls this uniformly over the next nine months, we’ll have a different conversation.
At issue is Rule 76.6, which spells out that a minor penalty shall be assessed to a team if they commit two faceoff violations on the same draw – a rare call historically. The emphasis now is on a center’s positioning in the circle relative to the markings inside the circle. Rule 76.6 (iv) says:
Failure by either center taking the face-off to properly position himself behind the restraining lines or place his stick on the ice (as outlined in Rule 76.4). “Properly position himself behind the restraining lines” shall mean that the center must place his feet on either side of the restraining lines that are parallel to the side boards (contact with the lines is permissible), and the toe of the blade of his skates must not cross over the restraining lines that are perpendicular to the side boards as he approaches the face-off spot.
The blade of the stick must then be placed on the ice (at least the toe of the blade of the stick) in the designated white area of the faceoff spot and must remain there until the puck is dropped.
Failure to comply with this positioning and face-off procedure will result in a face-off violation.
In other words, no cheating. The art of cheating is what made faceoffs at least mildly interesting, but mandating this positioning of the skates makes it much more difficult for centers to use their skates in the process of winning a draw. And therein lies a potential benefit to the Penguins, even if this enforcement only lasts a month or so. Because the ability of players to use their skates on draws has given Sidney Crosby, who takes more faceoffs than anyone on the team, trouble recently.
Consider what he told interviewer Scott Oake during a lengthy post-game sit down last March in Vancouver on SportsNet’s After Hours. Oake asked Crosby to name one area where he could improve, and the Penguins’ captain had this response:
“Faceoffs. I’ve got to figure out these guys who use their skates on faceoffs. So that’s been a bit of a challenge. A lot of guys are using their skates now. You feel like you’ve got a pretty good feel on guys in the faceoff circle, and I think you’ve got to constantly be ready to compete in that area.”
If we know anything about Crosby, he’s probably already made that adjustment. But for a while, anyway, he may not have to. Let’s remember that he’s coming off a season in which he won just 48.2 percent of his draws – his worst faceoff season since winning 45.5 percent as a rookie. And that season doesn’t count because he spent almost a third of it playing on the wing.
But if the Penguins’ centers have problems with this new approach by the NHL, there’s a bright side for coach Mike Sullivan now that the preseason is here: he’ll get a good look at his penalty killers.