Friday, June 01, 2007

The thin red line

This is exactly what many hockey observers feared most when the NHL eliminated the red line. Those who have watched international hockey have seen some truly mind-numbing games as a result. It was a tactic employed widely by the Czechs when they were having so much international success in the late 1990s and early part of this century. It produces winning hockey, but can also slow the game to a crawl.
"All you do is go back to the (1998) Olympics and watch the Czechs play the Russians in the gold medal game. You talk about less chances and no scoring, go back and watch that game. People talk about the red-line, I watched it for years scouting in (U.S.) college and it doesn't do what people says it does."
"I don't think that's the key. Maybe short term it would open up the game but teams would adjust. In Europe you just move the trap back and you still have problems scoring."
TSN analyst Pierre McGuire is convinced it will open up the game. Fellow analyst and former NHL GM Brian Burke calls it "stupid" and "ignorant." Defenseman Dan Boyle, who used to favour the two-line pass, changed his mind after a season in Sweden. Dave King, who has coached in the NHL and Europe, doesn’t like it either.

Taking out the red line was always a bad idea, although it's only been one contributing factor in the decline in scoring this season — and especially in the playoffs. There were a number of high-profile coaches who spoke out against the move during the lockout, but the change was made because of both ignorance and due to the fact it was an easy switch to make.

The 2005-06 season is looking more and more like a blip for the NHL, one in which players and coaches had to step back and readjust given all of the new tweaks put in at the same time after that year away.

There weren't nearly as many players beaten by a long pass this season as in 2005-06, and it's awfully tough to beat a defender who's already at his own blue line. (And what choice does he have other than being there when goals are this tight?)

Three years ago, Brian Burke knew what taking out the red line meant, and he's found a coach in Randy Carlyle who is able to implement a European style defensive game and squeeze the life out of teams like the Senators.

22 Comments:

At 10:55 PM, June 01, 2007, Anonymous degroat said...

I'm sorry, but anyone who thinks taking the red line out had a negative effect on a game needs to watch one game and count how many passes would have been two-line passes. Teams are able to transition much faster and it makes for better end to end hockey.

 
At 11:23 PM, June 01, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

The Senators have also implemented the blue line wall through the first three rounds. It worked wonders against Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo but the Ducks agressive dump and chase forecheck has broken it down because some of the Sens defensemen (Redden-Meszaros combo in particular) shy away from going into the corners when they know they are going to get hit hard.

 
At 11:37 PM, June 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James, I agree completly that the elimination of the red line has allowed coaches to implement a modified neutral zone trap, which is killing the game. I watched it all year with the Canucks, and other western teams and its terrible.

However, the answer isn't to go back to the red line. Instead, let's try to penalize the teams that use this neutral zone trap by declaring it an illegal defence, just like the NBA does.

Two possible solutions. First a team must be required to have two forecheckers in the oppositions zone when the puck is in the zone, or else its a two minute penalty for illegal defence. As a result, a team couldn't have more than 3 players plugging up the neutral zone ( 2 defencemen and a forward ). This illegal defence would only apply during full strength play. However, an exception would be allowed if the team was in the midddle of a line change.

Another solution would be that if a team didn't have two forecheckers in the opposition zone when the puck was there, the opposing team could shoot the puck from their own zone into the other teams zone, without having icing called against them.

I'm sure people could come up with other creative ways to penalize teams that put four or five players in the neutral zone.

But let's not go back to putting in the red lihne and the two line offside. That too kills the game.

 
At 11:53 PM, June 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

4 x 4 hockey. You can't clog up all that ice with only four skaters.

 
At 12:07 AM, June 02, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

4 x 4 hockey. You can't clog up all that ice with only four skaters.

You also rarely see hitting in four on four hockey which would suck even more.

 
At 12:16 AM, June 02, 2007, Blogger Girly Sports said...

It doesnt matter what rules you have.
You could even have 3 on 3.
Until we get offensive-minded coaches who will change the game, it'll always be dull.

We should always applaud teams like the Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Indians who are creative and think offense first trying to buck the trend that defense win championships (even though they still havent won yet)

 
At 12:28 AM, June 02, 2007, Anonymous DD said...

Until we get offensive-minded coaches who will change the game, it'll always be dull.

A lot of NHL head coaches still have to worry about their jobs IMHO.

 
At 1:57 AM, June 02, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

I had a response to this. I got long and rantish, which I'm sure comes as a surprise, so rather than post a page long screed here, you can find it here.

 
At 7:50 AM, June 02, 2007, Anonymous Baroque said...

As long as coaches keep their jobs based on winning, and by doing whatever it takes to accomplish that (whether by playing stifling, boring defense or giving players with criminal records playing time and making excuses because they have some level of football talent) you will have the same thing in every sport.

Excitement alone is only rewarded in scripted entertainment--effectiveness is rewarded in sports, no matter how boring it looks to the fans. If you want to reward teams based on entertainment value alone, then just script each season to assure prominence for the "best" storylines and make sure the biggest stars are always in the biggest markets. Hey, it works for professional wrestling! (It might also be the only way the Chicago Cubs will ever win a World Series, but that is a whole other matter.)

 
At 8:20 AM, June 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eliminate six teams.
That's a start.
You could tell from the game the other night that Ottawa wasn't going to score.
It's become a tactical battle where you have to take advantage of what few opportunities you have to score.

 
At 11:47 AM, June 02, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

As long as coaches keep their jobs based on winning, and by doing whatever it takes to accomplish that (whether by playing stifling, boring defense or giving players with criminal records playing time and making excuses because they have some level of football talent) you will have the same thing in every sport.

As I explain in my rant, it isn't that you get whatever it takes to win; you get whatever it is that conventional wisdom says it takes to win. If you lose by doing the completely ordinary, you may lose your job, but there's a decent chance you'll get another one. If you lose by trying something new, you're finished.

 
At 1:01 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger Doogie said...

JMN: I can't access your rant. Keeps redirecting me to MySpace's homepage. Is that their insidious way of forcing you to sign up?

Topic: How has taking the red line out killed the game, exactly? Coaches can adapt to just about anything, I think that much is blatantly obvious to anyone who's followed this game for more than a month. Is putting the red line back in going to improve the flow of the game? Of course not. It was a nonsensical rule when it was first put in, and I'm glad it's out now.

You want to get rid of a rule to give more flow? Try the trapezoid. For every forecheck that succeeds because Marty Brodeur's nailed to his crease, there's a missed opportunity for Brodeur to fire a home-run pass up to his wingers and set up something the other way, and a missed opportunity for an adventurer like Dominik Hasek to inadvertantly create a scoring chance for the other team.

 
At 1:34 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

JMN: I can't access your rant. Keeps redirecting me to MySpace's homepage. Is that their insidious way of forcing you to sign up?

I guess I keep both blogs going after all. Try here.

 
At 2:05 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger Art Vandelay said...

You also rarely see hitting in four on four hockey which would suck even more.
Two things, respectfully:
There's hitting in 4x4 OT, though maybe not roller-derby level hitting we see 5x5.
Is the point of hockey to exhibit skill or just to hit moving targets. Again, I refer to roller derby.

 
At 2:22 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger Rick said...

This is all metaphysics and completely off target. Adding even more technical rules that no one can define, like illegal defense, will do nothing to prevent gaming the system.

You want your 80s hockey back? Simple. Shitcan 8 teams. You don't trap when you have three lines that can score.

Bettman's expansion has done this. All of these rule changes in the last several years haven't done crap.

 
At 3:06 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger mennoknight said...

and just for the record: The Thin Red Line is Glass Tiger's best album by a mile

 
At 3:42 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger McLea said...

Is the point of hockey to exhibit skill or just to hit moving targets. Again, I refer to roller derby.

This is a false choice. Violence and skill can co-exist. I'd refer you to the NFL.

And Art, we get it, you don't like checking. Or fighting. Or any other physical contact. So perhaps, instead of trying to turn the NHL into something it isn't, you should find a sport that is better suited to your refined tastes.

May I suggest: this, this, or this

 
At 5:46 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger Doogie said...

Thanks for the link, JMN. Lack of innovation is certainly a valid point, and I'd also point to auto racing in that regard. I don't follow it worth a damn, but my grandparents do, and as they tell it, the leagues have largely banned any and all innovation as "illegal modifications," which is okay if all you're looking for is driver skill, but in that case, all you need is a competent mechanic, not a clever one. Besides, racing innovations could lead to newer and better technology for everyday cars, such as greater fuel efficiency or improved safety measures.

I've gone back and forth of the whole "can eight teams" argument, because on the one hand, yes, it would weed out the players -right now- who are substandard, but what about ten years down the road? Given the conservativism of the hockey community, I'd be inclined to wonder if they wouldn't follow the same old two scoring lines, a checking line, and a goon/energy line blueprint that's been around for decades. A lot of players have gotten opportunities to show their stuff with 30 teams that might not have with only 24 or 20. I could be wrong here, but given JMN's point, would anyone be willing to try three scoring lines and a checking line? I doubt it.

 
At 10:46 PM, June 02, 2007, Anonymous Baroque said...

As I explain in my rant, it isn't that you get whatever it takes to win; you get whatever it is that conventional wisdom says it takes to win.

That's kind of what I was thinking--I didn't want to run on forever. You see exactly the same tendency in baseball. In a particular situation a manager will do what the ubiquitous "book" says, because if it doesn't work, you just shrug and defend it by saying, well, we went by the book. If you try something new and it doesn't work, you get torn to shreds for going against the conventional wisdom.

You see the same tendencies in business, even-an avoidance of innovation because innovation means risks and risks mean that you may fail, and the consequences of failure aren't worth the chance that an innovation might actually make a product or procedure better. Tried and true isn't always best, but it is perceived as the safest option.

And I agree that even if the talent pool improved by cutting teams, everyone would still construct the lines the same way because "that's how we've always done it before." The joys of inertia.

 
At 11:03 PM, June 02, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

I've gone back and forth of the whole "can eight teams" argument, because on the one hand, yes, it would weed out the players -right now- who are substandard, but what about ten years down the road?

The idea that trap hockey is caused by expansion is ludicrous. It doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The NHL's expansion was too great for business reasons, some of which are bad for fans in both direct and indirect ways. It isn't responsible for the lack of scoring.

Think about it. Over the last seventeen years, the NHL has expanded from 21 teams to 30. That's an increase of 42%. Over the same period, the population of Canada has increased by 18%. The population of the US has gone up faster than that, but it's primarily in non-hockey playing areas, so let's use that same figure.

That would mean that the NHL could have expanded by almost four teams without diluting the already existing talent base at all. Of course, the NHL is drawing from a much greater talent base than it was in 1990. At that point, the NHL was about 75% Canadian, and about 10% European. It's now around 45% Canadian, and about 40% European.

I'm sure I could dig up the exact numbers somewhere, but an estimation should be good enough for these purposes. Let's assume a 24 man roster. If Canadians made up 75% of rosters in a 21 team league, that means that there were 378 Canadians on rosters in 1990. If they make up 45% of rosters in a 30 team league, then there should be around 324 Canadians on NHL rosters now.

So, despite the population of Canada having increased by 18% over this period, the number of Canadian NHL players has gone down, at least by this crude estimate.

There are only two ways that the average skill level of NHL players could have gone down over this period. The first is if Canada has become much less proficient at producing hockey players, and so teams have had to turn to less skilled alternatives. The other is if NHL GMs have become much less proficient at picking skilled players out of the pool of available talent.

Now, I'm as dismissive of the abilities of NHL GMs as anyone, but I don't believe that they've become substantially worse. I'm not all that familiar with player development in Canada, but I suspect that it isn't much worse than it was previously. Thus, I don't believe that average player skill has gone down since the 1980s.

The argument that expansion has led to where we are is complete *********.

 
At 5:04 AM, June 03, 2007, Blogger Doogie said...

The idea that trap hockey is caused by expansion is ludicrous. It doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

Never said it did. Trap hockey is caused by coaches highlighting and encouraging sound positioning, defensive awareness, and attention to detail. The numbers are all well and good, but they totally miss the point, that is, that while the overall quality of the average NHL player in 2007 would increase appreciably with six or eight or ten teams suddenly dropped from the League, teams would inevitably adapt to the change over time and build themselves the same way they always have. The unfortunate side effect of this is that kids who would normally get a chance to sink or swim on a top line, or who would get a shot with the big club, would instead languish on the fourth line or in the minors. That's nothing to do with trap hockey, and in fact argues your point for you, by saying that (a) deeply conservative coaches would do things the same way as always, and (b) in the long term, contraction wouldn't help matters worth a darn, and might even work against the League in terms of the talent that gets through to the show.

 
At 6:25 AM, June 03, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Never said it did.

I didn't mean to imply that you did. For whatever reason that struck me as a good idea at the time, I used your quote to riff off of. There are a lot of people who do really believe this, and they are a part of the reason why I've had to pad all of the hard surfaces around my desk, so that I don't give myself a concussion smashing my head into it.

 

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