The Problem with USA Hockey’s PK Rule Change

Hockey in the United States still sits in an idle place as the fourth most-popular of the four major sports. There’s a myriad of reasons why this could be the case, with most pointing to lack of exciting action, confusing and unfollowable play, and low scoring games that don’t mean anything until the third period.

In case you missed it yesterday, @rovitz7 wrote an article regarding USA Hockey eliminating Penalty Kill icings for 14-and-under leagues. To recap, the governing body of Junior and Youth Hockey in the United States decided that in 14U leagues, the necessity for being able to clear the puck from Penalty Kill units was null.

This, is one of the worst decisions made from an organization that I have a great deal of respect for.

In the press release regarding the proposed rule change from June, USA Hockey backed their slashing of equality on the Penalty Kill:

“These young athletes are in their prime skill development windows and will benefit greatly from the increased emphasis this rule change places on promoting puck possession, puck protection and play-making (as opposed to merely firing the puck down the ice, which is a low-skill tactic). Second, the change prevents a penalized team from gaining an exception to a rule (icing) that is in effect while teams are at even strength.”

Please refer to the bolded section of this statement.

This rule change is meant to punish the entire Penalty Kill unit, not increase their abilities. USA Hockey did their research study on shorthanded icings (PK clearings) based on 200 games. The AVERAGE number of shorthanded icings per GAME, not per penalty or period, from this sample size…was a whopping 1.81.

Yeah. Less than two.

A clearing, if done properly, will take about five seconds to go from end to end, and in total time will handicap a powerplay unit, line change and setting up breakout, for roughly 12-15 seconds. However, a solid power play unit will maintain attacking pressure in their offensive zone for roughly 20-30 seconds, and will generate at least two or three scoring chances before an intercept or clear.

Typically, working at about 30 percent is considered great, and 25 percent is expected of NHL powerplay units, or a goal every four times they’re on the ice. A powerplay is arguably the most exciting thing that can happen in a hockey game, next to a penalty shot or a fight. Powerplays promote high pressure, intense action, and a lot of opportunities for continuous scoring chances.

With how many chances are usually created by Power Play units during their opportunities, there are few avenues of actual relief or regaining momentum from the Penalty Killers, aside from a hard-fought clear to ease pressure and allow for a line change.

THIS is my biggest problem with USA Hockey eliminating clearings. While it may be called a “low-skill tactic”, it is not about the skill or easiness of being able to clear, but rather the importance of being able to clear.

Ken Martel, the Technical Director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, had his own opinion on the importance of this rule change…

“To develop problem-solving skills, we need rules that encourage players to think. Modifying the shorthanded icing rule will accomplish that. Rather than just blasting the puck down the ice, they’ll now be encouraged to skate or pass their way out of trouble, use greater touch to chip a puck out, or even take advantage of a lazy power play and go on the attack.”

Maybe not as heavily at ages 14 through 12, but below that, players are not as used to gassing shifts like this, and penalty killers are explicitly put in to have short, staggered shifts where they’re expected to block shots, cut off lanes, and “kill” time without allowing chances. I don’t care how “low-skill tactic” a clear may be, because there is so much more of the other three tactics that I listed are the duties of a PK unit.

The clearing is more of a last ditch effort if a breakout opportunity IS unavailable and the PK unit is entirely handcuffed from making a move out.

Another underlying problem that USA Hockey is outright ignoring is the blatant hanging-out-to-dry they’re presenting to youth goaltenders, who do not have the size or skill level of who these rule changes are actually trying to get to at the college and professional level.

The problem with Power Play Scoring numbers being lower, if that is really the underlying problem that USA Hockey wants to fix, is not clearings from Penalty Kill units, but rather from stoppages in play that kill momentum and stop rushes either way.

There will not be a chance to change this rule, if it doesn’t work, for four full years. While I know USA Hockey has practiced this rule in many of their camps and in a variety of different facets, I wholeheartedly disagree with this decision, and hope that it won’t gain popularity or momentum.

Let the players play, and let the killers kill.

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