Devils

Starman: The Hockey Shot Blocking Debate

Michael Del Zotto #4 of the New York Rangers attempts to block the puck against Nick Foligno #71 of the Ottawa Senators in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 12, 2012 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Michael Del Zotto #4 of the New York Rangers attempts to block the puck against Nick Foligno #71 of the Ottawa Senators in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 12, 2012 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-2. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Shot blocking has become a hot topic both at the NHL level as well as the NCAA level.  The question being: Is shot blocking ruining the game or at the very least having a detrimental effect on how viewers are being entertained by the game?

There are many views on this and all are valid.  There are those who feel shot blocking in any form is a part of the game and there needs to be no further discussion.  There are those who see shot blocking as the same offensive limiting albatross as the 1-3-1 or the Neutral Zone Trap.  There are a lot of folks in the middle.  Those who say it does affect the game and limits offense but what can we do about it.

It is a topic that had come up in the past many times at NHL GM meetings.  It has also been discussed by the NCAA coaches at the annual American Hockey Coaches Association Convention in Naples in April (www.ahcahockey.com).  Nothing has ever been decided about it but there are a lot of college coaches I have talked to that feel one way to increase offense without eliminating the art of shot blocking is to eliminate the sliding shot block.  That is, not allowing players to leave their feet to block a shot but they can block shots with both blades on the ice and fronting the puck.

Not one to hide behind someone else’s opinions, I’m in support of this idea.  It is a topic I have broached on our national telecasts of NCAA hockey on the CBS Sports Network over the past ten years.  For a long time (being an ex coach at the minor pro and junior level) I was pretty much against anything that eliminated the ability to defend.  As Herb Brooks once told me, “Anyone can coach an offensive team, you will be judged as a coach on how well your team plays defense.”

This potential change in the shot blocking rules opens itself to many gray areas but then again life is not black and white.  The questions posed to this proposition are a) how will it be enforced, b) will it be a penalty or a stoppage in play, c) how do you re-program an entire generation of players who have been properly taught how do go down and block a shot as a defensive tactic, d) what actually qualifies as a sliding attempt to block a shot?

All fair questions. Even my officiating friends in the NCAA have said this becomes a topic that could open itself up to a lot of second guessing on how it is called on ice.  I am not advocating taking shot blocking out totally.   Curt Giles should never be forgotten as he made this skill an art form that has been emulated by brave and undersized defensemen in the NHL for years who fought to keep their jobs.

However, before you can get into whether this amendment to how you can block shots is enforceable one must look at the simpler question.  Will something like eliminating sliding to block shots make the game better?  Does it help the ultimate goal of the game as an entertainment product by making the game a better one for fans to watch?  You can ask that same question of recent NHL amendments like the removal of the red line and the elimination of the clutch/grab/hook/hold tactics that used to be employed by the defensive team to eliminate offense.  To the fan it is in the eye of the beholder.

Here is a major reason why myself and others say yes to the idea of eliminating the sliding shot block.  It creates offense.

Listen to the best in the biz, Doc Emrick, call a game.  Listen to when a defenseman fires one from the point and he calls the play.  When the shot is knocked down in front or when someone slides to block it, rarely if ever do Doc’s vocal inflections change.  However, when that shot gets through to the net and the goalie has to make a save and the puck is loose, listen to the difference as his voice raises in excitement to a potential scoring play at the net.  Those shots getting through are what we are there to see.  On many occasions in this post season those long rangers that get through have gone in or were converted for goals on rebounds.

We want shots on goal, we want to see great saves, we want to see the skill players create offensive plays that lead to a shot on goal or at least one that gets to the net even if it just misses wide.  Shots that go just wide produce a pretty intense vocal reaction by a crowd in an arena, blocked shots don’t have that same effect.  We need to realize, those of us who love this game, want to see it continue to grow in popularity and pick up new fans and players that this needs to be an exciting form of entertainment.  It needs to be something you have to watch.  Game 7 of the NYR-Wash series and game 1 of the NYR-NJD series were decent games because of what was at stake.  Play those games in mid January you’re on the LIRR by the early third period.

To prove or disprove the statement that eliminating sliding shot blocks will help the game try this one night.  Watch a playoff game and sit there with a note pad and chart every shot that is blocked by someone leaving his feet.  More than likely that number is in the high teens to low 20’s.  That is hypothetically 20 shots that don’t happen, 20 chances at the net to create a goal, a scramble, a rebound, a chance to draw a penalty, or a great save.  These are all things that raise the heartbeat of the fan in the stands and the ones watching at home (not to mention the players).

Allowing a player to get in a shot lane and block a shot with his body while standing up is important.  If you can skate well enough and angle well enough to get into a shot lane and then take one off the shinguards (or wherever the puck might hit you) then you made a good play.  That has to stay in the game.

The proposal on the table here is that if you have both blades on the ice and are standing up (no getting to one knee) you can block all the shots you want.  That is a frequent occurrence but is also a basic part of the game.  Standing shot blocks and /or stick blade on stick blade blocks are good, no change needed there.

Players today are bigger than ever and better equipped.  Everyone blocks shots which means you have six goalies on the ice.  Teams will pack it in defensively to protect the slot and against many teams the concept of the point shot is gone as there is no lane to the net.  At the very least we can reward teams for good puck movement by making sure someone isn’t diving in front of a shot instead of moving their feet to get into better defensive position to block it standing up.

I joked with someone recently when they said, “What is the problem with a guy sliding to block shots?”  I said, “When Marty Brodeur or any good skating/good puck moving goalie can join the rush as a 6th attacker or play in the neutral zone to chase down loose pucks dumped out to start transition and make the defensemen’s job easier I’ll say that the five skaters on the ice can play as an extra goalie. “

The NHL decided that to create more offense goalies can only play the puck in certain areas but they will let all five skaters play like a goalie to eliminate offense.  It appears somewhat of a conflict of interest.

Whether or not this ever comes to fruition it is at least something to look at before the game we all love starts to bog down once again.  Coaches are just too smart on both sides of the puck to let any tactic legally at their disposal not be used to win games.

Where do we go from here?

Dave Starman is the national college hockey analyst for The CBS Sports Network.