(Source: Yahoo Sports) – “The subject that no one wants to go to right now. The last resort,” said the Nashville Predators general manager. “The bigger nets.” Through 215 games, the NHL is averaging 5.32 goals per game played. Last season ended with a 5.46 goals per game played average. In 2009-10, it was at 5.53 goals per game. There’s again concern that the NHL is stuck in an offensive mire. The goalies are too big for the nets, they say, whether in body mass or in the size of their protective gear. So there have been calls, including from Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, to increase the size of the nets.
We’ve all been hearing the chatter. Whether it’s from the guy next to you on a barstool or from highly paid hockey analysts on TV; the NHL needs more scoring.
The NFL went through this scenario years ago when they felt the need to draw larger audiences and make a more entertaining product for television. No one cared to tune in to a 10-7 ground and pound football game anymore. They changed the rules around so much we are to the point where a lot of people think you can’t play any defense in the NFL today. Now the NHL faces a similar dilemma.
Back in 1995, before the big body armor goalie era, the New Jersey Devils won their first of three Stanley Cups by introducing and implementing a new suffocating defensive style game known as “the trap”. They clogged up the neutral zone, made the game slow, and bored everyone to death on their way to a championship. After that season more and more teams started utilizing either a trap-like system or at the very least put more emphasis on defensively accountable ways of playing that over time was honed and became the norm in the NHL. This started driving scoring totals down. To give you an idea, in 1995-1996 Mario Lemieux led the NHL in points that season with 161. Last season, Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn led the NHL in points with 87. Not only is that nearly half the amount Lemieux had, but I specifically named which team Benn plays for out of fear casual hockey fans who read this blog don’t know who he is but at least now know where he plays. It just shows that the NHL’s current stars don’t have those eye popping numbers people like to see, or are even impressed by.
After the defensive philosophical changes took hold league wide the next development that progressed in the NHL was the introduction over time of increasingly larger and lighter goalie gear taking up more and more net to the point where goaltenders now look like Transformers:
So now here we are today with one of the most talked about solutions to increase goal scoring in the NHL; make the nets bigger. My take? Don’t do it.
Shrink the goalie gear back to where it was. In previous eras goalies wore form fitting jerseys that were snug to their equipment and body. They didn’t wear bat suit style jersey’s that hung to their thigh. The chest and arm protectors didn’t protrude way out beyond their natural frame like the Henrik Lundqvist picture above either. Leg pads didn’t come way up over the knee to close the five hole when you dropped into a butterfly position. Essentially, goalies used to resemble cricket players more than how we know them to look today:
Combine the massive increase in equipment size and technology with the fact that goaltenders are now formally trained and have far superior technique than ever before and it’s easy to see why scoring is down so much. The goalies take up too much net, are more skilled, and now the team in front of them is making blocking shots a priority while playing tight checking hockey.
Defensive systems aren’t going away. Players are going to continue to get more skilled and more athletic. But shrinking the goalie equipment to the form fitting style of old can be done easily and will improve scoring. No one comes down the wing and rips a slapper like the one Brett Hull patented back in the 90’s when he scored 86 goals in one season because there’s no more net to shoot at. In fact, most goalies today are taught to be “economical” as they say. Meaning, they’re already taking up so much more net than before that it’s more about playing angle percentages, i.e. “if I’m square to the puck when it’s in area XYZ on the ice, with my size, more likely than not the shot should hit me somewhere and not go in.” I heard Mathew Barnaby say on NHL Radio recently that NHL scouts looking at goalies coming up through the ranks today don’t really consider them as much if they’re not at least 6’2″. Throw massive body armor on that frame and you see the problem. The athletic Dominik Hasek and Tim Thomas style is gone. Hasek initially came up in the high scoring era of small equipment. His freakish 165-pound athleticism was necessary then. Today? Just “get big” and let the puck hit you. There’s no where else to shoot.
I think another major reason to shrink goalie gear over increasing the net size is that making nets bigger would cost more and could really hurt the sport if the concept fails. First, it would require nets to be bigger at all levels of hockey so that coming up through the ranks development is a uniform process. For instance, if the NBA went to 11 foot hoops because the slam dunk is now no longer a uniquely impressive or entertaining then they’d need to raise the rim height at all levels too. It’d be extremely costly and time consuming to make the bigger net size change globally. And if changing the net size didn’t help, or back fired horribly, you’ve wasted absurd amounts of money and ruined your sport. They’re already making new goalie equipment every day. Altering measurements and sizes would be a natural, simple, and instant fix.
Goalie gear never had to get this big in the first place. But when it started no one foresaw how far it would go and how much it would change scoring in the NHL. The league and players union created the problem and let it go on too long. Today’s equipment technology is so good goaltenders will remain safe, lighter, and just as agile by shrinking the gear. And the on ice product will improve even more. So let’s see that change made before we even consider a change in net size. I want my 150 point guys back. Make it happen, NHL.