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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : League's Move Achieves Its Goals

October 17, 1995|HELENE ELLIOTT

Coaches may grimace at 7-7 ties and have nightmares about see-saw games, but NHL executives are delighted with the scoring increase that has resulted from the league's clamp-down on obstruction fouls.

Through Sunday, teams were averaging 6.9 goals a game, up from 5.5 after 53 games last season. Skill players are regularly scoring goals worthy of highlight films, because they are no longer carrying defenders on their backs.

"Play has been elevated," said Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations and a member of the committee that targeted interference. "Play is quicker, there's better puck movement and more passing. The improvement is so obvious that it defies any debate."

Games often resemble power-play festivals, but that doesn't bother Burke. Teams are averaging 12.9 power plays a game, up from 9.5 at the same point last season. Minor penalties are up 20% because of the focus on obstruction.

"We made it very clear to our officials that if there are 20 situations where obstruction calls are warranted, they should make those calls, and we don't care if he wears the pea out [in his whistle]," Burke said. "We're not looking for phantom calls. If they're not there, don't call it. . . . Players determine how the game is officiated, not the referees."

Burke says play will improve more as players adjust to the new guidelines. He acknowledged that defensemen are shying away from open-ice hits because they fear being penalized, but said, "That's not warranted. There's been no change in the amount of open-ice hitting that's permitted."

Burke also dismissed predictions that it would be open season on defensemen because forecheckers can no longer be held up.

"We have not eliminated the defense partner's ability to set a pick. He just has to do it legally," Burke said. "If, for example, Darryl Sydor is going to get hit, Rob Blake has to skate to the part of the ice he wants to occupy and use his body--not his stick--on the guy. There's no target painted on anyone's back. . . . This is going to work. It's already working."

BURKE'S LAW

Burke wants to quash rumors that he plans to leave the league office to run the Winnipeg Jets after they move to Minnesota, or to run an expansion team.

"It's a bad scoop," said Burke, who has been a top executive in Vancouver and Hartford. "I am under contract for two more seasons, this season and next, and I have no escape clause. I'm very content where I am. I like working with Gary [Bettman, the NHL commissioner] and I plan on staying with the league that long or longer, if they'll have me."

HE'S BAAAAAACK

Bob Probert is back with the Chicago Blackhawks after serving a one-year suspension for substance abuse, and the hulking winger actually seems capable of doing more than just gooning it up.

Probert has four points--and only nine penalty minutes--in five games. At left wing with Denis Savard and Eric Daze, he's moving well and keeping up with his speedy linemates. Probert worked out with teammate Chris Chelios and Chelios' personal trainer last summer in Malibu.

"He's in shape for maybe the first time in his life," Blackhawk General Manager Bob Pulford said. "He has some skills."

MIKEY SINGS THE BLUES

Poor, misunderstood Mike Keenan.

St. Louis' coach and general manager was offended when fans booed him on opening night, and he blamed the media for portraying him as heartless for trading popular players Curtis Joseph and Brendan Shanahan.

"That's unfortunate," Keenan said. "I feel disappointed and hurt. I don't know what the fans expect. I suppose they may have somebody in mind that could do a better job for them. I don't know. If they do, they should express themselves."

Maybe fans expect the coach to treat the players with respect. If that's the case, they've got the wrong guy.

Dale Hawerchuk, though, backs Keenan, no surprise given the extravagant, three-year, $7.5-million deal Keenan signed him to last summer.

"The fans obviously had some favorites here, Joseph and Shanahan," Hawerchuk said. "They were great players, but they didn't win. If you don't win, change is inevitable."

SHARK FODDER

San Jose has tried to trade goalie Arturs Irbe, its 1994 playoff hero.

Club executives fear Irbe hasn't overcome the hand injury that hampered him last season, and they considered sending him to Edmonton for Joseph.

That deal didn't materialize, but they did make a good move last week when they gave Coach Kevin Constantine a three-year extension. Constantine, who has gotten the Sharks into the playoffs the last two seasons, has done a good job in blending difficult personalities.

FLYING HIGH

The Flyers' "Legion of Doom" line of Eric Lindros, Mikael Renberg and John LeClair is terrorizing goalies again. This season, though, the three have some competition from their teammates.

Philadelphia's second line, Rod Brind'Amour centering for Patrik Juhlin and Brent Fedyk, has contributed seven goals to the team's 4-0 start.

SLAP SHOTS

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