Icing Rule 81.4 And Today’s Defencemen

Has Icing Rule 81.4 Changed The Way We View Today”s Defencemen?

The NHL game has really evolved over the past couple of decades.  You see things today you didn’t see 2o-25 years ago.  Today every player can shoot the puck.  Today most NHL skaters are better than average, not too many pylons.  Goalies are much bigger and athletic and EVERYBODY blocks shots.  I couldn’t imagine Gretzky or Mario taking one for the team.

BUT for me, the biggest change that I’ve seen is the evolution of NHL defencemen.  There has always been the good puck moving offensive defencemen that carried the play and drove possession.  Potvin, Coffey, Housley, Salming, Leetch and on and on.  But for every Borje Salming, there was a Brad Marsh or for every Paul Coffey, there was a Lee Fogolin.  Today’s defenceman, for the most part, are good skaters that handle the puck very well.  There really isn’t as many pylons in today’s game as there were in the past.  If you factor in bigger more athletic goaltenders, an overabundance of shot blockers and the fact that most teams have much more mobile defencemen, it’s not hard to see why today’s players don’t put up those video game statistics that Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Hawerchuk and others put up in the past.

Where am I going with this you ask?

Mark Stuart2802For the sake of this discussion, I am going to use Winnipeg’s own Mark Stuart as our example.  He has drawn a lot of attention on Talk Radio and Twitter lately.  Many lament his puck skills and his possession stats and how he and whoever is unlucky enough to be his partner struggle in the Jets defensive zone.

Others will argue that Stu brings sandpaper, grit, shot blocking ability and hard work to the table.  True.  They will also say that the “stay at home defenceman” just needs to make a quick pass or dump out as his game isn’t finesse.  True again.

BUT

The biggest rule change that is making the Stuarts of the world a liability was Icing Rule 81.4.

81.4 Line Change on Icing A team that is in violation of this rule shall not be permitted to make any player substitutions prior to the ensuing face-off.  Should the offending team elect to utilize their team time-out at this stoppage of play, they are still not permitted to make any player substitutions. However, a team shall be permitted to make a player substitution to replace a goalkeeper who had been substituted for an extra attacker, to replace an injured player, or when a penalty has been assessed which affects the on-ice strength of either team.  The determination of players on ice will be made when the puck leaves the offending player’s stick.

If you ice the puck, the five players that were on the ice cannot go to the bench for a line change.  This rule is huge and has impacted today’s NHL game greatly.

Mark Stuart’s puck skills are below average.  When he has time and space, he is just okay.  There in lies the rub.  In today’s game, there is not much time and space.  Your defence partner can no longer run that little pick or screen play that bought a couple extra seconds of time and space.  The fore-checkers are on you very quickly.  Every defenceman today has to be able to skate with the puck, make a real good first pass or have the ability to feather the puck into the neutral zone.  Gone are the days when the coach or your partner would just yell “Ice it”  or  “Get it out”  and the defenceman would fire it down the ice accepting the Icing call.  The Icing call would take the pressure off and give the offending team a line change and a fresh start.  So, basically, teams got a re-start with fresh players and their  top face-off man with little or no consequence.  Icing was used as a tool or a strategy.

Former Winnipeg Jet 1.0 and Winnipeg Hockey Talk writer Scott Campbell also pointed out that defencemen can’t clear the front of the net like they used to.  Now it’s about having a quick-stick, body positioning and making sure the opponents stick is incapable of doing damage.  This is more cerebral than just flattening a player like in the good old days, which again makes it more difficult for the one-dimensional guys.

The elite teams in the NHL have elite defensemen that have all the grit and compete aspects of the game as well as the skating and skill aspects of the game.

This article is not a criticism of Mark Stuart.  He is a competitive team player and his teammates probably all love him.  For now, there will be room for this type of player in the NHL but he is becoming extinct.  As the Winnipeg Jets blue-line starts to get deeper in talent, the bottom end players will and should be better than a Mark Stuart.  That is when you know your team is evolving and trending the right way.

I expect that Mark Stuart (upcoming UFA) will be dealt at the deadline to some team looking for play-off depth on their blue-line.  Mark Stuart and his kind are already reduced to depth players on play-off teams and soon to be just a depth player on bad hockey teams.  The game is evolving and time is running out for the so-called “stay at home” not overly skilled “compete guy”.  They are being replaced by the better skilled “compete guy”.  But, it was a good run.

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