The NHL should consider a number of different changes to make the game safer without ruining the overall enjoyment of the on-ice product.
These changes could be made to some of the rules, how the league disciplines players and equipment, among other things.
Let's look at four ways to effectively make the game safer, without making the action any less exciting.
One way to prevent the "rats" from taking over games and not being punished for dirty play is to get rid of or change the instigator and third man in rules.
During the playoffs last year, New York Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky jumped into a fight between teammate Brian Boyle and Ottawa Senators defenseman Matt Carkner. Carkner began attacking Boyle, even though Boyle wasn't fighting back.
Dubinsky was ejected for being the "third man in" during the fight, even though he was trying to help his teammate who was attacked in a cheap manner. Dubinsky was rightfully upset, and the whole incident gave people a stronger argument for getting rid of the third man in rule.
Taking away the "Third Man In" and "Instigator" rules would make players be accountable for their actions. If dirty players had to be more accountable for their play, we would see less injuries.
According to the NHL rulebook, here are the descriptions of the two rules.
46.11 Instigator—An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.
A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.
46.16 Third Man In—A game misconduct penalty, at the discretion of the Referee, shall be imposed on any player who is the first to intervene (third man in) in an altercation already in progress except when a match penalty is being imposed in the original altercation. This penalty is in addition to any other penalties incurred in the same incident.
This rule also applies to subsequent players who elect to intervene in the same or other altercations during the same stoppage of play.
Generally, this rule is applied when a fight occurs.
If you eliminate or change these rules, the players will police themselves better and the amount of dirty hits could certainly decrease.
The NHL needs to ban all head shots. With concussions affecting many NHL players each season, including several notable stars, the league must take head shots more seriously.
While many forms of these hits are no longer allowed—such as blindside hits to the head—there are cases where head shots go unpunished. One example is Niklas Kronwall's hit on Jakub Voracek from March that did not result in a suspension.
In many of these instances, the player who suffers a hit to the head does not do enough to protect himself. While it's easy to tell players to keep their head up, the league needs to do all it can to protect the players.
Eliminating all head shots will make the game safer and prevent players from having their careers shortened because of head injuries.
No-touch icing would make the game safer without ruining the action.
It would erase exciting races to the puck, yes, but it would also eliminate the possibility of concussions and other injuries resulting from collisions along the end boards during these races.
Since no-touch icing is commonly found in leagues throughout the world, changing to this icing rule wouldn't be a huge adjustment for many NHL players.
One change for the league to consider is expanding the playing surface. Increasing the size of the ice too much would not be good for the sport, but a larger surface would allow for more skating, and likely more scoring, too.
A bigger ice would give the best playmakers a bit more room to create scoring opportunities, while at the same time not making the game as condensed as it is now.
Expanding the ice width and length by a small amount would likely result in a safer and more exciting product.
This change isn't something that's likely to happen anytime soon but it's something for the NHL to think about.