2019-2020 NLL Rule Changes

Every season, the NLL tweaks their rule book. Some changes are significant (eg. when they changed the 10-second clock to 8 seconds a few years ago), while others are less so. This year, the rule changes have gone under the radar – I have seen precisely no mention of them anywhere. That’s probably because most of these changes are not all that impactful, quite honestly, but there are a couple that may affect play here and there. There is one, however, that might be a very big deal.

Here are the rule changes for 2019-2020 and what they mean.

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The Crawford suspension: dangerous

You probably haven’t heard much about this issue – it’s kind of flown under the radar. Well, other than being talked about by just about every lacrosse writer and fan (and many players) on social media. Of course I’m talking about Callum Crawford’s suspension.

In case you missed it, Black Wolves forward and potential MVP candidate Crawford was given a major penalty for a high hit on Toronto’s Brad Kri back on February 24. The week after the game, the penalty was upgraded to a match penalty by the league, which gives Crawford an automatic one-game suspension. He appealed, allowing him to play in New England’s next game against Colorado (in which he scored four goals and added seven assists), but the match penalty was upheld the week after that, and he sat out last weekend’s game.

Rule 41.4 in the NLL rule book is called “Repeat Offender” and states: “Any player who is assessed a second match penalty, a second Dangerous Contact to the Head penalty (Rule 77), or a combination thereof within a two year period shall be assessed an additional five (5) game suspension.

Very clear and unambiguous. This matters because in January of 2018, Crawford was given a match penalty for a similar hit on a Roughnecks player. That’s two match penalties within two years, so Crawford gets an automatic five games, right? Not this time. The same arbitrator who was brought in to decide on the match penalty announced that he was not ruling on the extra five games until later, though nobody could figure out why. Then on Friday, the answer came down: Crawford will sit out one game rather than five.

Photo credit: Garrett James

The PLPA released a statement from the arbitrator on why, but the statement is puzzling. The arbitrator, Andrew Brandt, mentions a similar situation two years ago when Calgary’s Greg Harnett received his second match penalty in two years, and was given a five game suspension by that arbitrator, a Mr. McGuire. Brandt says “Mr. McGuire correctly concluded that the league had no other choice than to impose an additional five game penalty. However as the rule was unilaterally adopted by the league and not a part of the CBA, it was not binding on an arbitration officer.

Why would rules in the rule book not be binding on an arbitration officer? I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that by agreeing to play games (more than half the season so far) with this rule book, the PLPA has implicitly agreed to all of the rules in the rule book. This is not a rule that was added mid-season without the PLPA’s knowledge or consent. If there are rules in there that they don’t agree with, that should have been ironed out long before the season started. And yes, I do remember that they were busy trying to make sure there was a CBA so that the season could happen, but I have not heard any complaints from the PLPA since then (before this incident) that this rule was unfair and should be changed.

Mr. Brandt also states “And in his testimony for the league, Mr. Lemon [Brian Lemon, NLL VP] explained how he did not believe the foul should result in a two-game penalty, one reserved for more severe infractions.” I agree, that one hit by itself does not deserve a multiple-game suspension. But the five game suspension is not for that one hit, it’s for the fact that there were two such hits within two years. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

He continues: “The decision to lessen Mr. Crawford’s additional five-game suspension in no way diminishes the league mission to eliminate reckless and endangering play, nor does it undermine the league’s authority.” In my humble opinion, wrong and wrong. The rule says that receiving two match penalties within two years will get you a suspension. It was written that way intentionally, even clarified this past off-season, to say that this behaviour will not be tolerated regardless of who the player is. The arbitrator’s decision says that this behaviour may or may not get you a suspension and thus it may or may not be tolerated, depending on… what? It’s not clear what. How long you’ve been in the league? How many points you have?

It also says that some of the rules in the rule book don’t hold if someone else decides they shouldn’t. I wonder what other rules are not in the CBA and are thus of questionable value?

The PLPA did everything they could to stand up for Callum Crawford. That’s their job, to represent the players, and I get that they did not explicitly make this decision. But who stood up for Brad Kri? Who’s out there trying to make sure that these kinds of hits don’t happen again?

I love watching Callum Crawford play lacrosse. He’s fast, skilled, dynamic, and exciting. I don’t think he’s a dirty player. But he made two bad decisions resulting in two dangerous hits. Those hits were close enough together in time to trigger rule 41.4, so he should be sitting out for five games. Yes he’s a veteran and yes he’s having an MVP-type season, but suspending him anyway would have sent the message that the NLL will not accept these types of hits regardless of who you are. Now, the message they are sending is that if you are a veteran or a great player, you can get away with stuff that other players can’t.

Not only does this make the league look unprofessional, it’s a very dangerous precedent to set.

NLL Rule changes 2018

As always, the league has made a number of rule changes for the upcoming season. One affects the playoff format, and that’s kind of a big deal. The rest of the changes to the rule book are either not rule changes at all (just clarifications) or are very minor changes that nobody is ever likely to notice.

Last season, when the league released their list of changes, they released a document that contained just the changes, and they also released the entire rule book with the changes in bold text. This year, they just released the new rule book. All 134 pages of it. There was no guidance on how to find the changes (some changes were in bold, but not all), so I went through the 2018 and 2017 rule books and compared them page by page and paragraph by paragraph. This is the kind of dedication you’ll find here at NLL Chatter; I do the hard work because of my passion for giving you, dear reader, the information and analysis you demand and expect. Plus, Criminal Minds was a repeat this week. Continue reading

Illegal substitution or too many men?

A week ago, I wrote about the Crease Violation rule and a number of people told me that it clarified that rule a little. So today I’ll cover another rule that’s frequently misunderstood, Illegal Substitution.

I’ve been asked this question many times in the past: what’s the difference between “illegal substitution” and “too many men”? It came up again last weekend, and my answer was the same as it’s always been: “I dunno”. So I looked over the rule book.

Here’s the thing – according to the rule book, there is no “Too many men” penalty. There is rule 55.3 Too Many Men, but that’s not the description of the penalty, it’s one of the reasons why a goal would be disallowed. The actual rule referring to the case where a team gets this penalty is under Rule 56: Substitution.

Too many men, but I think they'll let this one go

There are three relevant sections: Rule 56.6 says that if the defensive team has too many men on the floor, a delayed penalty is called. Rule 56.7 says that if the offensive team has too many men on the floor ‘for the purpose of a “fast break”‘ then play is stopped and a penalty is given. Rule 56.8 is a little complicated but says that a penalty shot is awarded against the offending team if:

  • insufficient playing time remains in the game to serve the penalty in its entirety (i.e. <2 minutes left in the 4th), OR
  • at any time in overtime, OR
  • the penalty can’t be served in its entirety due to penalties already imposed. I believe this means that if the offending team is already two men down, that’s a penalty shot. But if a team takes any minor penalty when they’re already two men down, that’s a penalty shot.

A violation of the substitution rule, which is Rule 56.4, says that a player entering play must wait for the person he’s replacing to have both feet in the substitution area in front of the bench. Usually if the player is pretty close and the actual play isn’t anywhere near the benches, they’ll let it go. A violation of that rule where the player coming off only has one foot in the box or is a yard away from the box would likely be called “illegal substitution”. If a player leaves the box when the player he’s replacing is twenty feet away, the ref is more likely to call it “too many men”. Anywhere in between, who knows.

So the long and the short of it is: the actual rule is called “illegal substitution”. Sometimes the refs announce the penalty as “illegal substitution” and sometimes it’s “too many men”. They’re the same thing.

Clarifying the crease violation rule

It’s a rule we all know. It’s tested in every single game and although breaking it will disappoint your teammates and fans, nobody will head to the penalty box or dressing room. In a nutshell, the rule is “If you’re in the crease, any goal scored by your team doesn’t count”. If a player shoots while standing in the crease, even if his toes are just touching the crease line, no goal. If it’s his teammate who’s in or touching the crease, no goal. If he shoots while jumping and lands before the ball goes in, no goal. Easy, right? Actually there’s a little more to Rule #67.

The NLL rule book is available online (the 2017 version is here, at time of writing) so if you want to see the actual wording of the rule, go have a look. I’ll summarize some of the parts of the rule here and then we’ll look at what it all means.

Rule 67: Goal-crease violation

67.1 Attacking player in crease

If the guy with the ball touches the crease or crease line, his team loses possession. It doesn’t say “touching the ground” but that’s the implication; jumping over the crease is fine.

67.2 Attacking player first touch / interfere after shot on goal

If you shoot and your momentum takes you into the crease but you immediately step out, everything is copacetic as long as you’re not the first person to touch the ball or interfere with a defender afterwards. However, it refers to touching the ball after you get out of the crease; it’s not clear what happens if the ball goes in the net. Rule 55.2 says “A Crease Violation will result in a no goal. See Crease Violation Rule 67.” Rule 67.2 says that if you immediately step out of the crease (and don’t touch the ball first, which won’t happen if you score), you are not in violation of the rule which implies that any goal scored in such a situation would count. We’ll come back to this.

67.3 Attacking player in crease to gain advantage

If you (as an attacker but without the ball) go into the crease and then leave it, and doing this gives you an advantage (as decided by the ref), and then you grab the ball or interfere with a defender, your team loses possession. I believe an example would be if you go through the crease to get around a pick.

67.4 Attacking player in crease to gain advantage on defender

Same as the previous rule but if you initiate contact with an opposing player who has the ball, that’s a delay of game penalty rather than just a change of possession. We saw this called on Dhane Smith at last week’s game in Toronto – it was called as “Delay of Game – checking through the crease” and nobody had any idea what it meant.

67.5 Non shooter in crease when teammate shoots

The title is a little misleading. If any member of the attacking team is in the crease when the ball crosses the goal line, the goal does not count. It has nothing to do with when the shooter shoots. In a recent Toronto Rock game, a Rock player shot while another Rock player was in the crease but the ball hit the goalie and slowly trickled over the line. After a review, the refs determined that the non-shooter had left the crease by the time the ball went in so the goal counted.

67.6 Shooter in crease prior to ball crossing goal line

This is the one we’re all familiar with. If you shoot and any part of you is in contact with the crease before the ball goes in, the goal does not count. This one is slightly more explicit than 67.1; it does say you need to be touching the ground. Shooting while in the air over the crease is fine as long as it goes in before you land – just ask Mark Matthews, Curtis Dickson, or any of the dozens of other players who like to score while diving through the crease.

<waves arms, points downwards>

There’s an addendum which is oddly specific: if you shoot and the ball hits the goalie and then hits a defender and then goes in, it counts as long as the shooter is out of the crease by the time the ball crosses the line. We’ll get back to this one as well.

What does it all mean?

There are actually nine more sections of this rule, all the way up to 67.15, but I’m just looking at the ones above. For the most part, the rule says what we expect: if you or anyone else on your team is touching the ground in the crease (including the crease line) at the moment the ball crosses the goal line, the goal does not count. If you intentionally step into the opponent’s crease with or without the ball, it’s either a loss of possession or a penalty. If you accidentally step in and immediately get out (and you don’t have the ball), that’s OK.

The confusing part for me is the apparent contradiction between rules 67.2 and 67.6. We have:

  1. Rule 67.2 implies (but doesn’t say explicitly) that if you shoot, step in, get out, and then the ball crosses the line in that order, the goal counts.
  2. The first part of 67.6 says that if you step in the crease before the ball crosses the goal line, the goes does not count.
  3. The second part of 67.6 says that if you shoot, step in and then out, the ball hits the goalie and a defender and then goes in after you’ve stepped out, then it does count.

#1 and #2 together seem to contradict each other, but it could be that #1 covers the case where the shooter has time to get out of the crease before the ball goes in, while #2 covers the case where he does not.

But if #1 is true, why is #3 listed at all, since it’s just a special case of #1? It’s like having rules saying (a) “If you’re driving over 50 km/h in a school zone, you get a fine” and (b) “If you’re driving over 50 km/h in a school zone and your car is red, you get a fine”. But doesn’t (b) imply that you do not get a fine if you’re speeding in a green car? No, because (b) is covered by (a). (b) is not necessary at all and doesn’t clarify anything; it only serves to add confusion.

Update: In at least two and possibly three games in the week since this article was published, a shooter has stepped into and out of the crease after shooting but before the ball crossed the line. In every case, the goal was waved off. Perhaps it’s just me who thinks the rule is not explicit, but It seems clear how the refs are interpreting this rule.

Also, why does a defender need to be involved? Why that specific order? What if it hits the goalie but not a defender? What if it hits the defender first and then the goalie? As long as the shooter is out of the crease by the time the ball crosses the line, it seems that rule 67.2 should mean the goal counts in any of these cases, but we don’t know for sure. It’s a rare situation but it would be nice if this rule was clarified.

So there you have it, the crease violation rule. Clear as mud, right?

Now, here’s a question not answered by the rule book: if I score while my teammate is just barely touching the crease line behind the net, the goal doesn’t count. Clearly my teammate’s toes in no way affected the goalie’s ability to stop the ball and didn’t give me any sort of unfair advantage. So why is the goal disallowed? And don’t say “because of rule 67.5” – I mean why does the rule exist? Why can’t the ref wave it off and say that the player’s “presence” in the crease had no effect on the play so the goal counts? That’s an exercise left for the reader.

2017 NLL rule changes

The league has released its list of rule changes that will be in effect for the 2017 season. As usual, there are a few that might have a big impact, a bunch that will probably not affect things very often, and a few that may never come up at all but they wanted something specific in the rule book just in case. I’ve looked over the list of changes and compared them with the 2016 rule book, and here’s what you need to know.

The most obvious change is that there will be three refs on the floor this year rather than two. Strangely, this was listed on the NLL.com article on the changes, but I couldn’t find anything in the rule book that lists the number of referees. They did add a clause discussing challenges that says “In a three man on the floor mechanic, …” but that’s the only mention of having three refs.

The remaining rule changes are listed with a reference to the rule number.


Faceoffs should be held 25 seconds (up from 20) after a goal is scored. Similarly, if a goal is waved off, teams have 25 seconds (up from 20) to challenge.


Coach’s challenges can now be used for determining whether the ball was batted into the goal, whether the shooter’s stick head is behind the goal line when he shoots (how would that even work? I believe there’s already a rule that says the ball can’t bounce off the goalie’s back), or whether an attacking player went into the crease, left it, and was then the first to receive a pass or gain possession of the ball.


Coaches get two challenges per game plus one more if they win the first two. That now only applies to regulation time. Coaches now get one challenge in OT.

There’s another clause that’s been added that makes no sense to me. Coaches are not allowed to use challenges during the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or the last two minutes of overtime – if they do, they will be charged with using a challenge even if no replay is actually done. But challenges can’t be called at that time anyway so what does it matter if you are charged with using one?


If two refs have a discrepancy in whether a goal was scored or not (i.e. one calls goal and the other waves it off), the crew chief will review the play. Neither team is charged with a challenge.


Each team can have up to 19 players eligible per game, up from 18. No more than 17 runners, up from 16, can be used. Adding only one extra player doesn’t sound like much, but this could have a big impact. Not only will it change up the lines and add more strategies for coaches, but it will give players just a little more rest during games so we don’t see quite as much fatigue (or worse, injuries) near the end of the game.

Note however that the roster sizes are not changing so this doesn’t mean there are more employed players. It simply means that there will be one fewer “healthy scratch” per team per game.


Jerseys are now required to have the player’s number on each shoulder or bicep.


A player given a major penalty with less than 5 minutes remaining in regulation will be given a second major penalty “for accrual purposes only”. The rule specifically says this is “not a time served penalty”. The very next rule says that any player that gets two majors in a game will automatically get a game misconduct, but it’s not clear whether this second “accrual” major counts towards that. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what the point of this penalty is other than to pad one’s PIM numbers.


The previous rule said that players given a match penalty would automatically receive a two game suspension. Now they are given a “one or two game” suspension. No word on how that is decided.


If there’s a delayed penalty and then game time expires, but the officials decide that the penalty warranted a penalty shot, the team gets to take the penalty shot.


If a player (non-goalie) falls on the ball or closes his hand on the ball in his own crease in front of the goal line, the opposing team gets a penalty shot. The new rule is that if it happens behind the goal line it’s just a loss of possession.


This one seems too obvious to even write down. If a player doesn’t contest the ball during a faceoff, the other team gets possession. So if you don’t try to get the ball, you don’t get the ball.



If the ball gets caught in the goalie’s equipment after a pass from a teammate, the whistle is blown, the ball dislodged, and play resumes (with the goalie having possession) but the shot clock doesn’t get reset. New rule: the 8-second clock doesn’t get reset either. This was probably always the case, but now it’s explicit.


If a delayed penalty is called, play continues until a goal is scored, the offending team gets possession, etc. Now play will also be stopped if the offending team takes a second penalty.


I’ll just quote this one since I can’t really summarize it any better: “An offensive player not in possession of the ball cannot exert significant unequal pressure on his defender as an attempt to gain space away from his defender“.


If an attacking player is legally checked into the crease and is then prevented from leaving the crease by a defender, a holding penalty is called. If a goal is scored, it counts (assuming no other violations). This is only slightly different from the existing rule, which talks about a player being illegally pushed into the crease.


This change adds some vague wording to this rule about “officials shall consider the positioning of players when contact is initiated” and “an appropriate penalty for illegal body checking shall be assessed based on the severity of the illegal contact”. The idea is that if a player has his head down or is “unaware of an impending hit”, the ref has the discretion to increase the penalty.


The definition of “aggressor” no longer uses the word “aggressor”. It is now defines as a player someone who keeps fighting even after the ref has told him to stop and tried to pull him away.


Head-butting rules are slightly different. The old penalties were clear: a minor penalty is given if no contact is made, a major is given (possibly with a game misconduct) if contact is made with your helmet on, and a match penalty is given if contact is made with your helmet off. The new penalties are more vague and are probably designed to allow the refs more leeway in giving out such penalties.


When goalies are inspected before the game, their jerseys may be on or off (before it was off), though it doesn’t say if that’s the goalie’s choice or the ref’s. If a goalie is found using illegal equipment, he will get a major penalty (used to be minor). He won’t have to serve it himself but can’t return to the floor until the penalty expires. Also, if a ref is just about to do an inspection and the goalie adjusts his equipment to make it smaller, he gets a 5-minute penalty.


If a player is given the ball on a fast restart, the nearest defender must be 2 yards away or he gets a delay of game penalty. The change is that if the attacking player tries to move closer to draw a penalty on the defender, the attacking player gets a delay of game penalty. I wonder if this ever actually happened.

NLL Rule changes for 2016

The NLL has announced a number of rule changes going into effect for the 2016 season. The list is here and none of them is hugely significant (though I suppose by definition they are technically all game-changers) but I’ll go over what I think are the more interesting ones.

Rule 28.1: Injured goalie

If the trainer comes out to tend to the ‘tender and he stays more than 50 seconds, the goalie must be replaced. This was 45 seconds last year. The extra five seconds was worthy of a rule change?

nll-logo-750Rule 33.3: Helmet chin cup

Last year, if the chin cup was not properly worn and secured, the player would be removed from the floor. A second violation would get you a delay of game minor penalty. This year, you get the minor penalty right away. Interesting that this rule goes into effect right after the retirement of John Tavares, who was notorious for not wearing his chin cup or leaving it loose.

Rule 44.4: Contesting the ball on the face-off

If a player grabs the ball in the back of his stick during the face-off, he must immediately flip it to the front of this stick or get it to a teammate (“move, rake, or direct it”) before taking more than one step or the other team gets possession. You could call this the Geoff Snider rule but as of this writing, Snider is not on any NLL roster. Plus I believe there was a face-off change made a few years ago that was informally called the Geoff Snider rule though I don’t remember the details.

They tried something like this last year during the pre-season but that rule said that the player couldn’t leave the playoff circle without having the ball in the front of his stick. They dropped the rule before the season started.

Rule 57: Criteria for stoppage of play on a delayed penalty

The only change to this rule is the removal of a clause. In 2016, if the ref has called a delayed penalty and the offensive team pulls their goalie, a loose ball that crosses back over the centerline and rolls towards the open net will not cause a whistle, i.e. the resulting goal will count. I don’t know how often this happens but I suspect it ain’t much.

Rule 63: Illegal cross-checking

A player who cross-checks someone lying down on the turf will get a penalty, whether or not the guy on the floor has the ball.

Rule 67.6: Shooter in crease prior to ball crossing goal line

An oddly specific clause has been added which says that if an attacker shoots and the ball hits the goalie and then a defender and then goes into the net, this will count as a goal as long as the shooter is out of the crease by the time the ball completely crosses the goal line. It sounds like such a goal was waved off last year and someone got angry about it.

Rule 67.9: Contact by a defender

They’ve rewritten this rule entirely (all two sentences of it) to make it clearer. If an offensive player is checked legally into the crease before the ball goes in the net, the goal does not count. If an offensive player is checked illegally into the crease, the defender will get a delayed penalty and if the ball goes in, the goal counts (assuming no other rule violations).

Rule 67.12: No re-entry by ball

If a defender outside the crease gains possession of a ball that’s inside the crease, that defender can now step into the crease as long as the ball wasn’t directed or passed to him by a teammate.