With rumors of another emphasis on obstruction penalties on the horizon, how might the current standards of penalties change when the NHL finally returns?
The last time the NHL emerged from a lockout, the league returned with a faster, more offense-friendly game.
Some of that was due to the rule changes, like the removal of the two-line pass and deterrents against icing, but much of it was due to a much tighter standard on the obstruction-type penalties that so ruled the game in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s.
Before we get to the likelihood of that happening again this time around (hint: it's been suggested no one seems to know for sure), it's worth a quick refresher course in NHL rules and officiating standards. So put on your rules nerd hat, or at the very least admire mine, and we'll take a brief trip through what the league typically considers interference and how they would probably crack down on it.
Obstruction/interference is one of three major categories of penalties in hockey, the others being safety fouls and game flow issues (things like puck over glass, unsportsmanlike conduct and too many men).
As the name implies, the purpose of obstruction penalties is to ensure a free-flowing game, where the puck carrier only has to deal with stick-on-stick or trunk-on-trunk contact from the other team. It is also meant to clean up the traffic off the puck, which usually benefits the offense.
There are several varieties of these calls, which can be found in this lovely copy of the NHL rulebook, but the major players are hooking, holding, interference, tripping and sometimes slashing. Like some penalties in the NHL (i.e., holding), you could legitimately call some form of these penalties nearly every minute of every NHL game.
All of these, particularly holding, were the subject of a major crackdown in 2005, but have since backslid a bit. Some of this is due to players, the sneaky devils that they are, finding new and different ways to disguise their cheating, and some of it is due to the pressure of too many games "decided by officials" because of multiple power plays. Things didn't get back to the level they were in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but there is definitely a dip in how tough these plays are being judged.
If there is a crackdown, then, I don't expect any new real standards of what defines these penalties to come into play. Rather, I think the officials may be instructed to call these penalties to the tight standard we saw in 2005. So what is that standard? It varies a bit for each penalty.
Holding is probably the easiest one because there's a fairly black-and-white criteria. The definition of holding is "Any action by a player that restrains or impedes the progress of an opposing player whether or not he is in possession of the puck," but in practice, it all comes down to the free arm of the opposing player. If a player takes one arm (usually his bottom hand) off his stick and reaches out with it to either grab, hook, shove or otherwise impede with an opponent, he is meeting the NHL standard for holding. There are times you see a player get called for holding when the replay shows he did very little, but he almost always has his free hand off is stick and is reaching with it, leading to the false impression of guilt.
During the past seven years, NHL referees have become significantly more lax about strictly enforcing holding, particularly along the boards and on zone entries. One of the main areas there could be an uptick in calls is here if they start punishing any player who sticks out his free arm again.
Slashing, the interference type, is also pretty easy to recognize. These usually come from defenders who have been beaten as they try to stick-check or otherwise distract an offensive player. Officials, as long as they have a line of sight on the play, almost always call a slash that knocks a stick out of a player's hands or breaks it. The league could crack down on the hand slashes, and some of the skill players would love them if they did, but I don't expect it. This is Backchecking 101 at the NHL level, and like hand hooks, I don't think it will go away any time soon.
Hooking is a pretty easy penalty to define - using an extended stick to impede your opponent. The big giveaway, for both fans and opponents, is a stick extended away from a player's body. If a player starts reaching with his stick rather than moving his legs to control an opponent, he's putting himself at risk for this call.
I'll be the first to admit that there is a substantial double-standard on this call when it comes to the players considered elite in their own end. Many of the "stick-lift" plays you see start off as hooking calls, where the backchecker hooks at the hip of the player with the puck, then his hands, then gets enough leverage to lift his stick and swipe the puck. Heck, the difference in a stick lift and a hand hook is a measly 3-4 inches, and a player's reputation plays a huge part in whether the referee gives him the split-second benefit of the doubt.
The league has backed off a little bit on hooking enforcement since 2005, though not nearly to the extent they've backed off of holding. If they start calling every extended stick play a hook again, there could be an uptick in penalties and a clearer path through the neutral zone for many players.
Unlike hooking and holding, tripping is rarely intentional and generally pretty clear. The most difficult ones to figure out in real time are the foot-on-foot trips or when someone steps on a stick. Tripping is also one of the fouls most ripe for embellishment, as many players in the league show off their impression of the dramatic Looney Tunes legs any time a stick gets near their ankles. I don't expect there would be a crackdown here as the league does try to enforce this pretty tightly despite the antics of some of the embellishers.
The most complicated and oft misunderstood of the obstruction penalties is undoubtedly interference. Heck, even defining the penalty takes a page and a half in the NHL rulebook. Once you wade through the criteria that actually belongs in other calls, the big takeaway is this - a player cannot check an opponent without the puck, and a player cannot use his body for the express purpose of denying a lane or space on the ice unless the player he cuts off is considered the puck carrier.
For the record, since this always comes up when debating questionable hits, the NHL generally uses the charging standards to determine when a player is eligible to be hit after losing possession (either passing the puck or dumping it up ice with no attempt to pursue). That means three strides of distance traveled or roughly 0.5 seconds. The idea is the defending player must have time to veer off or at least pull up. If the defender has that chance and doesn't, he is technically committing interference. And a defender is never allowed to hit a player before he gains possession of the puck.
The denying-a-lane clause is much more dubious. It's meant to prevent pick plays and keep defenders from simply shoving players against the boards as they pursue dump ins, the M.O. of Dallas Stars mainstays like Derian Hatcher in the glory days. But the counterpoint is that every player has the right to his own ice, even if the space he wants to occupy might seem strange. It's exceedingly difficult, especially in real time, to pick out a player trying to cut off a passing lane from a player trying to step into someone else's skating lane.
There definitely was a crackdown in interference in 2005, mostly in the realm of early and late hits. Both of these, but particularly early contact, could certainly use another look from the league. Nearly all defenders initiate contact with opponents along the boards a split second before the puck gets there. As much as I'd like an emphasis on pick plays, and nearly every team runs them off a cycle, it's very hard to differentiate a right-to-this-ice move from a cutting-off-a-defender bump. Obvious picks remain obvious and will be called, but the gray area of cycle-based picks are nearly impossible to differentiate from normal, legal play.
So after all that, is this crackdown coming again? Sources seem to disagree. One the one hand, you have this coming from St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, via The Hockey News' Adam Proteau.
Ken Hitchcock told me the coming re-emphasis on obstruction will make special teams key. Success in short season requires quick adjustment.— Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) January 6, 2013
But on the other hand, this seemed to be the buzz at Wednesday's Board of Governor's meeting.
Asked David Poile and Steve Yzerman if they'd heard anything about any on-ice changes (rules or another obstruction crackdown). Negative.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) January 9, 2013
So.... who knows. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a crackdown again, simply because the league believes fewer hooks and holds make for a quicker, more marketable game.
And personally, I would advocate for one simply because nothing makes me crazier than watching teams water-ski their way through the neutral zone.