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 off-sides 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.