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Did taking out the red line make the NHL dumber, more dangerous?

Greg Wyshynski
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The NHL's GM meetings are next week in lovely Boca Raton, where the topics of conversation will range from coach's challenges for goalie interference (let's get that passed, shall we?), concussions and what their vacation plans are during the CBA work stoppage future endeavors.

Another topic of interest: Putting the red line back in and making two-line passes illegal again in the NHL, after the post-lockout rules changes helped transformed the game into a nightly track meet.

It's that undeniable (and undeniably entertaining) velocity that has many NHL GMs, coaches and players thinking the game is now too fast; putting the red line back in, then, would be a matter of player safety.

As Darren Dreger said on NHL Network last night:

"I know there's a handful of GMs out there that think that by putting the red line back in, you're going to generate more plays in the neutral zone, so maybe that generates a big more offense and a bit more entertainment. The double side is that it slows the game down a bit."

Wait … what?

The red line issue has been framed as one of players' safety first, whether it's Eric Lindros talking about concussion prevention or Marcel Dionne considering the safety of defensemen. The debate has characterized as one in which we might have to sacrifice entertainment in the name of better protecting the players.

But putting the red line back in might make hockey ... more entertaining?

That the rules created to end a decade of defensive malaise could be returned to their default settings and scoring would flourish?

Turns out, this notion has been bubbling under the surface of the red line debate for some time: That taking out the red line has made NHL offenses complacent and stupid.

Bob McKenzie followed Dreger on NHL Network with this:

"Outside of the concussion issue, there some people in hockey — be it general managers or coaches — that want to put the red line back in not so much for the slowing down of the game, but because they don't like the way the players post up  at the far blue line. Hard pass from behind the net all the way up, the guy just tips it in, and the other players are coming in hard on the forecheck."

Ask an NHL defenseman, and they'll likely agree. Even ones that tend to join the rush like Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks, who bemoaned the deleterious effects the two-line pass has had on offensive creativity.

Via CSN Bay Area last month:

Boyle thinks the red line, removed for the purposes of allowing two-line passes after the NHL's work stoppage in 2004-05, has hurt offensive production league-wide when it was supposed to help.

"You look around, and most games are low scoring games. I still don't particularly like the way the game is being played," Boyle said. "What are you going to do? I just think the neutral zone is pretty bad. Most teams just are content just getting the puck in the other zone. There's not a lot of plays being made through the neutral zone.

"I'm not a big fan of the red line being taken out. I think it takes away offense. Guys can make the long play now and just flip their blade over and have the puck go in, and it's not icing. [Putting the red line back in] is probably something that could change the game, but I don't see that being changed any time soon."

Boyle doesn't come out and say it, but you can see his point: That a lack of plays in the neutral zone means a lack of creativity; that this long-range dump-and-chase has taken away offense ingenuity.

Luckily, there are guys like Mike Keenan who have no problem saying that taking out the red line has made us dumber. From April 2011, Iron Mike told NHL.com:

"You don't have to be a skilled thinker to bring the puck out of your own zone. You don't have to be a skilled thinker in the neutral," Keenan said. "It's because of the red line. When they took the red line out, and Chicago did this last year and won the Cup, they whip the puck as hard as you can to a post-up man at the far blue line, he tips it in and now you're on the forecheck. See, I played Division I hockey and Cornell was winning the championships because they played like that. I absolutely hated the game because I played defense and you were backpedaling already to retrieve the puck. There was no thinking. The game was perceived to be faster because the puck went from end to end faster, but the thinking was not as acute as it had to be when there was a red line.

"I want thinkers. I think the game is a lot more fascinating to watch with the red line. They say the coaches devised all these systems to clog the neutral zone up, but you watch now, they play a 1-2-2 and the defensemen have to play from the far blue line to that end as opposed to the red line to that end."

(The notion of increased thinking and creativity from the back line is interesting when you consider another lingering debate: the trapezoid. Would allowing goaltenders to play the puck without restriction help generate chances or bring us back to the trappings of the 1990s?)

Again, defensemen are going to have an inherent bias here, because the legalized two-line pass was intended to juice scoring, which is to their detriment. Yet goal-scoring is down in 2011-12, which leads you to believe that the dual draws of player safety and the promise of increased offense might be enough to attract support from GMs next week for putting the red line back in.

Then again, you may just end up with forwards that are hanging near the red line rather than the far blue line. And while having players use their noodles more to create offensive chances is nice in theory, there's always going to be someone smarter than they are devising ways to constrain offense.

They're called "coaches."

We like the NHL sans red line, the inherent danger from its speed acknowledged. We'd be worried about dialing it back to the no two-line pass days, because that could invite more suffocating defense. As Dan Bylsma said: The only way it would work is if the NHL was vigilant in cracking down on clutching, grabbing and holding in a way it wasn't 10 years ago. Do you trust that to happen?

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