Along with the new CBA comes a slew of rule changes designed to increase scoring, open up the flow of the game and allow the highly-skilled players to shine at their brightest. How will these changes affect the 2005-06 New York Islanders? Let's take a look.
The biggest concern for most Islanders fans is how the new restrictions on where goaltenders can play the puck will affect Rick DiPietro and his great puckhandling abilities. In previous seasons, DiPietro's stickwork and passing were one of his greatest weapons, and a big reason Mike Milbury made him the first goaltender ever selected first overall back in the 2000 draft. I really don't think "The Rick" will be hurt by the new rules at all, and in fact, it might make him even more dangerous now than in the "old" NHL. Here's why:
First of all, goaltenders are only limited to where they can touch the puck behind the goal line, not in front of it. They can still play the puck behind the net in the "goalie trap" area, but not in the corners behind the goal line, or else it results in a delay-of-game penalty. So DiPietro will still be able to cut behind his cage to stop the hard-around just like in previous seasons. On the softer cross-corner dumps, all he has to do is skate into the corner and cut the puck off before it crosses the goal line, which we've all seen him do many times. Plus, the goal line has now been moved back two feet closer to the end boards, so that's two more feet he has to work with as well. So getting to the puck shouldn't really present a problem for DiPietro.
Once he has it, the new rules could really help bring his passing ability to another level. With the red line now ignored for the purposes of the two-line pass, Rick will have the opportunity to fire the puck to a teammate waiting at the opposition's blue line. How many times this season will he connect with Jason Blake, Miroslav Satan, Shawn Bates, Mike York or any of his other speedy mates that can now sneak behind the opposition defensemen looking for a home run pass that will lead to a breakaway? And it's not just DiPietro who will benefit from this change. How about offensive defensemen Alexei Zhitnik, Janne Niinimaa and Brent Sopel? The ability to connect on a long first pass out of your own zone will loom large in the new NHL. Players are actually being encouraged to try more of these home run type passes, because linesmen now have the discretion to wave off an icing call if it was deemed the result of an attempted pass.
I'm also very happy that the "touch-up" icing rule remained in place. It seems like at least once or twice a game Jason Blake outraces a defenseman to the puck to avoid the icing call, and it was always exciting to watch. So # 55 can continue to do his thing come October and bring 'em out of their seats at the Coliseum.
Another rule change that should help the Islanders, especially Alexei Yashin, is the "zero-tolerance" crackdown on clutching, grabbing and interference. How many times in the past has the opposition's game plan to shut down the Islanders consisted of draping two bodies all over Yashin for 60 minutes? Now Yashin, Oleg Kvasha, Miroslav Satan, Trent Hunter and the rest of the skilled playmakers on the Islanders should have more room to work with and less obstruction to fight through.
The increase in size of the offensive zone from 60 to 64 feet should also allow for more creativity and playmaking up front, particularly on the power play. The extra four feet could help Yashin with his patented "curl move" off the left half-boards to fire a shot on net from the top of the circle. Bigger players like Kvasha will also find more space to create down low when the team has a man advantage. The strategy of the power play will certainly be to stretch the opponent's penalty kill box all the way out, then use that extra 48 inches to find an open teammate in the seam. The Islanders' quickness at the forward positions of their PK should help when other teams try to do this to them. With the extra room should also come more point shots getting through to the net, much to the delight of the human deflection machine known as Mark Parrish.
And finally, how much fun is the shootout going to be? How will Steve Stirling pick his three players to participate? I would think Satan, Yashin and Blake would be on the short list, but what about Hunter, York, Weinhandl, Bates, Kvasha or Parrish?
And that's just at one end of the rink. Is there a more aggressive or exciting goalie to watch on a breakaway than Rick DiPietro? How many times has Garth Snow stoned an opponent on an all-out breakaway over the years? And remember, if the shootout is tied after three shooters aside, it moves to sudden death, where any player has the chance to be the hero. In the Bridgeport Sound Tigers' final regular season game of the 2004-2005 season, it took 18 shooters to decide the game before the Tigers finally prevailed. It was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen in hockey, with the entire building on their feet the whole time.
So there's a lot to look forward to in the new NHL, and most of the rule changes should favor a skilled, quick Islanders team. It can't start soon enough for me - let's drop the puck right now!
(Chris King is the analyst on Islanders radio broadcasts on Bloomberg 1130. This is the first entry in a series of columns he will write for newyorkislanders.com throughout the 2005-06 season).