New NHL Faceoff Rule Costs Preds, Doesn’t Factor Intent


Barry Trotz was unhappy with the penalty given to Paul Gaustad, and rightfully so. (PHOTO: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Grit your teeth. It’s time to talk about everybody’s favorite fly-in-my-pint-glass, the penalty incurred during OT in last night’s Preds vs. Wild game for violating the new NHL faceoff rule. Yeah, the one that gave Minnesota the man advantage leading to Setoguchi’s game winner in what was an otherwise solid performance by Mason.

I’m still pissed. You’re still pissed. Barry Trotz and Paul Gaustad are still pissed. The penalty didn’t single-handedly cost Nashville the game – the Predators had a few other problems, which Jason Kirk discusses in his recap of the game. Still, it’s easy to see the direct cause-effect relationship between that call and the resultant goal, but it turns out it may actually have been the right call.

The rule Gaustad was in violation of is new this season. It’s as though the league is beta-testing it, trying to figure out the best way to implement it without disrupting game flow. Here is the official rule as it stands in section 76.4 of the updated 2012-2013 NHL rulebook:

"Both players facing-off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the face-off. Any attempt by either center to win the face-off by batting the puck with their hand shall result in a minor penalty. This penalty shall be announced as “Minor Penalty for Delay of Game – Face-off Violation”. The two players involved in the actual face-off (the centers) are not permitted to play the puck with their hand without incurring a penalty under this rule until such time as a third player (from either team) has at least touched the puck. Once the face-off is deemed complete (and a winner of the face-off is clear) hand passes shall be enforced as per Rule 79."

The entire point behind this revision is actually a good one, in my opinion. It’s meant to prevent any team from having an unfair advantage on the face-off in the defensive zone.

Paul Gaustad is Nashville’s top faceoff man. (PHOTO: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)

Before this rule was written in, centers could essentially utilize a hand pass to gain puck possession after a drop in their own end. It was one of those slightly dirty little tricks allowed by a loophole in the rulebook. Most of us have seen a player shovel a puck back to a teammate after getting locked in a scrum over the dot. The opposing center didn’t have this ability because of the hand pass rule as it stands in section 79.2.

While this new NHL faceoff rule is sound in theory and meant to put an end to this inequality, I still suspect there is a problem with it as it stands now. The problem is two-fold, both in how it is written and thus, how it is interpreted.

The rule seems to contradict itself. Yes, the officials were correct in as much as neither player is “permitted” to play the puck by hand until a third player has made contact puck and not draw a penalty. This part of the rule essentially states that referees are required to assess a penalty in such an occurrence.

On the other hand, the same rule previously states that any “attempt to win the face-off“ by means of a hand pass is a minor penalty. This part of the rule seems to be saying that the player taking the face-off must explicitly endeavor to win the face-off with their hand. In much the same way that the kicking rule uses the phrase “distinct kicking motion”, the phrasing of the face-off rule implies intent.

Gaustad’s infraction didn’t look intentional to me. Both of his hands were on his stick and the motion seemed to be consistent with that of any player attempting to win a face-off with his stick. The puck caught a weird bounce and hit his glove. Furthermore, it looks as though Gaustad loses his footing a bit as he and Granlund jostle for position, which raises a few more questions about actual intent.

The Preds aren’t the first team to fall victim to this new NHL faceoff rule, and last night’s debacle wasn’t the first time it’s been called into question. The rule permits referees to interpret intent as it should, but subsequently revokes that ability by stating that a penalty must be assessed. This is the way the rule has been previously interpreted this season and likely will be for the remainder, but I suspect (and hope) that this discrepancy will be addressed in the off-season.