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How the NHL's crackdown on faceoff violations is creating new problems

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The league is trying to better enforce its rules, but that’s led to other issues this preseason.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched an NHL preseason game this month, you’ve surely seen it play out already. Everyone lines up in their usual places for the faceoff, and it seems like all is going quite normally, then the referee blows his whistle.

Faceoff violation.

It’s part of a league-wide crackdown on faceoff and slashing rules that the NHL doesn’t believe were enforced properly over the years. Now in the preseason, officials are trying to lay down the law in games loaded with penalties as players struggle to adjust to the new standard.

The faceoff change has elicited largely negative responses across the hockey world. The league’s goal here makes sense — it wants the rules enforced more effectively than before — but the implementation has been questionable. Pacing of games has been stifled, and players are struggling to adjust on the fly. Fans have sounded off just like those on the ice.

“This faceoff rule is an absolute joke,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said this week, via WEEI. “That’s how you ruin the game of hockey, by putting that in there. They’re gonna have to do something about that because we can’t play this year like that.”

The rule isn’t actually new, though. What’s new is how the league has gone about aggressively enforcing it in a way it never did before, and under relatively short notice to the players.

Another member of the Bruins, Riley Nash, told the Providence Journal he wasn’t sure what to do with himself on faceoffs after getting called for a penalty early in a preseason game.

“I was just standing there straight-legged, because I got a penalty on the first one,” Nash said. “I didn’t want to do that again.”

Marchand added, “Basically, you have to be a statue. You can’t move.”

Here’s an example of a faceoff violation called on Maple Leafs forward Kerby Rychel on Tuesday night. It’s so minor as to be barely noticeable to fans viewing from home.

Maybe getting players to act like statues on faceoffs is what the NHL wants. The league says the changes in enforcement are about safety and altering the dynamic of games. When talking about disciplining players, new Department of Player Safety head George Parros said the league is “going to try to change player behavior."

Making the game safer and better enforcement of the rulebook are worthy goals, but it’s fair to wonder about what the preseason crackdown even means once the real games begin.

Will the NHL keep aggressively calling faceoff violations during the regular season? That seems unclear.

And for the teams, the lack of 5-on-5 time during preseason as a result of the deluge of penalties has limited opportunities for evaluation. Teams are trying to figure out who should make their rosters, but large chunks of their preseason games are being played at 5-on-3 or 5-on-4. It’s a difficult way to get a feel for everyone when you’re constantly jumping between the penalty kill and the power play.

So it’s not hard to see where the players and fans come from with their frustration as to how the NHL handled this. The cause may be noble and worthwhile, but so far the execution hasn’t gone well.