Dave Starman recently wrote an interesting piece on USCHO about potential rule changes he would like to see discussed when the NCAA sits down to evaluate their game after this season. One of the things he hoped would at least be considered was the idea of eliminating a player leaving his feet to block a shot.
Starman was quick to point out that he understood that the old school tough guys and traditionalists would have a tough time accepting such a change and that he understood that sacrificing the body in this manner was the “purest form of team-first bravery,” but it seems like the positives of removing this aspect of the game could greatly outweigh the negatives.
Some coaches preach shot blocking by any means necessary including a “two pad stack” by their forwards and defensemen if the situation calls for it. Others have concern over their players leaving both feet as this type of action can take a player completely out of a play. For that reason, many coaches will insist on a drop to one knee method that still takes up a good amount of square footage in front of the shooter without taking the defender out of the play. But what if Starman’s suggestion came to fruition and players were no longer allowed to drop down at all, instead needing to rely on better pursuit angles to get themselves in shooting lanes while upright? How would the game change?
A while back I wrote a blog about college hockey’s elusive 200 point club and how UMD’s Jack Connolly was making a run at being its newest member (Update: Connolly currently sits at 193). Starman points out in his piece that shot blocking, or the lack there of, was a major reason for offensive surges and inflated numbers in the 70’s and 80’s in college hockey. If you eliminate players dropping down to block shots, there is no question scoring chances and offensive output would rise again.
I don’t have medical records or statistics in front of me of any sort to prove this, but conventional wisdom would suggest that the less an athlete is hit with a 90 MPH slap shot, the fewer times that athlete will get injured. While the games best coaches take precautions and use safe methods to teach the proper shot blocking techniques when going down, there are always risks associated with these acts of valor. Plus, if players remain upright, it should essentially eliminate the risk of contact to the neck, throat and head, which regardless of the argument is always a good thing.
Better Skating, Smarter Athletes
Over the last decade, the NHL has implemented several rule changes to help encourage a faster more wide open game and there has been a trickle down to a number of other levels. Many of these rules eliminated clutching and grabbing and allowed for more offensive opportunity and creativity. There was less and less room for the big slow defenseman and more opportunity for the young smooth skating, puck moving blueliner. You could argue that not allowing defensemen to lay down and sacrifice their body could have a similar impact in terms of encouraging players to be both smarter and fundamentally better players. If you can no longer rely on allowing the offensive player a 15 foot gap because you know you can put your body (and the excessive amounts of equipment many players now wear) in front of the puck, you force defending players to think more, encourage more “sticks in lane” and “sticks on puck,” and require them to become better skaters in order to close the gap and play tighter coverage if they hope to continue to limit shots on goal.
Is There A Correlation Between The League’s Best Defenseman And The League’s Best Shot Blockers?
In a word, no. I had a conversation a while back with one of the games most respected analysts about shot blocking and how misleading a statistic it can be. There is no question the willingness to block a shot shows courage, but in some cases it may also indicate that you are out of position. Certainly there are times, particularly on the PK, when it is necessary because man on man coverage is not an option, but there is also a reason you don’t see the perennial Norris Trophy Finalists in the top 10 in blocked shots. It’s because they ensure there team has possession of the puck more then their opponents and when their opponents do have the puck, their gap is usually good enough that they won’t be caught in a situation where they need to block a shot.
Of the top ten leaders in blocked shots this year in the NHL, just five are currently plus players. Montreal’s Josh Gorges leads the league in the stat with 199 and some other notable and good young and veteran players are in the top 20 (Mcdonagh, Beauchemin, Kronwall, and Seabrook to name a few all having blocked over 140 shots this year), but most of the games truly elite defenseman seem to be getting through the season averaging closer to 1 blocked shot a game then 2.5.
Among defensemen in the hunt for the Norris Trophy this year, Shea Weber leads the bunch with 116 blocks. The Blues Alex Pietragelo has 102, and Zdeno Chara and Nicklas Lidstrom have an efficient 75 and 72 respectively. Its tough to argue how solid each of those four have been this year, and they have done so while logging more minutes yet putting their bodies in harms way less often then most. Each has found a strength, whether it be excellent skating and agility, an elite ability to always be in position and maintain a gap, or using an excessively long reach to their advantage, that limits their need for such heroic acts. If we remove the option of dropping down to block shots from the game and force players to play a smarter and more athletic brand of defense, we may just have more of these types of gifted defensemen in the NHL a few years down the road.