Friday, October 11, 2013

Maple Leafs Dynasty Halted by New NHL Rules?

At the conclusion of the 1963/64 NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the previous three Stanley Cups. Throughout the hockey world, the Leafs were regarded as an older, grinding, defence-first squad that engaged in 'clutch and grab' tactics. They were so successful that the NHL may have actually created new rules simply to curb the success of the irritating-to-play-against Maple Leafs. If one was to believe Maple Leaf coach/general manager Punch Imlach, this is exactly what happened.

During the four-day June 1964 draft/league meetings in Montreal, a few new rules were adopted for use in the upcoming season that some thought was a direct attempt to impede the Leafs. In the Maple Leafs game programme of October 1964, these new rules, their effects and the complaints about them are discussed in depth. As with most topics concerning his hockey club,  Punch Imlach was far from pleased. Imlach speculated, as did others, that the new rules were added to harm his Maple Leafs. It's impossible to answer that in any definitive manner, but it sure is fun to speculate.

The main new rule change concerned the amount of interference that was prohibited during the execution of a face-off. To quote the words of National Hockey League President, Clarence Campbell at the time;"It was agreed that there would be no physical contact between the two men facing off after the puck was dropped. In other words, if a man got the puck and passed it off, he was not to be interfered with."

Leaf public relations director and author, Ed Fitkin put forward the anti-Leaf theory;
If the new rules are aimed at the Leafs, as has been suggested by Leafian officials, then it's just as possible that they were sired in Montreal. For years, they've been saying down there that the Leafs are the clutch and grab exponents par excellence, and also that they got away with too much rough stuff. This, of course, is the price of success; and perhaps Punch Imlach should feel flattered, rather  than downright irked. It would seem that he has built better, perhaps, than even he suspected, if they have to change the rules to handicap his team.

Simply put, officials were to now crack down on face-off interference, a tactic deployed expertly by the Leafs. Ed Fitkin continued on and illustrated how in the past, there were indeed rule changes made by the league in an attempt to slow down a successful team.
The last time that happened was when Montreal Canadiens were the powerhouse of hockey, winning five Stanley Cup championships in a row. They were just too good, and everybody in hockey realized it. To level things off, the 'rich should help the poor' policy was fostered, such as protected lists being chopped down to provide availability of players for all clubs. This didn't help Canadiens, but it helped the league. And on the ice, the awesome Montreal power play, which could produce two or three goals in a two-minute stretch without much trouble, brought about the rule that a penalized player returns to the ice as soon as the opposing team scores.

These new rules could be an indication that the three-time Stanley Cup Champion Leafs have risen to the elite company of the old Canadiens.

So, was this a conspiracy theory put forwarded by the disgruntled Maple Leaf brass, or was the club merely being paranoid? Legendary writer Dick Beddoes outlines the actual wording of the new rule and implies that Imlach was even fully agreeable with the when they were voted upon in June;
The rules that alarm Mr. Imlach were devised last June and recently clarified in a two-day seminar for NHL officials, coaches and managers. Mr. Imlach, as the principal Toronto delegate, was among those who unanimously approved the changes. Rule 52, Section (b) "In the conduct of any face off anywhere on the playing surface, no player facing off shall make any physical contact with his opponent's body in the course of playing the puck after the face off has been completed. For the violation of this rule, the referee shall impose a minor penalty or penalties on the player(s) whose action(s) caused physical contact." Allied with Rule 52,is a stricter enforcement of Rule 62, which deals with infractions called interference. All parties agreed in their seminar to curtail 'offensive interference', that is, interference by the team with the puck.

Beddoes sums up his thoughts with a statement that could very well have been penned today;
 "One of the oddest phenomena of our time is the adulation of the hockey tough guy and enormous sums paid for his barbarous ability. There is a muscular theory that bloodshed is box-office. But the rowdies should not be allowed to drag down the skillful, the disreputable to beat the deft. There ought to be a premium on talent. That is what the new face off code is designed to do. It will free clever performers such as Henri Richard and Dave Keon and Murray Oliver from being flattened on the draw by a loogan who thrusts his stick between their skates, or something. There is a place for hatchet men, but the place is a logging camp.

Further adding to his belief that Imlach may be complaining a bit too much, Beddoes quotes Clarence Campbell again;
"The legislation should be simple enough, and reasonable. We want the face-off to be a thing of skill. We're trying to stop some players from immobilizing good opponents after the puck is dropped. The only bumping we've taken out of the game is on the face off, which we believe should be a thing of finesse, rather than force." There was a presidential aside on Mr. Imlach's vigorous complaint: "It all depends on whose ox is being gored. Imlach has a team that, in some instances thrives on the interference type of game."

It would seem that neither Beddoes or Campbell were having any of Imlach's whining. Another legendary hockey writer, George Gross managed to put to paper the thoughts of the Leaf Coach as he addresses the fact that he did in fact agree to the rule change back in the summer;
According to Punch Imlach, National Hockey League officials are trying to enforce rules which would make hockey look like basketball on skates. "I attended the meeting when these things came up and Clarence Campbell explained it to us in such a way that we understood, after the puck is dropped, everything reverts to normal. Three other general managers (Muzz Patrick, Lynn Patrick and Sid Abel) will back me up on that. What do they expect a defenceman to do? Just motion with his arms and say 'after you Alphonse!' Hockey is a man's sport," he fumed, "and while I don't advocate dirty tactics, I certainly believe that people like to see rugged hockey with clean, hard body checking. Otherwise we may as well call it basketball."

The Maple Leafs' two greatest past offenders of face-off interference, defencemen Carl Brewer and Bob Baun express their concerns through the pen of George Gross;
Leaf defender Carl Brewer sees it this way,"This new rule is going through its trial stages. They are trying to prevent a defenceman from being over-aggressive and, at the same time put some art back in the game. I am sure they'll have to modify the existing interpretation in order to accomplish what they set out to do. I go along with the original thought that, after the puck is dropped, a defenceman is allowed to move in." His defence mate, rugged Bobby Baun, put it more bluntly: "This new rule affects me more than any other player. Taking a man out on a face-off was my big play. There hadn't been that much interference before they brought this thing in anyway. I hope they change it pretty soon."

Baun actually admits that "Taking a man out on a face-off was my big play.". He understandably is concerned about the newly formed limitations. So the question is, "Were the new rules indeed instrumental in the Leafs failing to win the Stanley Cup for a fourth season in a row?" Let's look at the numbers.

During the course of the 1963/64 NHL season, the six teams were assessed a total of 5370 Penalties in Minutes, in 1964/65 they were assessed 5979 PIM's. Toronto on their own had 928 PIM's in 63/64 which rose to 1068 the following year. This represents an increase of 15.1% from one year to another. Amazingly, Detroit which had finished fourth in the NHL point standings in 63/64 saw an increase in PIM's from 771 to 1121, or a ridiculous 45.4%. This means, the four remaining NHL teams had their PIM's raise by a negligible 3.3%. Almost half of Detroit's increase may be directly attributed to the comeback to the NHL of Centreman, Terrible Ted Lindsay who's 173 PIM's were four off the league lead.

One further point, every NHL team saw their Penalty Killing success rates go up from 63/64 to 64/65 except Detroit and Toronto. One would have thought the extra practice killing penalties would have helped. Toronto's biggest complainers of the changes, Brewer and Baun did in fact get penalized more often, if only slightly more. Brewer went from 2.0 PIM/GP in 63/64 to 2.5 PIM/GP. Baun's increase was even less, 2.2 PIM/GP to 2.3. Toronto's largest increase belonged to defender Kent Douglas who rocketed from 0.7 PIM/GP to 1.9.

Although Detroit's PIM's rose dramatically, their number of times Shorthanded did NOT rise as much as Toronto's. Each NHL team saw their Power plays Against rise as such; Chicago's increased 22, Detroit 45, Boston 51, Montreal 53, New York 61 and Toronto's shorthanded occasions increased by 77. The Leafs surrendered more than ONE extra Power play opportunity per game in 1964/65, far more than any other team. This may have been a large reason their PK% dropping from a league best 88.72% to 83.67%.

Overall, Toronto's regular season point total only dropped from 78 to 74 between the two seasons. This caused them to slip from third to fourth place. The increase in penalties and decrease in penalty-killing efficiency did however play a large part in their playoff match up with Montreal. In 63/64 Toronto played Montreal in the first round and beat them four games to three. Over the seven games, the Leafs were shorthanded 39 times, and killed off 38 of these chances for an impressive 97.4% Penalty-Kill rate. The following season, the same teams met once again in the first round. Toronto was shorthanded 37 times in the six game loss, about one-half additional chances per game. The drastic difference was that this time Montreal tallied NINE power play goals in the series. Toronto's PK Rate of 75.7% is the main reason the failed to advance to the Cup Finals.

So, when all was said and done the new rules seemed to really hinder only two of the six NHL clubs, Toronto and Detroit. Even though Detroit's regular season Penalties in Minutes rose more dramatically than Toronto's, the increase of Shorthanded situations of more than one per game definitely hurt the Maple Leafs. These extra opportunities for opponents combined with their drastic drop-off in Penalty Killing success were certainly contributors to Toronto's failures, if not the sole reason. Even if the new rules weren't the main reason for Toronto's failure, they certainly allowed their inefficiency at penalty-killing shine through.

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