It’s the sort of debate that rages only in the background, far away from fans and the games, in the NHL.
Is the league too fast?
Was it a bad idea to take out the red line and allow two-line passes coming out of the lockout seven years ago?
Ask a different general manager and you’re likely to get a different answer, something that will come to a head next week in Boca Raton, Fla., as all 30 head honchos assemble for their semi-annual meeting to discuss potential rule changes.
Several high-profile GMs, like the Boston Bruins’ Peter Chiarelli and the Florida Panthers' Dale Tallon, are set to stump for the return of the red line, citing two key issues created by no longer having it:
First, the speed through the neutral zone, which has led to concerns over concussions and too many high-impact hits.
Second, how the game has changed due to what Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke calls “the tennis effect,” where defencemen fire pucks down the ice to forwards waiting at the far blueline who then chip them into the offensive zone.
“I think we’ve done a lot of different things to speed up the game,” Chiarelli added, “and I think maybe looking at putting that back in in some way, shape or form would help moderate the speed.”
“The restoration of the red line would add to the skill level needed to play,” Burke acknowledged, before explaining he is "not in favour of any changes to the ice surface."
Chiarelli and Tallon's opinions are far from unanimous, however, with some GMs even disagreeing with their own head coaches about what, if anything, needs to change in the middle of the ice.
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said this week that he and coach Mike Babcock have had the debate often, with the man behind the bench of one of the most successful teams in the league saying he feels the dreaded trap remains prevalent and has been helped, not hindered, by not calling two-line passes.
“He [Babcock]thinks that right now, because of the red line being out, everybody’s defensive scheme is really at your own blueline,” Holland said, “because you’re afraid to get people in behind you. For me personally, I like the game. But I am open to hearing other opinions. I mean, I’ve got Mike’s opinion, but he hasn’t sold me.”
The consensus is that it will take a considerable sell job by Chiarelli, Tallon and others to push a change to the red-line rule through in time for next season, but it is significant that it’s even up for serious debate.
Of the six general managers surveyed – three from each conference – in the past few days by The Globe and Mail, two indicated they’d like to see the change made, while three were in favour of the status quo and another was on the fence.
The discussions in Florida beginning on Monday may even swing a few of the undecided GMs over, with a majority decision to recommend the rule change required to push it through to the competition committee.
“We have a really good game now, certainly a game that people like to watch,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who admitted he hasn’t made up his mind on the issue. “It’s a fast game. But in some ways it might be a little too fast for players to react and protect themselves. I think we have to recognize that the speed of the game could very well be putting players in a more vulnerable position.”
St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong countered that by saying that NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has done a good job weeding out questionable hits. Armstrong also strongly believes that limiting the league’s newfound speed – one of the main changes made since the low-scoring Dead Puck Era – is the wrong way to go.
“I go back to, well, why did we take it out?” said Armstrong, whose coach, Ken Hitchcock, wants the red line to return. “Because the neutral zone got clogged up, and it was very difficult to gain the red line. It was like going through kelp or seaweed through the neutral zone.
“I wouldn’t be in favour of going in there and saying let’s make our game slower. I’m not sure that’s the right message to our fans, that we want to play slower. I think we can accomplish player safety with the game staying at a high pace and entertaining.”