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Charles Rex Arbogast / The Associated Press Files</p><p>Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau (centre) was sidelined for 10 games last season after his finger was broken by a slash.</p>

Charles Rex Arbogast / The Associated Press Files

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau (centre) was sidelined for 10 games last season after his finger was broken by a slash.

The NHL’s crackdown on slashing isn’t even a week old, but the league’s director of officiating believes the tougher approach is already having the desired effect.

"It’s early, but so far there’s a real buy-in," Stephen Walkom said over the phone Thursday morning. "Even the players on the competition committee were concerned about this area.

"I think (the referees are) applying the standard we want them to apply, relative to the hacking and whacking around the hands. And I’m already seeing player conformance and a lot of players haven’t even played two games yet. The players seem to be adapting and thinking out there, but old habits die hard."

Winnipeg fans got a first-hand look during a pair of pre-season games on Monday and Wednesday.

In Monday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, the Jets were assessed one of five slashing penalties in a game that featured 17 power plays. Two days later, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers were handed slashing minors while the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers combined for three slashing minors and nine power plays.

The sample size is small, but Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba believes the players are getting the message — the league has a low tolerance for stick fouls.

"A lot of times they’re calling slashing on the hands or the sticks that aren’t super dangerous, they don’t really accomplish anything," Trouba said before the club departed for Thursday’s pre-season rematch with the Wild in St. Paul, Minn. "It’s not something you can’t get out of your game and make or breaks you. Maybe you take an extra step and get more body positioning, which I’d rather (do). At the same time, you’re not slashing a guy but they’re also not slashing you coming around the net. So, it works both ways."

The reason for the hard line is twofold: the league wants to improve safety while also giving skilled players more room to display their offensive ability.

The safety issue is real. Most fans can remember a slash from Minnesota’s Eric Staal breaking Johnny Gaudreau’s finger, sidelining the Calgary Flames star for 10 games last season, or Sidney Crosby’s slash in which the Pittsburgh Penguins captain nearly severed the pinky finger of Ottawa Senators defenceman Marc Methot.

"I would think those two incidents were the tipping point," Walkom said. "It was something that had slowly crept into the game since the restart in ’05-06, when players weren’t allowed to hook anymore. They started to walk that line of tapping and reaching out to touch someone. Playing the same way but not hooking the guy and over time, not that they weren’t calling slashing penalties, but players were getting the benefit of the doubt when it was around the hands.

"It got to the point where players took advantage of that grey area in the game."

Walkom believes the league and its officials will stay the course. He doesn’t expect a regression to the old standard of officiating when the post-season rolls around.

"I think the officials have proven that they can carry out a mandate when supported," Walkom said. "They know that if they work collectively to a NHL standard, not their own standard, that it’s best for the game."

In a move not directly related to the NHL’s new enforcement policy, retired referee Paul Devorski will reportedly attend training camp to help the Jets better avoid penalties.

Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said: "If they’re going to continue with the rule of the slashing, the players will eventually learn you can’t do that. But it doesn’t make the game more exciting when you’ve got 10 power plays to eight every night."

Can the league hold the line on slashing?

"I don’t know," Trouba said. "I don’t think anybody really knows but it’s definitely an area of the game that can be cleaned up. You see a lot of hands and wrists — you want your skill players being able to use their skill and not have injured hands. So, I don’t mind it at all."

Another prime initiative during the NHL pre-season involves a stricter adherence to proper faceoff rules. Players must face their opponent squarly and keep their feet behind the lines. If a player cheats (for example, he uses his feet, goes down on his knee or uses his hand to direct the puck), he is ejected from the circle. If a team does that twice on one faceoff it will be assessed a two-minute minor penalty.

"The standard we had on faceoffs eroded to the point where faceoffs became more of a scrum and not a skilled play," Walkom said. "Some people said, ‘What’s this new rule?’ Actually, it’s not a new rule. It’s really just a shoring up of a rule that we allowed to slip over time."

ON THE MOVE: The Jets reassigned defencemen Leon Gawanke (Cape Breton, QMJHL) and Luke Green (Saint John, QMJHL), and forwards Skyler McKenzie (Portland, WHL) and Jordy Stallard (Prince Albert, WHL) to their junior clubs. Winnipeg has 28 forwards, 16 defencemen and five goaltenders remaining at training camp.

 

— with files from Jason Bell

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.