Commentary

Maybe we should go retro to find answers to 'offensive' question

Updated: December 3, 2007, 3:03 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

When people talk about changing the way the NHL is played, there is often a great reluctance to tamper with so-called history, or the roots of the game.

But perhaps it's within the context of the game's history that solutions to current problems might be discovered.

Throughout the history of the NHL, there have been a number of rules imposed to try to incorporate more offense into the game.

[+] EnlargeJay McKee
Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty ImagesSome believe that a decrease in scoring is related to players' increased willingness to block shots.

In the 1925-26 season, for instance, the league imposed a rule that made it illegal for more than two defensemen to remain in the defensive zone once the puck left the zone. Three seasons later, a player who passed the puck back into his defensive zone was penalized. The following season, the defensive-zone regulations were modified to say no more than three players, including the netminder, could stay in their defensive zone once the puck was cleared.

The notion is similar to a suggestion floated a number of years ago by legendary coach Scotty Bowman. Have a line drawn in the defensive zone across the hash marks or the tops of the faceoff circles, below which not all defensive players could enter, similar to basketball players being forbidden from taking residence in the key at the foot of the basket.

If we accept that among the problems in trying to coax more offense out of the game are the size of the players and their absolute fearlessness in blocking shots (and by offense, we mean more chances and action around the net, not necessarily more goals), refusing to allow all of them in the defensive zone would open up more space.

Detractors will argue that defensive teams would perpetually be in a manpower deficit in their own zone, kind of like always being on the penalty kill. But that ignores the presence of the fifth skater, the one who wouldn't be allowed to enter the zone but would be prowling the neutral zone looking for a teammate to gather the puck and send him free on a breakaway in the other direction.

Another retro move that has some support would be to force players to serve out their entire penalty time even if their opponents scored on the power play. That used to be the case, but changes were made after the dynastic Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s were almost unstoppable on the man advantage. The rule was changed for the start of the 1956-57 season.

Speaking of simple things that might improve the game's flow, San Jose coach Ron Wilson noted how much snow piles up during a game because the players are so big and fast.

"When they stop, it's an avalanche," he said.

Workers scrape up excess snow by the bucketful during television timeouts, but why not take advantage of one television timeout each period to do a quick dry scrape with the ice resurfacing machine as they do prior to the shootout (except in Toronto, where, apparently, the process takes an army of engineers as was witnessed this week in yet another shootout loss to Montreal).

"All you'd have to do is each end. You don't have to do the neutral zone. Nobody's stopping there," Wilson said.

Bowman forever talked about the good fortune to have a power play carry over into a new period because players would have "fresh" ice on which to move the puck. Why not give them fresh ice during the periods?

As for trying to open up shooting lanes now crammed with apparently fearless players, Wilson is at a loss. He said innovations in equipment, including sturdier skates and lightweight protective armor, mean more players are willing to block shots.

"You turn yourself sideways as a defender now because, with the skates the way they are, it is rare that you can break anything in your foot. Why do you think people stick their feet out?" Wilson said.

"You could bring back Al MacInnis and the guy won't move," he said. "Back when I played, if you were actually bad enough to be in the way, you might be done. If it hit on the hand, you're gone. If it hit you in the foot, your foot came flying off. Now it's, 'I'll stand here.' They've got three goalies now."

Let's check the history books to see if there's an answer there, too.

Slap Shots


Langenbrunner

Good Week
Guess reports of the New Jersey Devils' demise and uncertainty surrounding rookie coach Brent Sutter were a tad premature. Once plagued by injuries and surprisingly inconsistent goaltending from Martin Brodeur, the Devils have righted the ship and have won seven straight after Sunday's 3-2 shootout win over Atlanta on Sunday. Brodeur has turned the corner, but one of the big reasons the Devils have moved back into a playoff position and are within hailing distance of Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers (they're just two points back) has been the return of veteran Jamie Langenbrunner. He has two goals and nine assists in his first eight games since his return from an abdominal injury.

Bad Week
It's bad enough the defending Stanley Cup champions from Anaheim dropped to the .500 mark (12-12-4) with two straight losses to end the week. But losing twice in a row to archrival Edmonton reinforces that the Ducks are in big trouble. In the two-game set with Edmonton, a team which Anaheim GM Brian Burke has essentially declared war on after Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe signed former Ducks forward Dustin Penner to an offseason offer sheet, the Ducks were outscored 9-1. The Ducks continue to struggle to find their identity without defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who may or may not be back in the lineup before the end of the season, and Teemu Selanne, who appears less likely to return at all. As much as Penner has been a disappointment in Edmonton with just five goals (he did manage one against the Ducks on Sunday), one of the Ducks' major problems has been a lack of offensive depth. After losing 4-0 on Sunday, Anaheim ranks last in the NHL in goals per game.

Stuck in Neutral
The Pittsburgh Penguins have told veteran netminder Curtis Joseph that they're going to stay the course with netminders Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin, at least for the time being, ESPN.com has learned. Joseph, who has yet to land with a team since being dropped by Phoenix in the offseason, is working out north of Toronto in the hopes that his stellar career isn't quite over.

The Penguins won three in a row before Saturday's 4-2 loss to Toronto and rank 22nd in goals against, which isn't going to get them into the playoffs. So, don't expect GM Ray Shero to ignore what will, in all likelihood, be an ongoing problem with his goaltending tandem. But Shero has more pressing problems, such as trying to unload veteran Mark Recchi, who has been a healthy scratch the past five games. He's got two goals all season, one of which he scored on opening night. Recchi makes only $1.75 million annually, but, even prorated, that's more than most teams will want to pay for a 39-year-old. Unless … Burke is sure Selanne is done and is willing to take a chance that Recchi has something left in the tank. The upside on Recchi is he's coming off a 24-goal campaign from 2006-07.

Our top story lines of the week


Gerber
1. Oh no, there's no culture of brutality in Philadelphia. Flyers winger Riley Cote will likely be suspended after receiving a match penalty for an elbow-to-the-head hit to Dallas' Matt Niskanen late in Dallas' victory over Philadelphia on Saturday.

With the season just one quarter done, the Flyers have had four players suspended for vicious stick fouls or checks on defenseless opponents. The latest occurred last week, when Scott Hartnell drove Boston's Andrew Alberts face-first into the boards while he was on his knees. Hartnell was suspended two games and joins Randy Jones (two games), Jesse Boulerice (25) and Steve Downie (20) in the Flyers' gallery of rogues. Just a coincidence, right? Whatever John Stevens has done in establishing himself as a capable NHL coach (the Flyers are 14-9-2), the team's record will be tarnished throughout the season as a result of its lack of respect for opponents. It should prompt GMs and/or the competition committee to ponder whether teams should be sanctioned beyond suspensions if they can't or won't control their players, as is obviously the case in Philadelphia.

2. In the coming weeks, there will be lots of discussion about whether Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin will either ask for a trade to a contender or whether the Leafs will ask Sundin if he'll waive his no-trade clause as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches. (This assumes the Leafs' two-game winning streak is a mirage and not the start of a march to Stanley Cup glory for the first time in 40 years.) Had the Leafs done so a season ago, a trade might have yielded them a first-round pick and a top prospect as other teams garnered for lesser players like a hobbled Peter Forsberg, Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin. But with scouts drooling over the 2008 draft, the first-round draft picks that went out the door like bobbleheads at last season's deadline may be almost impossible to obtain, even if it's Sundin on the other end of the deal. What's that saying about being a day late and a dollar short?

3. The Ottawa Senators may end up being the cream of the Eastern Conference crop, but their recent struggles illustrate how difficult it is to avoid at least minor slumps through the long NHL season. A season ago, the Anaheim Ducks collected points in their first 16 games (an NHL record), but still battled to the wire to win the Pacific Division and finished second behind Detroit in the West en route to their first Stanley Cup. The Senators looked unbeatable through the first 20 games, but have now lost six straight and looked miserable doing so. Martin Gerber, stellar to start the season in place of injured Ray Emery, has morphed back into the inconsistent netminder of a season ago, allowing 15 goals in the past 97 shots. Emery hasn't been much better as the Sens have given up 26 goals over the course of their losing streak (not counting shootout goals). Last season, the Sens started poorly under coach Bryan Murray and righted the ship early in the New Year. Now, new coach John Paddock will have to find a way to get it right before the rest of the conference overtakes Ottawa.

4. People have been waiting through most of the first quarter for Calgary Flames coach Mike Keenan to explode (or is that implode?) over his team's inconsistent play. Well, Keenan hasn't really exploded, but he did just publicly call out his most important player, netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, after the Flames dropped a 5-4 overtime decision to Columbus on Saturday. Kiprusoff has a bloated 3.00 GAA and uncharacteristic .880 save percentage and has never really hit his stride, a major factor in the Flames' 13th-place standing at the start of this week. Earlier, one might have suggested Kiprusoff was bothered by the lack of a contract extension, but he got one and still hasn't played any better. Now, Keenan has said what has been evident most of the season -- the Flames would have more points if they had better goaltending. We saw other elite netminders, like Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, start slowly, but both have returned to form. Kiprusoff better find that groove and find it quickly.

5. Former NHL netminder and longtime broadcaster Darren Pang once told us that being a backup netminder is one of the toughest jobs in the game because the backup invariably plays when teams are tired or on the second of back-to-back games or at the end of a road trip. Hardly the ideal circumstances to shake off rust that builds up from not playing regularly. Guess Carolina backup John Grahame would agree after being shelled for eight goals on 25 shots in an 8-1 rout at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. The loss was the sixth in the Hurricanes' last nine games and came a night after starter Cam Ward defeated Washington 4-3. The problem for Carolina may be that its backup goaltending simply isn't good enough. Grahame has lost his last three starts, allowing 18 goals on 86 shots over that span. There was a time when Carolina looked like it might be returning to the form that saw it win its first Stanley Cup in 2006, but that season was marked by terrific play from Gerber and Ward. With Grahame unable to provide a modicum of relief in relief, GM Jim Rutherford may be on the hunt for someone who can provide a little more, um, relief. We understand Curtis Joseph is available.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.