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Dan Boyle: NHL should bring back the red line

"There's just so many good, young hockey players out there now," says longtime NHL defenseman Dan Boyle. "I just wish more of them could be allowed to make plays.'' Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Dan Boyle's impressive NHL career is an interesting tale of both where the game has been and gone. He loves the game. He wants it to thrive. He wants fans to enjoy it. And because of that, the defenseman worries for it again today almost just as much as he did when he entered the league, undrafted, in the late 1990s during the heyday of the clutch and grab.

"When I started, you wanted the big defenseman that could hold up and chip the puck out," Boyle, who announced his retirement last Wednesday, told ESPN.com. "There was no room for the smaller guy because it was too physical of a game. Then they take out the red line and everyone is going to fly, everyone is going to wheel.''

Those post-2005 lockout years were fun for a while, as rule changes -- such as no longer using the red line to prevent teams from making two-line passes -- helped open the game.

"But obviously coaches evolve, and the game evolves," said Boyle, a puck-moving magician during his 17 years in the NHL. "And now, in today's game, you've got guys -- top guys included -- all blocking shots, breaking hands, breaking ankles. You've got coaches wanting everyone to flip the puck in, dump the puck in.

"And the play that I hated the most in the post-red line era is when teams set up behind their own net and fire these long bombs to the forward at the opposite blueline, who just puts his blade out and then the puck is in the other zone. And nothing happens. I hated that. If there's a red line there, it forces the D-man to make a play. I am one of those guys who would love to see the red line back.''

It just so happens this is exactly what hockey's greatest defenseman believes too. For a few years now, including in his 2013 autobiography, Bobby Orr has espoused the belief that the red line needs to be reinstated, not just for the reasons Boyle brought up, but also because of safety concerns. Orr points to the fact that the game is faster than ever and feels it's become dangerous because of it due to the the speed through the neutral zone and the kind of hits players are taking at that velocity.

Putting the red line back in, perhaps, would not only force defensemen to make higher-end passing plays again (and maybe create turnovers in the process), but also slow the game down a bit. In fact, Orr feels the red-line should be restored at the youth hockey level so that defensemen develop the ability to make passing plays through the neutral zone.

There's no question that the game is faster than ever, and the players arguably more skilled then ever. But are they being allowed to use most of that skill?

"Right now, where the game is, is get the puck out of your zone as soon as possible and get it in the other zone as soon as possible. Don't make plays, don't go across ice, just get it in,'' said Boyle. "There are so many skilled players in the league today, but the game at times now is robotic. The neutral zone has been eliminated.''

Somewhere between the start of his career during the dead puck era and today's game, there were years in which Boyle says the sport was more fun to watch for fans.

"There was a very good game somewhere in between the clutch-and-grab when I started and the new era now," said the 40-year-old Ottawa native. "The most exciting five minutes of hockey I've ever seen as the overtime between Sweden and Team North America (at the World Cup last month). Now coaches don't want to play that way because it's breakaway after breakaway. I'm not saying we should go Globetrotter-hockey and go crazy. I'm just saying from talking to teammates and ex-teammates, guys want to make plays.''

Boyle then paused. As always, his passion for the game comes through. He's grateful for everything it has given him. He feels so privileged to have played in the NHL. But he's coming at this from the angle of a guy who just wants the game to be as entertaining as possible for fans.

"There's just so many good, young hockey players out there now," Boyle said. "I just wish more of them could be allowed to make plays.''

Don't get him wrong: Boyle strongly believes in situational play, that it's important to understand who's on the ice and who you're playing against. There are times, such as when you're protecting a lead late in a period or a game, when it's the right call to chip it in off the glass and get it deep in a safe area. He just feels the entire 60 minutes shouldn't be played that way.

And again, he stressed that he's coming at this from a fan's perspective -- which, for all intents and purposes, he is now that he's retired.

It seems to me that the NHL could use his experience and his mind for the game. But for now, Boyle is going to lay low as he builds a home in the San Jose area and enjoys life with his wife and two daughters.

"I don't see myself doing anything (in hockey) for a while. How long is a while? I don't know. I'm not going to jump right back into it," said Boyle. "I don't have any plans. I love the game, I think I'll be associated with it somehow down the road, I don't know where and how.''

A Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist, Boyle reflects on something that makes him smile.

"Kris Letang, when he was younger, and Drew Doughty, they each came up to me and said I was the guy that they emulated,'' said Boyle. "Just like I would have told Brian Leetch, had I met him when I was young. But that means the world to me, that I would have left that impression on two of the best defensemen in the game today.''

Now, if only they could be allowed to make more plays, right?