When Brendan Shanahan was first hired as the NHL’s new VP of Hockey and Business Development last December, many wondered exactly what his role would be. Sure, he was a three-time Stanley Cup champion and an Olympic Gold Medal winner. But, just how did the league plan on utilizing him in this new capacity?
If last week’s Research, Development and Orientation camp was an early indication of what Shanny has been up to, the league is headed in the right direction. He organized an on-ice think tank, if you will. While most of the changes will not be implemented anytime soon, maybe even never, taking a proactive approach towards exploring ideas is what keeps many businesses successful over the long run.
Shanahan acknowledged such in his opening remarks to kick things off, “We’re happy with the way the NHL game is. But you shouldn’t wait until something is broken to examine it.”
So, the NHL invited 33 top prospects (listed here) from the 2011 draft pool to an R&D camp in Toronto. The group was divided into two teams, headed by former Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock and current Phoenix Coyotes assistant Dave King.
Nearly every NHL team sent at least one representative to observe and comment on what they saw. A full list of the rule changes tested and comments from General Managers like Brian Burke, Joe Nieuwendyk and Dale Tallon can be found on the NHL.com blog located here.
We decided to go a different route and hear from two of the players that were actually on the ice, experiencing the proposed ideas. If you’re a regular reader of MayorsManor, you’re already familiar with Seth Ambroz from a feature piece we did on him last month. He’s currently projected as a top-five pick in the draft. The 6’3″ forward plays for the Omaha Lancers (USHL), a team partially owned by the Kings Luc Robitaille.
Our other guest is Matt Nieto, a southern California native who grew up as a die-hard Kings fan. He’s headed to Boston University this fall, one of the top college hockey programs in the country.
Both also have ties to Team USA - Ambroz just returned from the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the Czech Republic, where the U.S. picked up the silver medal…Nieto is a two-time gold medal winner at the U-18 World Championships and he recently participated at the evaluation camp for the World Jr. team.
MM: There wasn’t a lot of prep time at this camp, you guys hit the ice to start the testing soon after arriving. Before we talk about the actual rule changes, which team were you on and who were some of the guys with you?
Ambroz – I was on the black squad with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer/WHL), Nick Shore (U. of Denver/WCHA), Zack Phillips (Saint John/QMJHL) and Daniel Catenacci (Sault Ste. Marie/OHL). We were coached by Dave King.
Nieto – I was on Ken Hitchcock’s team (the white team) with Shane McColgan (Kelowna/WHL) and Robbie Russo (U.S. National program). To be honest, I didn’t know many of the guys though.
Each day there was a morning and an afternoon session. Among the first batch of rules tested were things like hybrid icing and some face-off variations. Did anything stand out that you liked, disliked and/or was there anything that was confusing to you?
Ambroz – Nothing was really too confusing. I was used to the hybrid icing from the USHL. On the faceoffs, they would set the puck down and blow a whistle. Actually, that was a little confusing at times. Most of the rules were pretty straight forward though and you didn’t think about it once the play started.
Nieto – I think the faceoff rule was the most awkward thing they tested, where the ref would put the puck down and blow a whistle to start the draw.
Was it confusing at all to have the play start that way? Usually a whistle in hockey means to stop play, here it was used to start play…
Ambroz – It was a little bit confusing. It was interesting to try and get used to it. Once you got it though, it was right back to hockey as usual. I didn’t really mind it at all.
Nieto – That was a big part of it. Some guys heard the whistle and they sorta froze up. It was definitely kinda weird. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of it.
They also tested some new overtime rules, starting with 4-on-4, then going to 3-on-3 and eventually 2-on-2. What did you think about that format?
Ambroz – Once you get down to 2-on-2, there’s a lot of ice. There would definitely be some scoring if they try that in the NHL. I don’t see it really happening, but…you know, the five minute OT and the shootout seems to be working well. I could see them change it a little bit, but 2-on-2 is a bit much.
Nieto – I though it was pretty fun actually. You’re never really put in a situation where you’re out there 2-on-2, so I’m not sure if they’ll use that rule. It was different. But, I think most of us had fun with that one.
Would you want to see NHL games decided by a 2-on-2 contest?
Nieto – I think it would be pretty fun to watch. But, I don’t think it’s a rule they would pass because 2-on-2 is pretty tough to play on full ice. There would be a lot of chances, that’s for sure.
Ambroz – I actually liked when they added the extra goal line. I think it’s pretty smart. If the puck touches it, it’s a goal. That makes a lot of sense. The crease rule has been played over in Europe and in some international tournaments, where you can’t really be in the crease. Being a big, power forward, standing in front of the net, that can be a little frustrating at times. The wider blue lines were nice. That gives the d-men a little extra room to work with.
There was a also a face-off variation where if a guy gets thrown out, the remaining player gets to pick who he wants to take the draw against. What did you think of that idea?
Ambroz – I actually thought that one made sense. It should give the center a big advantage, with a good chance to win it. If the other guy is going to cheat, it makes sense. It’s pretty funny when you get a big, 6’5″, 6’6″ defenseman in there to take the faceoff. And it seemed like they always won the draw too.
Nieto – I actually preferred the other faceoff variation, where if a guy gets caught cheating, rather than being thrown out they just move him back a little. You don’t have as much leg power to win the draw that way. You can’t really lean on your stick. Overall, I thought that was the best face off rule they tested the whole camp.
They also tried a configuration where there were three faceoff dots down the center of the ice…
Ambroz – It was pretty fun to try. It seemed like a lot of the centers just wanted to shoot it on net off the face-off. It gave you a different look on things. However, I’m more in favor of the five face off dots.
Nieto – That was pretty tough because in the defensive zone I usually use the dots on the sides to position myself. Without those there, I felt sort of lost out there. It was definitely kinda awkward. I think it works in your favor if you’re in the offensive zone. But, in the defensive zone, it’s tough to defend that draw.
In one of the many variations on how to end a game there was a shootout format where the same guy can shoot multiple times in the shootout, similar to what’s used at the Olympics. Are you in favor of that change?
Ambroz – I don’t mind it at all. If you have a good player that can bury it like that – heck, take advantage of it if you can. How often is it really going to happen that way? Well, I know it happened at the World Juniors awhile ago, in the US-Canada game with Jonathan Towes. I like both ways I guess. I have nothing against either way.
Nieto - I like it. I think it’s a great rule. I think it’s very effective and makes the shootout more interesting and fun.
One of the more radical ideas tested was when they took the second referee off the ice and placed him on a platform, sort of above the glass (near the blue line, on the opposite side of the benches). What did you think about having the second ref off the ice?
Ambroz – I thought it was a good idea. There is a lot of stuff that happens behind the play that maybe he’d be able to catch. It was pretty interesting to watch. It can get a little confusing at times though. The off ice ref did end up calling a few penalties and they were good calls, so it definitely helped to have him up there.
Nieto – I actually thought that was a pretty good rule. From my understanding he wasn’t just calling penalties up there. He was also communicating with the other ref, telling him what was going on in front of the play. So, that was good because most of the time the refs can’t see the whole ice.
Was it distracting to see a guy up there, out of the normal line of sight?
Ambroz – No, not at all. You only really noticed him when you were sitting on the bench. When you’re on the ice, you don’t even think about it or focus on it at all. It’s like he’s not even there.
Nieto – I didn’t really notice him that much. The fans might not be able to see though, that might be a factor.
Finally, there were 32 other top prospects there in camp with you. Aside from the few players you may have already known, who impressed you the most?
Ambroz – Nugent-Hopkins was a great player. He had some great hands, great vision and a good shot. It was amazing to see all the different types of players and abilities - some were playmakers, goal scorers, power forwards, all different types.
Nieto – I’d have to say Ryan Murphy, a defenseman (Kitchener/OHL). Just the way he skates so nicely and joins the play offensively, but never gets caught back on defense. He really impressed me.
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The camp also featured some off ice “orientation” sessions for the future NHL Draft picks, focusing on things such as the importance of being a person who displays strong character and how to best utilize new media, like facebook and twitter.
Strong character and new ideas. Sounds like something right up Shanahan’s alley.
Interview with Seth Ambroz - in-depth conversation w/ highly ranked 2011 NHL Draft prospect
Kings 2010 Draft Recap - notes on all players selected by LA at the 2010 NHL Draft
Interview with Matt Nieto – top prospect for 2011 NHL Draft and freshman at Boston University