It’s not a new rule, but an old one revisited and strengthened this season with the hope of encouraging more offence and reducing injuries, particularly when it comes to battling in front of the net.
National Hockey League Rule 59, otherwise known as "cross-checking," became a major focal point heading into the 2021-22 season after the league determined the penalty needed a crackdown. Now, more than 30 games into the regular season, it seems as good a time as ever to check in on the Winnipeg Jets to see what they’ve observed so far this year.
Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon, a player known for his physicality, admitted it’s been a notable adjustment to his game. He’s watched video and taken note of what he’s seen in-game to ensure he understands how to walk the line without getting called for a penalty.
"We kind of learned one end of the spectrum, what it was going to be like, in pre-season, and then kind of followed throughout the first whatever it’s been, 30, 35 games now. You’ve got to check with your feet, which I think has kind of been the way the league has been trending the last four or five years anyways," Dillon said.
"And for defenceman, it definitely helps to have a little bit more size to take up some room. But at the end of the day, you can’t cross-check guys, you can’t be slashing or two-handing guys to get them away from the front of the net like maybe you used to five, 10 years ago."
During the 2020-21 season, cross-checking accounted for the eighth-most-assessed penalty, at 4.8 per cent of all calls. That marked a total of 261 cross-checking penalties, which came out to one every three NHL games. That was behind tripping (19 per cent), hooking (14.9), slashing (10.7), holding (10.5), interference (9.6), roughing (8.7) and high-sticking (7.4).
With the crackdown on cross-checking heading into this most recent campaign, those numbers drastically changed over the 2021-22 pre-season. Cross-checking accounted for the most-called infraction, at 15 per cent, with a two-way tie for second between hooking and tripping, each at 14 per cent.
"Just the officiating in general, from game to game, it varies sometimes, whether it’s a trip or whether it’s cross-checking. What is? What isn’t?" Dillon said.
"Sometimes it’s a little frustrating to not really know what the standard is going to be called on that given night. But I think for how things were in preseason to now, yeah, I definitely think there’s been a focal point. I don’t even really want to put myself in that situation where I’ve got two hands on my stick, in the front of the net especially, which I think was the real emphasis where they were going to be looking for it or cracking down."
There are several NHL defencemen who make a living boxing out players in front of the net. That usually meant delivering a few heavy cross-checks to the back to let someone know it wasn’t going to be easy living near the goal crease.
With that no longer an option, fellow Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt was asked the best way to box out an opponent without drawing the attention of the officials.
"It’s really hard, if you have position, for a guy to go all the way around you and I can just hold my stick in the air. But you can’t do that, really, right now," Schmidt said. "I like to do it when it comes at the shot. Because I think that if you try and do it after the shot, tips happen and you’re kind of rolling the dice, right? But if you go on the shot, you go for the stick and maybe you get spun around, and all of a sudden you don’t know where the puck is because you’re trying to find a stick."
He added: "There used to be a perfect time. It was before the guy would get to the net. You could get him and force him either to go around the net — good guys would wait for you and then slip you and go around the net and come on the other side, which forces you to turn your back to the play — that’s what the good guys do.
"It’s been a learning curve this year for what’s going on and it’s something that we’ve been talking about. It’s something that’s not easy, and that’s the reason why we try to preach to our forwards to go hard, because it’s much easier to get there now."
While the stiffening of the rule is expected to increase offence, which naturally benefits forwards driving the net, there are some who don’t believe calling every cross-check benefits the overall game. Just ask Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, a player known more for his speed than size.
"You don’t want a game where every single time something happens there’s an injured guy out there. But you also don’t want a game where you touch a guy and you’re sitting in the box or nobody can touch anyone," Ehlers said. "It’s part of the game; everyone knows that. It makes it more intense. It makes it more fun.
"That’s why everyone says playoffs is the most fun. Obviously, at that point you’re competing for a Stanley Cup, but it’s such a different game, way more physical and it’s a lot of fun."
It remains to be seen how big an effect the crackdown will have as the season rolls on. Many have suggested that the calls will loosen as the playoffs inch closer and the stakes in each game become higher.
Jets head coach Dave Lowry doesn’t have a crystal ball to investigate the future. So, he’ll continue to preach to his players the emphasis of playing clean and effectively on defence and to crowd and net more often on offence.
"I felt that you saw a lot more cross-checking penalties early in the pre-season. They’ve adapted to the enforcement," Lowry said. "It’s now about working on positioning and how do you find a stick, and how do you get under a stick, and how do you separate a player now?
"I give the players a lot of credit, they’ve adapted to what has been mandated."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.