In the mid-1990s, during the NHL's original dead-puck era, former coach and general manager Pierre Pagé floated a unique idea that may have merit again as scoring shrinks and the game has turned into an exercise in shot-blocking, where the majority of goals are scored on ricochets, deflections or other happenstance.
What's on display in these playoffs isn't hockey, it's pinball.
Seeking a way to enhance offence, Pagé proposed that the NHL introduce a modified version of basketball's three-in-the-key rule. The rule states that an offensive player shall not remain in the key for more than three seconds. Pagé's application to hockey would affect both offensive and defensive players, with the primary goal to keep the area in front of the net unclogged.
It's an idea worth considering, given how established the shot-blocking trend is today. Teams all collapse back toward the goal, with every player instructed to get in front of shots, even if they happen to screen the goaltenders. Under the Pagé plan, hockey could create a zone in front of the goaltender that perhaps only three, or even two, players a team could enter at the same time.
Naturally, purists would hate this innovation because it would mean drawing more lines on the ice, but for the sake of argument, let's say the NHL designated the area from the goal to the outer edges of the lower faceoff circles as hockey's key. If you permitted only two defenders to enter that area at a time, you might see some creative plays down low instead of the gridlock we have now. Traffic on the Long Island Expressway at rush hour can't compare to the way the New York Rangers clog the lanes in front of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and the Washington Capitals are just as guilty/adept, making the area in front of Braden Holtby look like the Beltway when a presidential motorcade is passing by.
Maybe you'd see more stick-handling. Maybe you'd see more give-and-goes. It might take some getting used to – defenders stationed outside the zone, waiting for an opportunity to counter. But it might also mean more action off the rush; if a team breaks up a play in the key and gets the puck ahead to one of its forwards, it theoretically should create more open-ice, odd-man opportunities, a part of the old NHL that seems to have been relegated to the Classic TV channels.
The attempt to unclog the area in front of the goalie would break the glassy-eyed sameness of what we have now – a game dominated by netminding and team defence, in which virtually every goal seems to come off a cycle down low and requires that the puck carom to a player in a shooting position, usually off a deflected pass. There is so much more randomness and luck involved in scoring a goal than pure offensive brilliance and it's not because of a lack of skill. The skilled players just don't have enough room to demonstrate those talents.
It even raises the larger question, which seems to have gone unasked in these playoffs. Is shot-blocking good for the game? Unquestionably, it takes courage to block shots. Nowadays, players can all rifle the puck, and as good as it is, today's equipment cannot completely protect against the tiny gaps where the human body is exposed. If the puck hits you just right, it can do some serious damage. One of these days, a puck is going to deflect off a stick, into the face of a player and there will be a tragedy on the ice.
Beyond the safety considerations, there is also the entertainment perspective to consider. Yes, the league is competitive. Yes, there is parity. Any team can win, and all you need to do is examine who's left in the playoffs to understand that. All five Western Conference teams that finished with 100 or more points in the regular season are on the sidelines. For the right to advance to the Stanley Cup final, we're left with the Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings, two teams that – based on their respective goalie's save percentages – are stopping 19 of every 20 shots that actually make it to the net, never mind all the ones blocked along the way.
In this day and age, it isn't just NHL players who are better than they've ever been. Coaches are too. Coaches have devised these winning defensive systems and players are smart, skilled and fit enough to adhere to them with minimal breakdowns. There is no earthly reason why, on a sheet of ice 200 feet by 85 feet, eight of 10 position players should be spending so much time crowded within 30 feet of the same net.
Maybe that's an idea the NHL's research and development crew can examine next summer.
Because based on these playoffs, the NHL is moving ever closer to an era where a single goal is all you're going to see on a given night.