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Is the neutral zone trap creeping back into the game?

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While the 2004-05 lockout was just about a complete disaster for the NHL, the league was forced to make a few changes that improved the game as a whole. It’s true that the elimination of the two-line pass rule was designed to open up the game, but the most important alterations didn’t involve the introduction of a new rule. Instead the league simply increased its emphasis on referees calling obstruction and interference penalties.

These changes helped (and still help) talented, speedy players make a bigger impact on the game and forced many plodding, low-skill skaters out of the league. While the influx of young talent during the last several seasons is evident, these changes allowed those youngsters to shine brighter and sooner.

Of course, there’s a fine line between opening up the game and neutering the physicality that helps fill the seats. Darren Eliot of Sports Illustrated writes that referees are gradually calling less penalties on minor infractions in the neutral zone and elsewhere, something that coaches such as Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning and even typically aggressive coach Peter Laviolette of the Philadelphia Flyers are exploiting to considerable success.

Speed away from the puck was the main idea and it is the essence of the game at its best. Yet, neutral zone sludge is slowly beginning to build up across the league. The only way that happens is when defensive players who have little or no speed are allowed to clog lanes and slow their faster opponents by neutralizing them with subtle grabs, blocks and nudges instead of being forced to defend with equal quickness.

Offensive forechecking suffers when the area between the bluelines becomes a gauntlet of human speed bumps and rumble strips. Less speed means less quality time in the offensive zone, and that quality time is what the league wants. See: the recent ingenious tweaks to face-offs on icings (no personnel changes for the offending team) and for penalty calls (an offensive zone face-off no matter where the infraction occurred). But those are controlled situations that aid the offensive team. The intention of the 2005 no-interference mandate was to help the offense while play was underway.

The eyeball test tells me the game is now backsliding too much. Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass. I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less.

It’s not time to get alarmed, but the league must make sure that the quality of play remains at a high level. The NHL is probably feeling great about the steady overall improvement in ratings and general interest, but they shouldn’t see moderate success as an invitation to rest on their laurels.

Ducks sign former first-rounder Noesen to one-year extension

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Forward Stefan Noesen has agreed to a one-year contract to stay with the Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim confirmed the two-way deal Monday.

Noesen (NAY-sun) appeared in one game in each of the past two seasons for the Ducks, who acquired him from Ottawa in 2013.

The 2011 first-round pick by the Senators has spent most of the past three seasons in the AHL with Anaheim’s affiliates in Norfolk and San Diego. He scored 32 points in 65 games for the Gulls last season.

The 23-year-old Texas native’s pro career has been hindered by two major injuries. He missed practically all of the 2013-14 season with torn ligaments in his left knee, and he missed four months of the 2014-15 season after an opponent’s skate blade nearly severed his right Achilles tendon.

Twitter unveils plan to stream NHL games

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07:  In this photo illustration, The Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced it's initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.  (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Twitter will live stream for free one Major League Baseball game and one NHL game per week under a new deal.

The agreement announced Monday will allow viewers to watch games nationally that would normally be available only in the two teams’ home markets. Users will not need to be logged into Twitter to see the games.

The baseball games will also be available outside the U.S., with some exceptions. Twitter did not announce the game schedule Monday.

The social media network is attempting to move into live sports streaming through “over-the-top” broadcasts, which do not require a cable subscription. In April, Twitter reached a deal with the NFL to stream 10 “Thursday Night Football” games this fall.

Former Flyers goalie Heeter signs with Detroit’s AHL team

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The Red Wings added some goalie depth on Monday, agreeing to terms with journeyman Cal Heeter.

Heeter, 27, broke in with the Flyers organization a while back and made his big-league debut in ’13-14, appearing in one game.

Since then, he’s bounced around the ECHL, AHL (with the Toronto Marlies) and, last season, split his time between Hamburg of the German League and Zagreb Medvescak of the KHL.

By itself, this signing isn’t especially noteworthy, as Heeter projects to be an American League mainstay next year.

But the contract is kind of interesting when looking and the big-picture goalie situation in Detroit. The Wings now have Heeter, Petr Mrazek, Jimmy Howard, Jared Coreau, Eddie Pasquale and Jake Paterson all under contract for next season, which is an awful lot of goalies.

With that in mind, remember that Howard’s name has been in trade talks for quite some time.

 

Ex-NHLers Bellemore, Collins sign with KHL’s Chinese club

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HC Kunlun Red Star, the Beijing-based expansion team that will begin playing in the KHL next season, has added a pair of former NHLers.

Sean Collins, who appeared in a pair of games for the Capitals last season, and Brett Bellemore, a veteran of over 100 contests with the Carolina Hurricanes, have agreed to join the club, per Russian news outlet R-Sport.

Bellemore, 28, was originally drafted by the ‘Canes in 2007 and spent most of his professional career with the organization. He signed on with Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence last year, and appeared in 56 games.

Collins, 27, broke in with the Blue Jackets before signing with the Caps last season. He spent the majority of the year in AHL Hershey and fared well — 16 goals and 39 points in 75 games — and scored three times in the playoffs, helping the Bears advance to the Calder Cup final.