Kolupanowich: The Polarity Of Shot Blocking

Of all the problems in hockey today, shot-blocking is rather unique. It is a polarizing event that, while it may decrease scoring and lead to unnecessary injuries, is difficult to criticize because of those who make the painful sacrifice in order to help their team.

Players like Nikita Filatov may help their teams for a moment, but they can't do anything sitting in the press box with an injury. (614Jacketsfan/Flickr)

There shouldn’t be a penalty any time someone blocks a shot, with so many bodies on the ice it’s impossible to ask them all to step out of the way. What should be eliminated, however, is the full-body block that allows the defending player to cover a much larger area than if he were standing. With players sliding all around the ice, it is nearly impossible to get the puck on net, especially from the point.

You certainly can’t blame the players for this. Each game is a battle – not just against the other team, but for ice time and the opportunity to earn a paycheck in the big league. As is the case with hitting, the moment they pass up the opportunity to take one for the team is the same moment the coach starts looking for the man who will.

But shot-blocking is killing scoring and creativity in the game. It may not slow things down the same way the old left wing lock or the 1-3-1 have, but it does eliminate scoring chances and reduce goals. Adam Proteau covered this issue in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hockey News, explaining how these tactics are just as smothering as the trap. From his article Stop, Drop And Roll Your Eyes:

Shot-blocking has snuffed out much of the creative potential that was born from the league’s crackdown on obstruction. Shooting lanes now are so congested, players routinely fire the puck behind the net intentionally in the hope the puck ricochets out the other side to a teammate waiting to pop it past the goal line.

Let that sink in for a second. The game has regressed to the point where the main target cannot be reached unless there’s an unpredictable deflection, a bad bounce or a player half-fans on his shot and fools the goalie with hockey’s equivalent of a knuckleball.

There are several prominent figures, including former Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey and current Detroit Red Wings architect Ken Holland believe the sliding block should be outlawed. A delay of game penalty would be called if both skates leave the ice, opening up more room for pucks to get shot on goal. There would be no advantage towards any team in the league, as all teams would see their goals increase. Besides, the teams that try hardest to lower scoring on usually the ones near the bottom of the standings and they don’t even get a boost in the standings. All they do is slow down the game and make it harder to watch.

Eliminating the sliding block not only allows for more pucks to the net, and consequently more goals, it will also protect the players.

Role players and grinders have the hardest job in the NHL. They are the ones who have to play physical every game, every shift and they do so with little recognition outside of their own locker room. They have to hit, block shots and play against the other team’s super stars night in and night out. There were few players better at that role in recent memory than Ian Laperriere, a 17-year veteran and winner of the 2011 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

He won the award despite not playing a single game that season, missing the entire year due to the effects of an injury suffered in the first round of the 2010 playoffs while sliding to block a point shot from then New Jersey Devils defenseman Paul Martin. He needed over 60 stitches to close the gash above his right eye and suffered a brain contusion from the play.

Was it admirable to dive selflessly in front of the shot from Martin? Absolutely. Was it completely necessary at the time? Not quite. There were just over 16 minutes left in the third period of a game they were up 3-0 in, in a series they were up 3-1 in and the Flyers had complete control, so even if the shot found its way to the back of the net, it is unlikely it would have been a factor in the series at all.

He thought for sure he was doing the right thing for his team, if he thought at all in what was probably a split-second, gut reaction. He could have saved himself (and subsequently a part of the team) in order to fight another day, as was Henry Fleming’s rational in Stephen Crane’s classic war novel The Red Badge of Courage when he ran away from his first encounter with battle. Had Laperriere decided to spare himself that one time, he could still be healthy and helping the team today.

The thing is, you aren’t going to convince these players to change their style. They are convinced they are making the right choice and doing the right thing for their team. Devante Smith-Pelly, a rookie with the Anaheim Ducks, broke his foot in the World Junior Championship this year in Team Canada’s first game of the tournament and said he would do so again given the opportunity. James van Riemsdyk, already dealing with a concussion and hip problems this season, broke his foot on March 1 against the Islanders and will likely be out the remainder of the regular season. He won’t be able to get back into the groove that saw him earn a six-year, $25.5 million contract if he is constantly sitting in the press box.

They can use the argument that they aren’t helping their team by sacrificing their bodies all they want, but they help even less by being sidelined for long stretches.

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