AHL Rule Changes; NHL Next?

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

The American Hockey League, the top affiliate of the National Hockey League, has instituted three major rule changes for the 2014/15 season. Here I will examine the changes themselves, the pros and cons, and whether I think there's a shot that the NHL institutes them in the future.

The American Hockey League is introducing three new rule changes for the 2014/15 season. What are these changes, and is the NHL considering these for the bigs? Here's my first impression.

Revised overtime format

For a while now, fans of the NHL have been clamouring for a decreased emphasis on the shootout. The most common suggestion on how to do this has been to extend the sudden death overtime period, with the option of making the extra-extra time a 3-on-3 matchup. It seems that we are a step closer to seeing this, as it's been instituted in the AHL. Firstly, the overtime is now seven minutes in total. The first three minutes are 4-on-4 play, with a whistle at the end to indicate a switch to 3-on-3 for the remaining four. In addition to that are two supplementary changes that have also been suggested. The overtime will be preceded by a dry scrape of the rink, and the teams switch sides. It's clear that these changes are designed to spur overtime scoring, and by extension reduce the number of shootouts.

The dry scrape will refresh the ice surface enough for the overtime. The main reason for wanting to have the long change in overtime is that the extra time it takes to make a line change in the second period, as well as the fatigue of the players making that change, introduces a hiccup into the changing team's defence, allowing the attacking team some extra wiggle room for a scoring opportunity, therefore also resulting in more goals scored. If a goal is more likely in overtime, it means that a shootout is less likely. Of course, with fewer players comes more room to move, which, ideally, will encourage teams to do more offensively.

If there's any issue I can take with this, it's the 3-4 time split. Why so arbitrary? Why not 3 and a half minutes of each. Better yet, why only seven minutes altogether? If I was making this rule change, I'd add on five minutes of 3-on-3 to the existing five minutes of 4-on-4.

It's obvious that we'll likely be seeing this change take effect in the NHL. As has been proven in the past, one of the American League's functions is as a place to experiment with new rules. It's a popular stance adding on to the sudden death aspect of overtime, so if the rule has a positive impact, you can expect it to become an NHL rule in the near future.

On a side note, while I do agree with downplaying the shootout, I'm glad it's sticking. I watch a game to cheer for my team to win, not tie. As anticlimactic as a shootout is, no winner at all is more so. As much as one thinks a shootout gives teams incentive to play to not lose instead of to win, a shootout at least gives two points to the winner, one to the loser, rather than both teams getting only one, the case when ties were a thing. So I'm glad this rule is being explored without abolishing the shootout, and I hope the shootout sticks if and when this rule change gets called up.

Discouraging fighting

In North American professional hockey, a five-minute major penalty is given for a severe rule infraction. In the NHL and AHL, a player is assessed a game misconduct if they are assessed three majors in a single game. This rule is being revised in the AHL. If a player gets two fighting majors in the same game, they are assessed a game misconduct, even if they don't have any other majors.

I like this rule. While I confess to getting excited, even in front of strangers, when a fight goes down, I do agree that fighting doesn't enrich the game a whole lot, and hockey wouldn't really suffer for want of a fistfight. It seems to me like they're trying to ease into a total abolishing of fighting, starting out by giving steeper penalties for mutliple fights to discourage fighters.

I expect that after it's been around for a while, once players and fans have gotten used to significantly reduced fighting, a total ban will go over more smoothly. I have to believe that the NHL is interested in this as a potential big league rule, as the assessment of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for self-helmet-removal is clearly designed to deter would-be fighters.

Helmets are even more mandatory

As is common knowledge, helmets are mandatory. You have to play with one no matter what. The new element to this being added to the AHL rule book for the coming season is that if a player is separated from his headgear, either he leaves the ice immediately, recovers his helmet and puts it back on properly, or he gets a minor penalty.

I like the spirit of this rule, as it's about preserving the safety of players by forcing them to take care of themselves. There is potential for it to make the NHL, but it'll have to work well in the AHL. Worth noting is that this rule is also in place in international competitions, like the World Championships and Olympics.

What I saw almost immediately after reading the rule is the potential for it to be abused. I imagine a scenario where a player for Team A deliberately knocks off the helmet of a player for Team B, so that his team can either A) take advantage of the opposing team's decreased numbers while the de-helmeted player skates to the bench or moves to recover his helmet, or B) draw a penalty because the de-helmeted player isn't quick enough to do either.

Conclusion

These are potentially good rules, and ones I think the NHL is seriously considering. They address the over-prevalence of shootouts in the modern game without leaving their core purpose unfulfilled, and work to promote safety while discouraging hockey's more hazardous elements.

Thoughts? Drop a comment below, I'd love to see what other people think.

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