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How to fix NHL’s on-ice congestion? We asked transportation engineers

Conversations with problem-solvers away from hockey led to solutions not previously considered. Thinking outside the rink isn’t a bad thing.

Globe Staff/Associated Press photos

To my eyes, the offensive zone looks more like Route 3 South on a Friday afternoon in July. Defending teams deploy five armored-up men to clog the front of the net and stuff shooting lanes. Athletic, butterflying giants patrol 24 square feet of open space. Getting to the net, never mind scoring (NHL teams averaged 2.71 goals per game in 2015-16, fewest in the 11 post-lockout seasons), is like dreaming about crossing the Sagamore Bridge when you’re raging at the Dorchester gas tank.

Fixing summertime Cape traffic is a lost cause. I refuse to acknowledge similar defeat in the pursuit of freeing the offensive zone.


I’ve been wondering whether principles of reducing traffic congestion could help transform the 6,375 square feet of ice between the blue line and end boards into something other than the Jakku quicksand that claimed Poe Dameron’s TIE fighter. Some experts believe it’s possible.

TJ Likens is a transportation engineer based in Lansing, Mich., at Bergmann Associates, an architecture and engineering firm. Through his professional prism, Likens views vehicle traffic as a relationship between speed and density. On a free-flowing highway, speed and density are in synch. When congestion increases, it reaches a point called critical density, where driving at a cool 65 miles per hour becomes a cruel joke.

Critical density — I’m not referring to the moronic offside challenge — is also taking place in the NHL. Factors include bigger players, defensive emphasis, and fixed dimensions. Offensive momentum regularly screeches to a stop when opponents fall into net-protecting formation.

“It’s not a problem of speed. The speed is there,” Likens said. “But scoring and front of the net play — between the dots, blocking shots — from that perspective, if I’m looking at it as an engineer, I want to identify the problem and come up with a solution.”


Likens understands roads and rinks. He is also an NCAA referee who works NCHC games. Likens knows that coaches demand stout play in front of the net and in shooting lanes.

As much as it’s stressed in college hockey, it’s a way of life in the NHL. Whether teams play zone or man-to-man defense, the top priority is constructing a perimeter around the front of the net. It’s where the best scoring chances take place. It’s also the locus of bottlenecks that, were it on a highway, would be subject to change.

From a traffic perspective, engineers consider mechanisms such as speed limits and traffic controls to encourage uniformity and better flow. Likens believes that on-ice changes should also be studied to open the zone.

For example, the NHL could look at a three-second lane violation, similar to that in basketball. Defenders could no longer spend entire shifts parked in front of the net. If they did, the attacking team would go on the power play. It would be somewhat akin to keeping slow-moving cars out of the fast lane.

Another change that Likens and some of his fellow officials have thrown around is making it easier for attacking teams to stay onside. If a team gains a clean entry over the offensive blue line, the play would remain onside even if the defenders clear the zone. It would only be offside if the defending team pushed the puck back over the red line.


“That would change how offenses could potentially set up and stretch defenses,” Likens said. “That could draw out that congestion. The parallels are what I’d do in planning and engineering. In this case, you have to look at the controls — speed limits and traffic signals being the rules of the road. With the rules of the game, I do think there’s got to be something we can do to make change that will positively impact scoring.”

In engineering, a simple while costly method to address congestion is to increase capacity. Traffic on a three-lane highway would flow better if the roadway expanded to four. The equivalent would be expanding the rink from its 85-foot width. Proponents of wider rinks believe it would promote more open ice.

Likens doesn’t agree. Coaches would still emphasize net-front thoroughness. Likens compares it to widening service roads next to the highway instead of the highway itself.

“The problem is the front of the net,” Likens said. “Maybe it might stretch out the zone a little bit. You could set up a little differently. Coaches would develop strategies like the overload. But I have a hard time feeling like 10 extra feet around the perimeter is going to change the game that much.”

Bill Schultheiss, principal engineer at Toole Design Group in Silver Spring, Md., believes drivers’ range of skill contributes to congestion. Traffic slows and accidents happen because one driver’s reaction time is slower than another’s.

One solution communities have adopted is creating dedicated lanes to better drivers. For example, only buses and freight haulers can use a specific lane because of training and rules that govern their drive times.


“Roads have proven to be safer when you reduce the mix of vehicles,” Schultheiss said. “Same with bus-only lanes and professional drivers. There’s less speed variability. That’s proven to work pretty well.”

I struggled to arrive at a comparable situation in hockey. It wouldn’t be practical to limit certain areas of the ice to bigger, smarter, or faster players. The exception, of course, would be restricting former Boston College slugs from entering spaces that belong to alums from the better side of Commonwealth Ave.

But my conversations with problem-solvers away from hockey led me to solutions I hadn’t considered. Thinking outside the rink isn’t a bad thing.


Calgary missed on perfect fit

Bruce Boudreau, who is now heading to the Wild, would have been the best prospect at maximizing a Calgary roster that Bob Hartley could not.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/File

By Nov. 28, 2011, when his run in Washington ended, Bruce Boudreau had helped to place John Carlson on a trajectory of becoming a good three-zone defenseman. Under Boudreau’s watch in Anaheim, Cam Fowler scored a five-year, $20 million second contract. Fowler’s deal will be the baseline for what awaits fellow offensive-minded defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen, both restricted on July 1.

The development of the four defensemen shows what Boudreau could have done with Dougie Hamilton had Minnesota not locked up the ex-Anaheim coach.

On Tuesday, three days after Anaheim sacked Boudreau, the Flames said goodbye to Bob Hartley. Calgary general manager Brad Treliving insisted Hartley’s dismissal did not have anything to do with a potential replacement becoming available.


If the Flames had interest in Boudreau, the Wild made sure he never got to Calgary for an interview.

Hamilton struggled upon arriving from Boston. It took months for Hamilton to adjust to Hartley’s man-to-man system after playing three years of zone defense.

By the time Hamilton gained traction, it was too late for the Flames. He finished the season with 12 goals and 31 assists while playing just 19:46 per game, fifth among team defensemen after TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Kris Russell, and Dennis Wideman. There is no way a player of Hamilton’s skill should have been playing so little. Nor should he and his fellow defensemen have been chasing the puck.

The Flames made the playoffs in 2014-15 despite being the league’s third-worst possession team. They only climbed to No. 21 in 2015-16.

“In today’s game, you need to have the puck,” Treliving told Calgary reporters on Tuesday. “You have to work like [heck] to get it. When you get it, you’ve got to hold on to it. You’ve got to play with it.”

Boudreau’s teams have always pushed the pace, which would complement Hamilton’s strengths. This year, Anaheim had the league’s best defense, allowing just 2.29 goals per game. Boudreau can coach both sides of the game.

Treliving will be busy this summer. He needs a No. 1 goalie. He’ll have to sign Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to expensive extensions. Treliving needs help behind the bench. It will have to be someone other than Boudreau.


Coyotes display some courage

Dave Tippett signed a five-year extension with the Coyotes last week.Billy Hurst/Associated Press/File

Other GMs consider Dave Tippett one of the NHL’s better coaches. Tippett, who’s been behind the Coyotes bench for the last seven seasons, instructs his charges to play with good defensive structure. He’s given captain Shane Doan the long leash he’s earned, developed Oliver Ekman-Larsson into one of the league’s best 200-foot defensemen, and helped introduce Anthony Duclair and Max Domi to the NHL.

Tippett would have zero trouble finding work if he left the desert. That Tippett signed a five-year extension with a franchise forever questioning its future underscores the veteran’s confidence, not just in the organization but in his ability to identify talent.

On Thursday, Arizona announced the promotion of assistant GM John Chayka to the big chair. Chayka, 26, becomes the youngest GM in the NHL. At the same time, the Coyotes gave Tippett the added title of executive vice president of hockey operations to accompany his new contract.

NHL coaches are regularly in contact with their GMs in terms of roster management. But it’s unusual for coaches to have direct input on player personnel. Patrick Roy is the only other coach who has the additional title of vice president of hockey operations. It hasn’t led to results in Colorado.

“The vision, from ownership to John to the new management team moving forward, were huge factors in the decision to sign a new contract,” Tippett told Arizona reporters on Thursday. “To see the excitement within the organization of where it’s going, it’s an honor to be part of that. I feel I bring some coaching experience, experience of being in the league as a player, and in minor league management.”

Only time will tell whether Tippett and Chayka can make things work where Roy and Avalanche GM Joe Sakic have fallen short. But at least the Coyotes are trying something different. Financially, the franchise doesn’t have the resources to compete with the California powerhouses. So they have to look for new ideas, identify inefficiencies, and approach the game through a different and nontraditional angle of allowing the coach to shop for the groceries. Credit the Coyotes for having the courage to do so.

Red Wings should consider Houda

The Red Wings are searching for an assistant coach to run the defense and penalty kill after losing Tony Granato to the University of Wisconsin. Former Bruins assistant Doug Houda would be a good candidate. The Wings picked Houda in the second round of the 1984 NHL Draft. On Oct. 8, 1998, Detroit GM Ken Holland acquired Houda from Anaheim for a ninth-round pick. Houda played 172 of his 561 NHL games as a Wing. Aside from his Detroit ties, Houda has coached defensemen for the last 10 years. He has the experience Holland is seeking and gets along well with his players. Houda deserves to stay in the league.

Penguins hit gold with Murray

Matt Murray’s NHL résumé has fewer than 25 games. The second-year pro, who has been a playoff sensation, made only 13 regular-season appearances before assuming Pittsburgh’s net in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. Although Murray’s NHL sample size is limited, his play, in conjunction with his AHL and junior results, is allowing the Penguins to project him as an ace. Through seven playoff starts, Murray had a .944 save percentage. It’s in line with his .930 regular-season performance, the .931 he posted in 31 AHL appearances, and the .941 he recorded in 40 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2014-15. Murray’s future wasn’t as clear when the Penguins picked him in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft. He was coming off an .876 save percentage in 36 games for Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL. In comparison, Malcolm Subban had a .923 save percentage in 39 games for Belleville the same year. But the Penguins believed Murray was worth a third-round pick. So far, Murray, the 10th goalie picked in 2012, looks like a more bankable puck-stopper than Subban, Andrei Vasilevskiy, or former Providence College goalie Jon Gillies, all taken before him. Murray is proof that teams can find high-end goalies in later rounds.

Yzerman’s patience paying off

It would have been easy for Steve Yzerman to boot Jonathan Drouin off his roster in February. The second-year pro gave the Tampa Bay GM headaches, from a trade demand to refusal to report to an AHL game following a demotion. Drouin repeatedly proved to the Lightning he was not worthy of belonging to an organization that fell two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup last year. But Yzerman did the right thing by analyzing the situation logically, not emotionally. Yzerman recognized that offers for Drouin were pennies on the dollar because of his damaged-goods status. It would have made little sense to trade Drouin just for the sake of saying good riddance.

So with Steven Stamkos unavailable through two rounds because of a blood clot, Drouin has announced his presence by being the go-to player the Lightning projected the former No. 3 overall pick would become. Through eight games, Drouin had one goal and seven assists while averaging 16:55 of ice time. Differences with the coach usually prompt players to want out. But if Drouin keeps producing, Jon Cooper will not have any issues tapping No. 27 for regular shifts.

Tribute for Hanson

Ex-Knights will gather at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on May 20 to honor Bill Hanson. The former Catholic Memorial coach led his team to 17 state championships. Tickets are $100. Proceeds will benefit the Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation and the Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund. Bavis and Peter Trovato, who launched the Soldiers Legacy Fund, played for Hanson at CM. Tickets are available here.

Loose pucks

The Bruins will consider upgrades at right wing via trades and free agency. Internally, they will consider Brian Ferlin as a bottom-six right-side possibility. Ferlin played in only 23 games for Providence in 2015-16 because of post-concussion syndrome. Ferlin, who turns 24 on June 3, doesn’t project to have NHL scoring touch. But he can grind on the walls and play responsibly in the defensive zone . . . Old friend Johnny Boychuk is in the first season of a six-year, $42 million contract. One year in, it’s not looking friendly for the Islanders long term. Boychuk, a possession monster in Boston and during his first season on Long Island, dipped to a 48.6 percent Corsi For rating in 2015-16. Boychuk hasn’t been much better in the playoffs, playing at a 44 percent rate in five-on-five situations. Boychuk is 32 years old . . . Even though Dallas goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi do not qualify as Grade A, the Stars’ defense has not given them much help against the Blues. Dallas GM Jim Nill has an opportunity to upgrade his blue line this summer, when Alex Goligoski, Kris Russell, Jason Demers, and Jordie Benn become unrestricted.

Perfect storm

It was 10 years ago that the underestimated Hurricanes beat the Oilers in one of the unlikeliest Stanley Cup Final matchups for the franchise’s first (and only) championship. How Carolina did it is a great example of a team making smart adjustments in preparation for a postseason run. Here are five roster changes in 2006 that paid off with a title:

Compiled by Sean Smith

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.