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Smaller nets equal big potential for the NHL

The next Brendan Shanahan(notes) Carnival of Wacky Notions (a.k.a. the NHL Research and Development Camp) is scheduled for next month in Toronto, and we're hoping for the same balance between reasonable and outrageous improvements for the Game as we had last summer.

(Although we could probably all do without seeing that referee-as-lifeguard idea given another test run …)

There are possible changes for the NHL that will be given a serious look at the R&D camp, set for Aug. 17-18 at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence, in Etobicoke, Ont. Hybrid icing will be back in the testing lab. So will headset communication between referees on the ice, which could both increase the quality of officiating on the ice and the amount of conspiracy theories about NHL puppet mastery. ("What did Bettman tell him on his headset before he waved off that goal, huh?!?")

Also tested last summer and back this year: The idea of shrinking the goal cages' depth in order to create more offensive chances that originate behind the goalie's back.

It's an idea whose time has come in the NHL.

From Scott Burnside of ESPN.com, on the 2011 R&D camp:

Shanahan said he expects narrower nets will again get a hard look in August. While keeping the goal itself a consistent size, the reduced depth of the net will allow for more room to move behind it and a shorter travel distance for a player trying to attempt a wrap-around, thus putting more pressure on goaltenders and defenders.

Thus re-opening "Gretzky's Office" for business.

This change to the NHL rink had some champions last summer, including the Boston Bruins brass. From the Boston Globe:

"Everything is so collapsed,'' said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney. "Before, penalty-killers didn't collapse quite as much. They'd stay more in a box formation. Now, everything is home-based. Everything collapses.''

On the defensive side, shrinking the net gives puck-carrying defensemen a wider avenue for escaping pesky forecheckers. Consequently, breakouts could be quicker and crisper. A D-man who runs into forechecking trouble could reverse the puck behind the net and give it to his partner.

"I like it,'' said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "If you're a defenseman trying to skate past a forechecking forward, you try and make that cut behind the net, then up the ice. But that's a real skilled move for a defenseman. You're making that move, retrieving the puck, and moving up the ice.

"Now, this way, there's less net when you're trying to make that corner. That's a positive thing. It's a corollary of the experiment. I think the original intent was to open up more space behind the net to set up and make a play. This is a side benefit.''

So it helps generate offense for the attacking team and for the defending team in transition, in theory. It all sounds like a faster flow to the game, which is never a bad thing.

Not everyone was on board last summer, however. The late Jim Kelley on Sportsnet had this last August:

Shrunken goal cages -- The opening is the same but the depth of the cage is limited so that there is more room to make plays from behind the net and for easier wrap-around attempts. It has promise, but it also opens up the so-called "kill zone" for defenders looking to make big hits as players come around at top speed. It also will keep fewer pucks in the cage, perhaps necessitating more video replays to determine whether or not a goal was scored. It's a concept that needs work.

His second point about the video reviews is a valid one, as pucks rocket in and out of the net so quickly. The last thing you want is for goals to be discovered minutes later via replay; it doesn't happen often, but it kills the flow of the game when it does.

(Of course, had the NHL not removed goal judges, there could be another set of ice-level eyes to witness a puck bouncing in and out of the cage. But who needs humans when you can have cameras that cover, oh, roughly 70 percent of the goal?)

To speak to his most salient point about player safety: The fact that Shanahan has helped tighten up the hits-to-the-head rule is going to — again, in theory — decrease the number of "kill zone" hits by defenders behind the cage, allowing offensive players to have more time and less fear in operating back there.

Again, this is something that we'd like to see tested more at the R&D camp and then perhaps in the AHL. But shrinking the cage while keeping the overall integrity of the goal (i.e. not turning it into some soccer-style cage just because the goalies and their pads have grown over the years) seems like a positive step.

We're always talking about increasing the size of the ice surface to help generate more offense in the NHL. Here's a way to do it without having to remove premium seating in the front rows to widen the ice. Which, as you know, is the primary concern for NHL teams when it comes to fiddling with the rink.

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