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Breakfast with Benz

Analysis: New boards present new challenges for Penguins, NHL

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, 7:30 a.m.
The Penguins’ Jake Guentzel scores past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby during the first period Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins’ Jake Guentzel scores past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby during the first period Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

Here’s a significant NHL development that got almost zero attention before the NHL regular season started.

A lot of the boards in rinks are different.

That’s a big deal.

When watching the Penguins season opener against Washington, if you got the sense that PPG Paints Arena suddenly looked like old Joe Louis Arena in Detroit — with the wicked bounces that drove Marc Andre-Fleury insane during the 2009 Stanley Cup Final — you were right.

The boards are much more bouncy. Beyond that, they seem to allow the puck to actually pick up speed as it rims out of the end zones.

It’s not an optical illusion. It’s not perception. It’s real. And it’s on purpose.

Apparently, a lot of the old boards across the NHL have been replaced with new boards that have more give to them. The theory appears to be that these new boards — while less predictable in the sense of puck bounces — are less likely to cause injury to players.

Blame me. Blame anyone nationally who wasn’t on this. Blame the league for not making it more clear. But no one seemed clued-in to this situation until after the game Thursday.

The Pens and Caps played a 7-6 fire-wagon game. The Penguins won in overtime. During the game, wild bounces off the end boards and speedy pucks along the rims were frequently noticed in the press box.

You know, just us media types watching the game like everyone else, saying to one another, “Do these boards look a little more lively to you than they did at the start of last year?”

After the game, I broached the topic with Penguins goalie Matt Murray.

“(Shots) are definitely coming off hot. And the rims are picking up speed it seems,” Murray said.

I followed up by asking Murray if this sensation was more tangible than it was to start last season.

“It seems like it,” he said. “We (noticed it in practice). I’m not sure what makes them so lively. But we have to be aware of it.”

A moment later, I went to winger Jake Guentzel about the same topic.

“For sure. You can just tell on the bounces,” he said. “A lot more lively.

“I think it is happening around the league. More and more teams are getting these ‘springy’ (boards). They give a little more for hits. It’s a little different.”

Leaving the locker room, I checked with my colleagues. I checked with competitors and partners at other outlets in Pittsburgh. I checked with national reporters who were in from out of town covering the game.

All full-time NHL reporters.

The universal response was: “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Yeah. Me, too. Again, slap me if I’ve missed the headline on this story from Canada or the U.S. I’ve spent more time tracking Le’Veon Bell’s Instagram than I care to admit. So perhaps, this fastball down the middle got past me. But at least I’m not alone.

Our Mark Madden asked Penguins coach Mike Sullivan about the new boards.

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” Sullivan laughed. “The puck comes off so much faster. Even when the puck goes around the wall, it’s catching our guys by surprise how fast it’s going around the wall, and we aren’t getting to pucks.

“That’s one of the reasons we practiced here the day before the game, to spend part of the day exploring the boards a little bit.”

I followed up with another question to Sullivan.

“They do (give a little more for the players),” responded Sullivan when I presented him with Guentzel’s assessment about the boards. “It is safety-related. I’m not sure if it is required. But most of the teams in the league have it. To my knowledge, there are a few teams that don’t. There is a little bit more give in the boards. The motivation for the new boards was about safety.”

Huh. OK. At first blush, I like it. Safety enhancements like that to the playing arena or surface are advancements I prefer as opposed to the non-stop trimming of in-game physical contact within hockey and football.

I approve of safety progress without a limitation on the physicality of the game. And, if the by-product is an extra goal or scoring chance per game because of a funky bounce, so be it. That can be fun. Those lively kickouts create good follow-up shots and more action.

I simply wonder why no one was told. Why wasn’t a bigger deal made about this? It’s something that I think the fans would’ve been interested to know globally and on a market-to-market basis.

Also, why not make it a uniform requirement? Why — as Sullivan pointed out — do “most” teams have the new boards. But not all of them?

Safety shouldn’t be random or rink specific. And a change this drastic shouldn’t be so buried.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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