Search

The Red Line Debate With neutral-zone traps choking the excitement out of the NHL, is it time to eliminate the red line to open up the game? Here are two points of view

March 10, 2003
March 10, 2003

Table of Contents
March 10, 2003

The Red Line Debate With neutral-zone traps choking the excitement out of the NHL, is it time to eliminate the red line to open up the game? Here are two points of view

GET RID OF IT
By Jeremy Roenick, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, CENTER

This is an article from the March 10, 2003 issue Original Layout

Let's face it: The NHL is boring. If I were a kid watching our
league, I'd have a hard time finding things to get excited about.
What pulls fans out of their seats are goals, quality shots,
great saves and action in front of the net. But what do they see
instead? A bunch of guys skating in the neutral zone, meandering
through various defenses with a lot of tic-tac-toe passes. ¶
Something needs to be done to give the league a jolt that will
create more offense, more goals, more excitement and--most
important--help make those awful defensive traps, which so many
teams use, a thing of the past. The best way to open up the game
is to eliminate the red line.

A lot of the old-fashioned people in charge of our sport would
not want to do this because of their respect for the traditions
of the game. But a shake-up is needed, because the trap is
bringing the league to a standstill.

Before teams started trapping all the time--somewhere around the
mid-1990s--I'd have a breakaway or a couple of two-on-ones or
three-on-twos every game. Now I'm lucky to see a breakaway every
six or seven games. Some teams keep four guys back, hoping to
create turnovers in the neutral zone and then counterattack. If
you're an offensive player, you feel like you're skating into a
wall all the time, stuck in traffic in the neutral zone.

Eliminating the red line is the only way to abolish that
defensive mentality. If the red line were banished and the
offensive team didn't have to worry about two-line passes,
defenders couldn't clog midice--they'd be worried about players
getting behind them and taking long passes. There would be more
room to skate as you come out of your zone.

Also, without the red line a teammate could fly out of your zone
as soon as you got possession of the puck. If the defense had to
worry about that player receiving a long pass, you might be able
to hit someone else, maybe a defenseman coming out of the zone
late, and create more breakouts and easier rushes. Playing
without a red line can break down defensive strategies.

There's no red line in international rules, and playing that way
in the Olympics last year was terrific. There were so many times
when I passed from my face-off circle to a teammate at the
opponent's blue line. It takes pinpoint accuracy to connect on
those long passes, but in the NHL, with the best players in the
world, we could pull it off.

A lot of people say that if the red line were eliminated, teams
would just move the trap back to their own blue line. They might,
but then the trap wouldn't be as suffocating as it is now. For
one thing, players on offense would have much more room to
generate speed in the neutral zone. It's easier to break the trap
if you have a head of steam when you attack it. Then, as you hit
the defenders' blue line, you could softly chip the puck into the
zone. That would make it easier to create a forecheck, and you'd
see fantastic battles for the puck in the corners. If you want to
score, that's where you want the puck--in the corners, where you
can battle and create scoring chances.

Now, defenses trap at the red line to keep opponents from dumping
the puck into the zone. You can't throw the puck in before you
hit the red line, because that would be icing, there would be a
stoppage, and the puck would come back to your end for a
dangerous defensive-zone face-off.

Those who want to keep the red line say we shouldn't tinker with
the game so much. Hey, the NHL has recently made many attempts to
generate offense, changing rules and asking referees to crack
down on obstruction. But those changes haven't worked, and the
game is stuck in the neutral zone. Getting rid of the red line
can get the fans what they want: excitement on every shift.

KEEP IT
By Mike Keenan, FLORIDA PANTHERS, COACH

In 1998 the NHL changed the architecture of the rink by moving the
goal lines two feet closer to center ice. The idea was that more
room behind the nets--the four total feet were taken from the
58-foot neutral zone--would help players maneuver in the
offensive end. The change was supposed to create more action
around the net and, it was hoped, more goals. ¶ The extra space
didn't produce those results. In fact, Dominik Hasek told me it
was easier for him to keep the puck out of the net with the new
setup. Players didn't try to score on wraparounds as often, and
he didn't have to worry about pucks bouncing off the boards right
back to the crease. Once he got the hang of skating farther to
retrieve the puck from the backboards, Hasek told me, his job was simpler.

There are two lessons from this. One: Sometimes changes don't
bring the results we want. Two: Players and coaches adapt quickly
in the NHL. Both are good reasons to ignore talk of eliminating
the red line.

True, scoring is down and the game isn't as wide-open as it used
to be (box, page 53). That scoring decline is not because of the
red line; it's because of the trap, the most popular defensive
system in the NHL. Removing the red line will make trapping more
difficult, but coaches will figure out another way to seal things
off defensively.

If the red line is eliminated, you'll see exactly what you see
now, except the players will be more spread out around the ice.
Teams that trap at the red line would move their defensemen back,
a tactic we saw at the Olympics last year. Instead of standing at
the red line, good defensemen such as Canada's Al MacInnis and
Chris Pronger guarded their blue line. For the most part, those
games weren't high-scoring.

Without the red line, the game also isn't as entertaining and the
skill level isn't as high. In the late 1960s and early '70s I
played Division I hockey at St. Lawrence, and for one season the
ECAC eliminated the red line. Cornell was the top team in the
country that year, and every time its players got the puck they'd
skate to their blue line and dump it into the zone. There was no
skill, just dump and chase on every possession. It was hard to
watch.

I don't like the idea of players trying 120-foot passes, either.
I like the skill and artistry of making several passes to move
the puck up ice. If there's no red line, you'll see players
constantly going for that home run pass, which is a
low-percentage play. If they miss, chances are the play would be
called for icing and there would be a face-off.

I know that some Olympians loved playing without the red line,
but that style wouldn't work in the NHL. Remember, that
tournament had the 20 best Canadian players in the world and the
20 best Russians and the 20 best Americans. They made it look
easy. There are a lot of outstanding players in the NHL, but the
overall talent level doesn't compare with that of the Olympics.

There's also an economic issue involved in retaining the red
line. If removing the red line creates more offense, there would
be a lot more 40-goal scorers around the league. And if you're a
40-goal scorer instead of a 20-goal man, you're going to be
awarded a much bigger salary in arbitration--and teams are having
financial difficulties as it is.

Speed excites fans, but that's not all we need in this league. We
need body contact that keeps the intensity high, action around
the goal, excellent scoring chances and goalies making big saves.
Can we generate more action and puck movement? Sure. Move the
goal lines back to where they used to be so teams have more room
in the neutral zone to beat the trap. Reinstate the touch-up
offsides rule [players who are offside can get onside by touching
the blue line] so there would be fewer stoppages in play--and
fewer neutral-zone face-offs in which teams can set up the trap.
Those changes will help. Eliminating the red line will just
reduce the the things I love about the game--creativity and
skillfulness.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLACOLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMS A NEED FOR SPEED In Roenick's view, eliminating the red line and thus the illegal two-line pass would allow offensive players to fly out of their zone for long passes and breakaways. At the very least, that threat would force defensemen to retreat, unclogging center ice.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATOCOLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIM FILMS A STEP BACKWARD Keenan feels that without the red line, defensemen would simply move the trap back and guard their blue line. He also thinks the skill level would fall, because defensemen would often cross the blue line and dump the puck into the offensive zone.COLOR PHOTO: ICON SPORTS MEDIA Chris Chelios, RED WINGS, DEFENSEMAN At 41 he's the league's oldest blueliner; the 20-year NHL veteran has won the Norris Trophy three times "It would create more breakaways and more chances. From a defenseman's point of view, it would make it tougher."COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Keith Primeau, FLYERS, CENTER The Philadelphia captain and three-time 30-plus goalscorer was the third selection in the 1990 draft "It would open up center ice and change the way the game is played. You'd see skilled guys do more with the puck." COLOR PHOTO: JEFF VINNICK/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI Markus Naslund, CANUCKS, LEFT WING A 10-year NHL veteran, he was the league's leading scorer at week's end; he's had 40 or more goals the last three seasons "I played that style of game in the Olympics, and it didn't open things up. Teams are so well coached, they'll find a way to trap." COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Saku Koivu, CANADIENS, CENTER The Montreal captain and the team's leading scorer this season through Sunday, he played for the Finnish team at the 1998 Olympics "I don't like it. Teams will start sitting back, and it'll be bad for the game, more boring."

The Players
STILL SEE RED
Remove the red line or keep it? In a poll, we took the pulse of
NHLers

In a random SI survey, 74 players were asked if they were in
favor of eliminating the red line to increase scoring and
excitement. The results:

YES 17 NO 54 UNDECIDED 3

Despite playing their amateur careers solely on rinks that use
international rules (no red line), 17 of the 23 Europeans we
polled were against removing the red line (two were undecided).
As for results by position, 14 of 21 defensemen were in favor of
keeping the red line as were two of three goalies (one
undecided). Surprisingly, 38 of 50 forwards (two undecided)
agreed that the red line should stay. Also, vets and youngsters
had similar opinions: players 30 or older voted 25-9 to keep
the red line while those under 30 voted 29-8 (three undecided).

SI's Solution:
A TRIAL RUN
There's a precedent for deciding whether to break with NHL
tradition. Let's use it again

With the steady decline in scoring since the 1990-91
season--when there was an average of 6.91 goals per NHL game,
compared to 5.31 this season through Sunday--the question of
whether the elimination of the red line would punch up the
offense needs to be answered. And here's the best way to do that:
Give it an extended trial, like the one that led to the
introduction of four-on-four overtime in 1999-2000, by having
the American Hockey League, the NHL's developmental league, play
a full season without the red line. If the number of goals and
scoring chances increase, then use the next NHL preseason as a
final test. Let's see if a simple rule change can halt the recent
run of defensive dominance and give the world's most creative
players a better chance to showcase their skills.