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PHN Blog: Officiating, the NHL & the Penguins Future

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Jake Guentzel, Penguins trade

There are nights when watching hockey is like attending a Mozart symphony. It’s bigger than life, immersive, and the game can rapture even the most casual fans. The Pittsburgh Penguins are capable of playing that kind of hockey still.

Then there are other nights, watching hockey is like watching a muddy tractor pull from the Fayette County Fair, but you can’t find the remote. Sure, it’s interesting for a moment, but that’s all there is. The Pittsburgh Penguins are being pushed into this type of muddy hockey.

The NHL officials, and their overseers at the NHL league office, have come under increased scrutiny during the 2021 NHL playoffs, and for good reasons.

If you forgot the last 20 years, you would swear this was again 2001, and the New Jersey Devils were the champs, that owners were trying to limit salaries by depressing offense to unwatchable levels, and star players were clowned by extra-legal physicality and obstruction.

Lest you think this is a writer’s opinion, former NHL head of officiating and the finest hair ever to wear the orange band, Kerry Fraser did some uncharacteristic poking via Twitter, too.

“As routing of NY Islanders was in progress tonight, referees with feel for the temp,” his tweet began. “(They) should move into damage control mode. Two situations could have been averted if only initial crosscheck infractions had been called. One might result in suspension to Barzal?”

With some irony, it was the New York Islanders star player Mathew Barzal who tried to do some clowning on Monday night. Instead, he should be suspended for Game 6 after a direct cross-check to Jan Rutta’s face.

For everyone (but Islanders fans) who watched the New York Islanders Round One and Round Two series, the obstruction was at times unbearable (for everyone but Islanders fans).

A team should not be able to win a game with 20 shots on goal unless that team is the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins who would pass up a dozen shots but also bury five of them, then make a side-show of forcing their goalie to make acrobatic saves before an empty netter and 6-4 win.

That was fun to watch.

This current version is not (except for Islanders fans).

Except for Montreal Canadiens fans.

The game was inching toward bigger bodies since the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup with battered and bruised bodies. That team looked like the winner of the demolition derby.

Then Washington’s beefy roster with elite talent and St. Louis’s skill and grinders lifted the next two Stanley Cups before the complete package Tampa Bay Lighting won the Bubble Cup.

While Tampa Bay appears ready to win back-to-back Cups and the first time, they’re also doing it with a nearly $100 million payroll. David Savard on the blue line was not an insignificant get with the extra money they had from the LTIR loophole.

First–the NHL MUST CLOSE THAT LOOPHOLE.

Second–the NHL controls the type of game that will be played. Could you imagine a Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders? As each team retreated to clog the neutral zone and barricade themselves in the defensive slot, neither team would get more than 25 shots.

Oh boy, exciting!

In 1938, college basketball had what would be a full-blown scandal in today’s media world. Purdue player Pat Malaska (I had to Google the player’s name) sat on a lead. Literally. Opponents fell back into defense but wouldn’t venture out of formation to cover him.

So, he sat on the ball at mid-court and ate an ice cream sandwich.

A Stanley Cup Final with two teams that clog the zone with four players at the expense of offensive push would have been slightly less exciting.

OK, much less exciting.

The 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins were the zenith of the move towards mobile players. They earned power plays. And lots of them in the playoffs. Officials, and by proxy the league, reinforced the Penguins tack towards extreme speed.

I loved this tweet by Jesse Marshall. I generally like a more traditional, rougher Canadian game than most of my colleagues. However, I still find myself in total agreement, even as Twitter came for Jesse after his tweet.

 

Connor McDavid does things on his edges that would break the ankles of mere mortals. I doubt some of his moves and acceleration would even be possible with older skates. He works hard on that ability, and young players are following suit.

Hockey is pushing towards an immensely talented game with a good streak of physicality from the bottom up. I occasionally peek at my 14-year-old nephew’s games. (Maybe he’s 15 now? I’d stay off the roads when he’s 16).

Talented players dominate, but there’s ample room for a few players who know how to muck and grind. A few good hits get everyone’s temperature up, and a team can assert itself. It’s quite entertaining, but there isn’t the clutching and grabbing at the youth levels.

On his teams and others that I see at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, skill is flourishing again after a decade of worries that the game was becoming over-coached.

The game at all levels is moving one way, while at the top, it’s being dragged the other way.

I’ve written over 800 words, and I haven’t even addressed the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The slog back towards big bodies and less skill has clear implications.

The Penguins have some mid-20s players in their top-nine who will be adversely affected. Bryan Rust is the exclusion because he can play any game. What a development story he has been.

We’ll get into the deeper specifics over the next three weeks, but I sense your attention span waning. The movement is going to harm Jake Guentzel, maybe Jared McCann. Jason Zucker isn’t a big body either.

The Penguins centers, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, and even Teddy Blueger, are well situated to deal with the game. The wingers are not.

Just where the scale balances between keeping their advantages and adding the ability to compete at the Fayette County fair will be defining question of the next four months.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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Cal
Cal
1 month ago

I’ve always believed the rules are excellent for the most part, they just gotta call them. So what if the penalty box gets filled up? Teams will adjust in time. Side note, in player scrums , let them scrum. Why do linesmen try and stop them? A lot of lipservice and scrums will slow down when they are not linesmen – held back warriors…punching a guy in the face either retalitory or not is against the rules. They know how to stop. When you watch the next scrum, it’s usually a player who will not make eye contact with the… Read more »

Lisa Nath
Lisa Nath
1 month ago

Dan what can be done to reverse or stop this trend ? Do players have to demand it? Owners like Mario complain? New leadership of the league? They are going to loose fans . The eye opening stat for me this playoffs was mcdavid not having one penalty called for him . That makes no sense . I don’t want Tampa to win cause of the salary cap issue but at least they have skilled players that are good for the game .

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William Maloni
William Maloni
1 month ago

Begs the question of what do you do if you are the Pens?

Is Guentzel trade bait? Are Zucker and Geno put on the Expansion list?

Steven Pavlik
Steven Pavlik
1 month ago

Imagine if the NFL or NBA suddenly stopped reinforcing their rulebooks for duration of the playoffs.

David Heyl
David Heyl
1 month ago

The playoffs have been unwatchable. Lou has done to Islanders what he did to the Devils, probably the most boring era in the sport. NHL cannot afford this as an Islander Canadian final would set the sport back 25 years. No one would watch it, not even hard core fans.

Bruce Rhodes
Bruce Rhodes
1 month ago

The NHL cannot get out of its own way. The ways to improve NHL games are not complex. Virtually every reader of this excellent article can offer several ways to improve the game, yet Bettman has few clues (the recent new TV contract is just an example). I am not talking about banning fighting or establish some silly, arbitrary way to decide tie games. There are rules in other sports that can be modified for hockey. Go beyond 2 and 5 min penalties; lacrosse has a few different durations of penalties.. Keep the team in the penalty box for the… Read more »

Steven Pavlik
Steven Pavlik
1 month ago
Reply to  Bruce Rhodes

The pre-shot clock era also probably helped the ’83 NC State Wolfpack defeat the Houston Cougars in the NCAA basketball championship game. The NHL could a major overhaul, such as larger ice dimensions for the skaters to play in, similar to the rinks over seas, but they’d never do that. Those in charge love the grit, muck, and battle along the boards. They also value every player equally, ignoring the superstars. Johnny no name grinder on the fourth line is as important as Nathan MacKinnon according to the suits of the NHL. The MLB, NBA, and NFL value offense and… Read more »

David
David
1 month ago
Reply to  Bruce Rhodes

Move the blue lines out closer to center ice. Figure out what would be the best adjustment. That way offensive zone time would increase.

Jstripsky
Jstripsky
1 month ago

A player passes the puck, finish your check. A player is carrying the puck, get in front of him and keep him away from the net. Do either thing to a player without the puck, go to the penalty box, you sit and feel shame…

It’s not that hard.

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jackw
jackw
1 month ago

I don’t have a problem with the Tampa Bay salary loophole issue. It was a matter of turning lemons into lemonade, and not really any different from “coincidentally” losing a ton of games prior to the Lemieux draft. Refusing to call penalties and punishing skilled teams is a totally different story. No team is going to intentionally sit their best player for the entire season just so that they can be over the cap in the playoffs (if they could then even qualify for them) unless they really have to (injury). But dinosaur coaches with lesser skilled teams will turn… Read more »

David
David
1 month ago

Yes, Isles’ and Habs’ hockey can be boring. But teams win any way that works with the talent they have. And right now that style of hockey is working. One idea would be to stop the cheap shots. Call penalties — including on the stuff that goes on when players like Crosby don’t have the puck. Stop evening out penalties and call the game. They could also move the blue lines out closer to center ice. That would keep offensive zone time going longer.

Bob
Bob
1 month ago

The NHL, as currently led, won’t make the changes necessary to improve the game. They are fundamentally too “old school” to recognize what needs to be done. I mean, they put George Parros in charge of player safety. Parros played 10 years, scored 18 goals, logged 1,092 penalty minutes and had over 150 fights. His only purpose was to be a goon (or “enforcer” in NHL-speak) and beat up opponents. Decisions on player discipline during his tenure have been a joke, especially as it relates to player “safety”. Tom Wilson continues to assault other players without any meaningful discipline to… Read more »

Vittorio
Vittorio
1 month ago

Here is perfect example of how bad the NHL is these days: France vs Germany in EURO 2020 drew a 1.39 rating while the TB/NYI game drew 1.32, if that isn’t enough of an indictment of the way the NHL is I don’t know what is. Why is it so hard for the NHL to adopt this model for there league: Let the best players and best teams dictate the game. If anybody ever gets the opportunity to speak to Bettman face to face ask him these questions: Where’s Conor McDavid? Where’s Johnny Gaudreau? Where’s Ovi? Where is the BITW(Best… Read more »

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