Revisiting Hybrid Icing: An Evaluation After the Season's First Three Weeks

Marianne Helm

While there's still a little confusion on the details of how linesmen are applying the new icing rules, and there's certainly been an uptick in players' protests of calls, early returns on consistency have been mostly positive.

We're three weeks in to the NHL season, just long enough for the shine of newness to have rubbed off most things in the league. That goes for some of the league's more terrible teams - Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers, I'm looking at you - as well as fans' general tolerance of things like chemistry problems.

And while the complaints about the jersey tuck and cannot-remove-the-helmet rules seem to have finally calmed down, there is a rule that is still a little perplexing to fans, broadcasters and even some players around the league - hybrid icing. That's understandable to some extent. There are some very gray, subjective areas with the rule itself. But I don't think it's as complicated as some people are making it.

There was a great example of a couple gray areas of hybrid icing from Thursday's 4-3 shootout victory over the San Jose Sharks. Let's take a quick look at it and try to explain the rule as it's being applied right now, at least to the best of my interpretation.

Late in the third period, the Sharks had started to sense a little blood in the water and circle the offensive zone ominously. The Stars fourth line was on the ice and had finally managed to pull the puck away from the Sharks to move it out of danger.

The defenseman on the wall dumped the puck from just his side of the blue line, trying to bounce a pass off the boards to a breaking Ryan Garbutt, but the pass was too shallow and headed into the corner instead.

See the whole two seconds in all their glory below:

Sjicing_medium

This is a great example of a couple gray areas of hybrid icing that have caught fans and some broadcasters a little off guard.

First of all, just to reiterate, hybrid icing is not - I repeat, is not - a "race to the dot." That is a convenient shorthand to explain a slightly more complicated set of qualifiers about how icing now works.

Once it's clear that the puck will cross the red line in an icing situation, a linesman is to make a decision as to which of the following scenarios is happening:

  1. The defensive player will clearly win the race to the puck, either via a no-contest skate or in a footrace. The whistle goes when the first player (in this case, the defensive player) gets to level of the face off dot.
  2. The offensive player will clearly win the race for the puck. This play is left to go on regardless of which player reaches the level of the dots first. Given the actual verbiage of the rule, I'm about 99.9 percent sure that if the offensive player actually fails to touch the puck, via blowing a tire or just plain missing it, and the defender touches it first, it's still not icing.
  3. The race for the puck is close enough that there will be a collision, or it's simply unclear who will win. This play is blown dead when the first player in the race gets to the dot regardless of who is actually winning the race at that point. This is the safety measure designed to eliminate some of the very dangerous collisions that resulted in injuries to players like Kurtis Foster, Taylor Fedun and Joni Pitkanen.

That is all complicated by the fact the linesman is supposed to take the movement of the puck into play in his decision, and it's what makes the example from the Sharks-Stars game a very good one. On this play, the players are essentially even as they reach they dot, which would normally be (and is in this case) whistled down as icing. That is further influenced by the fact that the puck is rimming around the boards in the direction of the San Jose defenseman, meaning it's far more likely he'd actually win the race.

However, if the puck had gone into the shallowest part of the near corner and died there, this same footrace (with Garbutt just a tick of a stride behind the defenseman at the level of the dot) would likely be a waived off icing. Garbutt would clearly have a better angle on that puck and, although a smidge behind in the initial footrace, be a pretty sure bet to get to the puck first.

This was Matt Duchene's contention when he was very upset at an icing call when the Stars played Colorado. He thought the puck was coming more in his direction on the boards and that the movement of the puck combined with his good head of steam meant he would clearly win the race. The linesman in that game didn't see it that way.

And there is a lot of room for subjectivity in this version of the icing rule, a side effect of the league trying to preserve the puck race but eliminate some of the most dangerous situations. To be fair, there were also occasionally screw ups of touch icing when two players were stabbing at the puck and the linesman was shielded by their bodies.

Personally, I haven't had any complaints about hybrid icing and how its been implemented thus far other than a some very minor inconsistency in when the whistle is being blown on races that are clearly won by the defense. Some linesmen are not blowing the whistle until the defenseman gets to the level of the faceoff circles, which I believe is the strictest interpretation of the rule. Others are treating it almost like no-touch icing, where they blow the play dead at the time it becomes clear the defenseman will win the race regardless of where he is on the ice.

That hasn't annoyed me too badly yet, though I'm sure I'll be a little annoyed at when one of those gray area calls goes against the Stars and ends up costing them a goal. But as I've written before, there's an element of risk-reward that has to come into play when judging how to handle icing, and I'm willing to live with a slightly more subjective rule to lessen the incidence of silly, preventable, catastrophic injuries.

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