TORONTO – The NHL warned teams a rules crackdown was coming in the preseason. So far, that hasn't made adjusting to a higher level of enforcement any easier for the Maple Leafs.
Toronto has played two exhibition games thus far in 2017, losing to the Ottawa Senators on Monday and again on Tuesday, 5-2. They’ve been tagged for three faceoff violations over those games, and saw the pace of play grind to a halt Tuesday as player after player was tossed from the dot for encroaching too close into the circle.
“I know [the league] told us, but they’re not going to keep doing it like that, are they?” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after another loss. “This is what I would ask you – is it competitive? You know when you play ball hockey and you slap the sticks three times and then you get the ball? That’s what it looked like.”
Despite being penalized for half as many violations Tuesday as on Monday, Babcock felt the calls were still worse the second night.
“They want it this way, but I think it’s still supposed to be a competitive situation,” he said. “I don’t know if it is anymore.”
Tyler Bozak has spent all eight seasons of his NHL career with the Leafs, and has been their best faceoff man in at least the last three. He won 56.7 per cent of his draws last season to lead the Leafs and was eighth-best in the NHL among players who took regular draws (at least 1,000 a season). In Tuesday’s game, his first of the preseason, Bozak was sent out of the circle so frequently his frustration was impossible to hide.
“I think I got kicked out of more [draws] than I took,” Bozak said. “It’s something you learn to do – is cheat a little in the faceoff circle and learn different ways to win faceoffs. But it’s going to be a lot more difficult now, there’s not going to be too much of that. It’ll be a learning curve for everyone.”
And not just on faceoffs – 17 minor penalties were called Tuesday, including five for slashing (another area of focus for the league in 2017-18 in a bid to reduce injuries). So frequent were the interruptions to the flow of Tuesday's game that by the end of the second period, a successfully executed faceoff was drawing an enthusiastic Bronx cheer from the Air Canada Centre crowd.
Bozak added that he feels for the linesmen and the position they are now in – making tough decisions when two players converge for a faceoff on the circle and they have to assess which guy is in violation.
And the 31-year-old wasn’t the only veteran who found himself repeatedly shooed out of the faceoff circle by the officials. Leo Komarov, Ben Smith and Colin Greening were all sent out at least once. The lone faceoff violation penalty the Leafs were assessed went to Kerby Rychel who replaced Greening and then encroached on the circle too, an automatic two-minute penalty.
“You could tell from the get-go it was an emphasis for them,” Greening said. “They wanted to make sure your feet were set, your stick was down, you couldn’t have your skate over the line at all. It shows you some bad habits that get into your game.”
Komarov, also playing in his first preseason game, felt the wrath of the NHL’s new stricter policies before the puck even dropped. Known for wearing the visor higher on his helmet than most players, he was told by an official that wearing his visor in that fashion was no longer permissible. By the end of the game, he still wasn’t sure why.
“I don’t feel safe without it,” Komarov said. “The ref told me they changed some rules so he just said I need to keep it down. I’m not wearing it up to be cocky or anything, that’s just the way I’ve always played. You get used to something.”
Over the summer, Komarov was tipped off to the potential rule enforcement. Officials have spoken to him about it before, but never explicitly was he told that he couldn't wear it the way he wanted to wear it. So he’s been skating without a visor entirely in practice, but wants to try to figure something different for games going forward.
Babcock offered a simple solution for the new father of one.
“I said it to him: ‘you’ve got young kids at home, you have your eyes,’ ” he recounted. “ ‘Pull your visor down, get used to it in practice and put it on.’ ”
Komarov and the Leafs have six more preseason games to get acclimated to getting called tighter than ever. Like it or not, they aren’t anticipating the NHL to let up any time soon.
“From what we’ve been told, it is going to keep up. That’s what we think right now,” Bozak said. “Obviously, it’s tough right now. I think the linesmen are learning and we’re all learning about what we can do.”