BOCA RATON, Fla. — The puck went in, but Tomas Plekanec didn’t raise his hands in the air.
Better wait for the replay, he thought.
That’s sort of where we are with goalie interference these days. No one knows what will be allowed and what will be called back anymore. Not the players or the goalies, or the coaches or GMs. Not even the referees seem to know.
So when Plekanec accidentally made contact with Montreal goalie Charlie Lindgren’s head moments before Toronto’s Kasperi Kapanen scored on a rebound, he wisely held back on the celebration even though the referee behind the net had signalled a good goal.
“You never know with these things with what’s going to happen so I wasn’t sure,” Plekanec said after Saturday’s 4-0 win against the Canadiens. “I bumped into him, but I didn’t even know about it. I thought (at) first it was going to be disallowed. so it didn’t surprise me. We won the game so didn’t really matter.”
Plekanec was right. Kapanen’s goal was overturned after on-ice officials — with the help of the Toronto Video Room — declared Plekanec had violated Rules 69.1, 69.3 and 69.4. And that was considered to be one of the easy ones.
That the NHL needed to reference three subsets of the rule to determine Plekanec had clubbed Lindgren over the head tells you everything you need to know about why goalie interference has become the complicated mess it is today.
Referred to as Rule 69 in the official rulebook, goalie interference has nine different appendixes and spans three pages. It’s wordy, filled with jargon and open to any interpretation. Section 69.1, which is five paragraphs long, states that “Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”
In other words, the on-ice official not only has to determine if contact was made, but also had to ascertain whether it was “incidental contact” and if the attacking player made “a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.” And then he has to cross-reference that with the other rules.
As retired NHL referee Kerry Fraser joked, “You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to read it.
“I’ve stated this many times: the most difficult call that a referee has to make live and then through review is rule 69,” said Fraser. “It’s subjective to a large degree in nature. They’ll both look at a play and half of them will say it’s goalie interference and the other half will say that’s what an attacking player is supposed to do.”
Expect goalie interference, which was a main topic of discussion at the All-Star Game in January, to once again be front-and-centre when the NHL’s general managers come together this week at their annual spring meeting.
Commissioner Gary Bettman told on-ice officials at the all-star weekend to stop “overthinking the review” by searching for reasons to overturn the call on the ice. But nothing really changed. So now the question is who should be making the final call: the 30-plus full-time referees or the small group working in the Video Room in Toronto?
Ultimately, the league wants consistency. And they want it in time for the playoffs. The problem is they want it with a rule that is not designed to be black-and-white.
For that to happen, the league needs to scrap Rule 69 and adopt the International Ice Hockey Federation’s stance on goaltender interference by making the crease off-limits for everyone but the goalie.
“The only thing that would make it cut and dry would be to go to European rules, where blue paint you blow it down and the faceoff is outside,” said TSN hockey analyst Jamie McLellan, who is a former NHL goalie. “That’s the only way to make it non-subjective.”
Unlike Rule 69 of the NHL rulebook, Rule 186 of the IIHF rulebook does not require a law degree to understand. If you’re in the crease and you make contact or obscure a goalie’s vision, then it’s no goal. Simple. If a goalie ventures outside the crease and gets bumped while battling for position, then he’s out of luck.
“You make the rule change here at the GM meetings in the best interest of having clarity for the rest of the year — not for the big picture of goal-scoring,” said TSN hockey analyst Andy Chiodo, a former pro goalie who played several seasons under IIHF rules in Finland and Austria. “We have to give refs a clear understanding of what they’re calling in a game and for coaches and players to know what is and what is not a goal.”
Of course, consistency comes at a cost. At the all-star weekend, Toronto’s Auston Matthews referenced a goal that had recently been called back in Colorado because he was in the crease and touched the goalie’s stick while trying to play the puck.
“I can’t score if I’m not going in there,” said Matthews, who played under the IIHF rules in 2015-16 in Switzerland. “It’s kind of tough to pinpoint what they need to do.”
And yet, something drastic has to be done in time for next month’s playoffs. If not, a league that is still haunted by the Brett Hull foot-in-the-crease non-call in the 1999 Stanley Cup final could be headed down a familiar path if no one knows what the rule is.
“We’re at a critical moment here,” said Fraser. “My hope is they don’t Band-Aid it.”
Shrink the crease f0r clarity’s sake: McLellan
If the NHL were to adopt the IIHF rule and make the crease off-limits, then McLellan has another request: shrink the blue paint.
The current crease is a semi-circle in shape that extends a foot wide of either post and stretches six feet in front of the net. McLellan suggested turning it into a square that is the width of the net and decreasing its depth by a couple of feet. That way, goalies have a smaller “safe zone” and attacking players can still battle in front of net.
“You keep a goalie deeper in his net, you see a lot more net and maybe you get a few more goals a year,” said McLellan. “As a former goalie, first and foremost you have to be afforded a chance to stop the puck. Now if I’m two feet outside the crease and there’s traffic, I’m putting myself in a high traffic zone.”
“The way the crease size is now, it’s way to big to say you can’t go in there,” Chiodo agreed.
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