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BY THE RULES

10/15/2004 10:32 AM - American Hockey League adopts changes to boost goal scoring

Story and photo by Mark Newman

There will be no designated hitter, no three-point shot, no instant replay.

Nevertheless, there have been significant changes made to the American Hockey League rulebook this season. New standards of play have been adopted in an effort to boost offense in the game.

Clearly, the moves are welcomed by fans hungry for more goals. Last year saw a record 208 shutouts registered by AHL teams, shattering the old mark of 136 set during 2001-02.

But if you have visions of larger nets or goalies without pads, you're dreaming.

Following what the league called "an independent and thorough evaluation" of the game, the AHL Board of Governors approved a number of rule changes aimed at increasing the flow of the game and generating more scoring chances.

Among the changes adopted are:

* Increasing the size of the neutral zone by moving the goal line and widening the blue lines and center red line;

* Instituting no-touch icing and tag-up offsides;

* Implementing a shootout for games which are tied at the end of a five-minute sudden-death overtime.

The AHL will also test, for at least the first seven weeks of the regular season, a rule that will restrict the where goaltenders may play the puck behind the net.

Additionally, the league is ordering its referees to enforce fouls on the puck carrier, believing stricter interpretation of obstruction and interference calls in both the offensive and defensive zones will create a more goal-friendly environment.

Griffins general manager Bob McNamara thinks fans at AHL games will see a better brand hockey this season.

"I hope the rules will have a dramatic impact on the flow of the game, improving the speed to generate more u-tempo games and create more offensive play," he says.

Griffins head coach Danton Cole thinks the league's stand on clutching and grabbing - more than any of the new rules - could have the greatest impact on the game.

"Cracking down on obstruction and interference will lead to a lot more power plays, which should translate into more scoring," Cole says. "As for the other rules, I think their overall effect will be greater than each individually."

Naysayers might scoff at the suggestion that the league is going to put an end to obstruction, but AHL president Dave Andrews is adamant that referees will call it as they see it.

"We're using the rulebook with regard to holding and hooking on the puck carrier," AHL president Dave Andrews told The Hockey News. "If somebody has won a battle and the loser of that one-on-one confrontation cheats to get back, it's a penalty. If you take away a player's advantage illegally, it will be a penalty."

Fact is, nobody wants to see highly skilled players getting manhandled in the way that they have been in recent years. "Fans want to see the puck moving forward," McNamara says. "They don't want to see guys getting clutched and grabbed all day."

The league is also hoping that increasing the size of the neutral zone and reducing play behind the goals will help create more offense.

Goal lines have been moved from 13 feet to 11 feet out from the end boards, while blue lines have moved accordingly to maintain a 60-foot attacking zone.

In addition, the width of the blue lines and the center red line have increased from 12 inches to 24 inches each, giving additional space to the neutral zone by allowing passes from the defensive edge of one blue line to the offensive edge of the other.

"It's hard to tell how much impact the wider lines will have until we've played with them for a while," Cole says, stating an opinion echoed by McNamara.

"The change in lines initially will have minimal impact but as the guys get used to playing with them, I think it should open up the neutral zone and create more offense."

Both Cole and McNamara embrace the tag-up offsides and automatic icing rules.

Icing infractions will be called and the play whistled dead as soon as the puck crosses the goal line. "It should speed up the game and should cut down on injuries to players racing for the puck," McNamara says.

In delayed offside situations, the offending player(s) are permitted to negate the offside by "tagging up" with the blue line. Previously in effect from 1986 to 1996, the rule should allow forecheckers to be more active while reducing the number of stoppages.

As for the adoption of shootouts, it's a return to the old days for the Griffins, who became accustomed to the tiebreaker during the organization's first six years in the International Hockey League.

In a shootout, each team will get five attempts to score on a breakaway starting at the center red line. The visiting team will shoot first, with teams alternating attempts. Each team's five shooters will be determined by the respective coaches prior to the shootout.

Once a team has mathematically clinched a victory, it will be declared the winner. If both teams are tied after five rounds, the shootout will proceed to sudden-death until a winner is determined.

Unlike the IHL, where the entire bench could participate if the tiebreaker lasted long enough, shooters for the sudden-death rounds in the AHL must come from the original groups of five.

In the AHL standings, teams will receive two points for a win, one point for a loss in overtime or in a shootout, and zero points for a loss in regulation time.

"I don't mind the shootout - in fact, I kind of like it because it gives you a conclusion at the end of the game and I know fans really like them,"

Cole says. "I like that we kept the five-minute overtime - you see some of the best hockey when it's played wide open."

Although he claims to be "indifferent" to shootouts, McNamara says there was strong support for the shootout.

"A lot of AHL people wanted to try it and the NHL wanted us to look at it," he says. "I'm not a huge fan but I'm not terribly against it."

There was much more disagreement among the AHL powers that be regarding the restrictions placed on the goaltender.

Goalies will not be permitted to play any puck behind the goal that is outside a restricted area that begins six feet from either side of the goal and extends to 28 feet apart along the end boards. Violation of this rule will result in a minor penalty for delay of game against the goaltender.

"There should be no reason to take even one of those penalties," Cole says. "There's plenty of room behind the net for the goalie to stop the puck and set it up."

McNamara says the test rule is designed to increase offensive opportunities without eliminating a goaltender's ability to assist his defensemen.

"We recognized that something had to be done relative to the goaltenders' ability to play the puck," he says. "It's just something we're trying. If it works, we'll keep it. If it doesn't, we'll make the adjustments and move on."

One rule change that was adopted, but put on ice until the 2005-06 season, is a new regulation that would limit the size of goaltender pads, reducing their maximum width from 12 inches to 10 inches.

When equipment manufacturers complained that there was insufficient time to provide enough regulation gear for the current season, the league's Board of Directors reconsidered its implementation schedule.

McNamara, a former goaltender, is all for the new equipment regulations.

"At the end of the day, the pads need to be smaller," he says. "I think the bigger equipment today takes a lot of athleticism out of the position. You make the equipment smaller and the cream will rise to the top."

Other rules were considered, but McNamara contends the league "didn't want to take on too much" in terms of change. As far as Cole is concerned, that's just fine.

"The game is what it is," he says. "For the most part, I don't have a problem with the new rules. It's something they're experimenting with and hopefully it'll lead to better hockey."


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