"We have to block shots. You look at the good teams; you go way back to even 2004 when Tampa Bay won the Cup how many shots they blocked. You have to block shots now. Every team does. The good teams do. It's part of a good team's mentality. We've been blocking a lot of shots lately. That means we're around the net and getting in lanes, so that's a good thing."--Glen Gulutzan, coach of the Dallas Stars
Blocked shots (BkS) have become something of a fad in the NHL this season, apparently. Certainly they've become the topic of discussion on a number of websites. In the league this season, shot blocking is actually up over last season. Right now with around 25% of the season completed, there have been 10,759 shots blocked league-wide, a rate which would lead to about 43,000 for the season. In 2010-11, there were approximately 35,000 BkS league-wide. Since the lockout, the average has been around 32,600. That's a lot of sacrificing for the team.
How are the Lightning doing on this? This season, they have blocked 364 shots in 25 games (13th in the league; Montreal is 1st with 450.) Last season they were at 1249 for the regular season, good for 8th in the league. In their Cup year, the Bolts blocked 917 shots. Brett Clark is 14th in the league right now with 58 BkS; the next Lightning player on the list--Eric Brewer with 48 (34th).
There remains the question, however, of whether this is a trend that essentially benefits the team.
I have heard a number of arguments against relying too heavily on shot blocking. Everything from not wanting defenders to get out of position (guys getting down on the ice being given as an example) to prioritizing other kinds of defensive tactics to the sheer danger of it. All of these have some merit.
One of the most common arguments I've run into is "let the goalie see the shot," but like most things in life, that blanket statement oversimplifies reality. From a goalie-centric perspective, some guys hate having shots blocked in front of them (Martin Brodeur is famous for this) and some love it, but for many it depends on where the shot is coming from and how good a guy is at blocking shots. Poorly done, it can leave lanes open and cause nightmare-inducing deflections and rebounds. (Both Dwayne Roloson (here) and Mathieu Garon (here) have said that good shot blocking makes their job easier.)
There are also arguments in favor of shot blocking. Gulutzan and Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray agreed that this is a "sea-change." Murray recalled that after the lockout, "the attitude came to step in front of the player that was screening the goaltender rather than competing and battling and cross-checking. Now, just get above him." In other words, to those in favor of it, shot blocking is a result of good positioning.
Guy Boucher can be counted in that camp. Shot blocking, he said last May, is increasing due to post-lockout rule changes that penalize previously common defensive maneuvers. "It's very difficult to box out a player now. Before, you could cross-check them. You could really hurt somebody, so no one would go (to the front of the net). With the new rules, you can't push that guy out anymore. Since that guy is going to screen your goalie anyway, let's make a wall and prevent the shots."
Equipment changes have made it easier for players to absorb shots, and the team's best shot blockers have noted that they strive to make good decisions about reading shooters so that they don't take themselves out of the play.
But does it actually help teams in the long run of a season? A quick and dirty scan of the numbers of BkS since the Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04 revealed that there was no systematic relationship between the number of shots a team blocked over the course of a season and their standings at the end of the season. The President's Trophy winners were anywhere from 8th to 30th in BkS and the eventual Stanley Cup winners anywhere from 1st to 30th. Most of the time, however, teams that were the most successful landed somewhere in the middle of the list. The average position of President's Trophy and Stanley Cup winners was 17th. The median was also 17. Only 3 times did the season point leader or eventual cup winner finish in the top 10 in blocked shots (five times they finished between 10th and 20th, and 5 times in the bottom third).
So what do you think? Does shot blocking matter?