Goalie safety a hot topic at GM meetings

At the beginning of the week in Toronto, the hockey world was focused on its past, as the latest group of former NHLers was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

However, after Ed Belfour, Doug Gilmour, Mark Howe and Joe Nieuwendyk were enshrined for their past accomplishments, the league's 30 general managers turned their attention to the current state of the game.

This latest gathering of NHL GMs in Toronto focused much of its attention on the issue of goaltender safety, a topic that has become popular following a recent incident that led to Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller suffering a concussion.

Miller and Boston's Milan Lucic were involved in a collision Saturday and the Sabres' star goalie suffered the worst of it. Lucic was assessed a two-minute charging penalty after drilling Miller while the players raced to a loose puck.

The incident was magnified by the fact that Miller -- one of the league's most recognizable goaltenders -- suffered a concussion, which is in itself a hot- button issue in the NHL. It became an even bigger point of contention when NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan decided not to suspend Lucic, citing a lack of precedent.

The decision to not suspend Lucic resulted in Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff declaring that it was "open season" on goalies, a statement Shanahan did not appreciate.

"It's completely irresponsible for people in Buffalo and management to suggest that it's open season on goalies," Shanahan told reporters prior to the GM meetings. "It's illegal to hit the goalie as the rulebook states. Depending on the intent and depending on the situation, a player runs the risk of getting suspended. For those who want to suggest now it's open season, they're completely wrong."

Shanahan also said it was not his job to set policy, but rather to enforce the policy that the league, teams and general managers put forth. With that knowledge, a large group of GMs led by Buffalo's Darcy Regier spent much of the meetings trying to get Shanahan on board with creating tougher sanctions for players who want to deliver hits on goaltenders.

"The general managers expressed to me the importance of all the players on the ice but also the extreme importance of the goaltender in that position," Shanahan said after spending time with Regier and the GMs. "As a message to the players around the league, if anybody does think that it's a tactic and a tactic that is a smart gamble on their part, it won't be."

The GMs made the point that goaltenders are a rare commodity, and that since they're only about 60 netminders in the league at any given time, they should be protected more than regular skaters.

Shanahan and the league did not commit to any rule changes, and they may never have to if this situation eventually blows over. After all, what happened to Miller is not all that common in the NHL. You can tune into a lot of hockey without ever seeing a high-speed collision featuring a goaltender and a skater. The one between Lucic and Miller just happened to feature a star goalie getting hit by a hated player from a divisional rival.

The fact that Miller suffered a concussion on the play is unfortunate, but that doesn't necessarily mean Lucic should automatically be suspended. He was penalized, but according to Shanahan, clear intent would have to be established in order to suspend a player. What Shanahan correctly saw was a collision caused by Lucic racing for the chance at a breakaway and Miller skating to stop one. That's it.

The bottom line is that Shanahan is in his first season as the league's disciplinarian and it's obviously taking some time for the GMs and their respective teams to get used to his tendencies.

Shanahan is never going to win a popularity contest thanks to the controversial nature of his post, but this week he showed that he's willing to listen to GMs and adapt to their concerns. That's called making the best of a bad situation, and it's a tactic that should serve Shanahan well as long as he holds his current job.