Lately, there’s been a series of debates that are argued like politics among hockey fans, analysts, coaches, players, and media moguls at large:
How can the NHL increase scoring?
Scoring was at a disappointing low last year; Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn only put up 87 points across his full 82-game season, Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin’s 53 goals were a league-wide anomaly, and the Arizona Coyotes’ highest scoring player (defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson) only netted 23 goals.
This year, scoring is still low; teams are averaging (as of November 15th) 2.68 goals for and 2.51 goals against per game, the lowest since the 2001-2002 season (2.62 GF, 2.51 GA). That was the height of the dead puck era.
Combine that with all-time high save percentages for goaltenders (.915 unadjusted in all situations through November 15th, identical to last season), and the media en masse — with the help of a few widely heard league voices — decided this was making hockey boring; with the fear of decreased viewership and lost interest from new fans, the crusade for a solution to decreased scoring began in earnest.
Putting aside the fact that the NHL’s recent social standard gaffes probably lost the league more viewers than a dip in goals scored by top players on each and every team, there’s something to be said for the league having its first big debate in over a year that centres on something that can actually be changed with tangible on-ice alterations. The debates about fighting last year went in circles, and the voices shouting into the void about social progression for the NHL will only change the product offered on the ice in the sense that a small percentage of players currently on active rosters maybe wouldn’t be if things were different. While I find both of those arguments extremely important, it’s also nice to see a debate that’s actually grounded in both a tangible issue people want to address and tangible, precise changes being proposed.
The problem? A lot of the changes proposed that seem to be gaining the most traction are focused on goaltenders, and they’re all pretty ridiculous.
The Dud Proposals
I don’t know what the solution is to improving the NHL product but I do know everybody hates every idea.
— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) November 10, 2015
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsBefore we get into the various proposals being made to alter goaltending, it’s only fair to point out that a number of non-goaltender changes were proposed as well — they were just even stupider than the proposals being made to change things in net.
good lord log off pic.twitter.com/YPTNu3Aus0
— Scott T. (@NHLFlyera) November 4, 2015
There was a bit of bitching about ‘era bias’ overriding our reasoning when it came to proposals like this one, but I’m not really going to spend much time looking at this. Yes, hockey was once played with a similarly rigid positional structure; hockey was also once played without helmets, too, bro.
Dave Keon’s first season in the NHL, the highest scoring defenseman on the Toronto Maple Leafs was nine goal scorer Allan Stanley. The rest of the team’s defense COMBINED only scored ten goals — and that was a playoff team. Any proposal that suggests Marian Hossa shouldn’t play below his own blue line is wrong.
Scoring is an issue. But the bigger issue is the games are just … dull. A 2-1 game can be exciting. The 2-1 games we’re getting are not.
— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) November 10, 2015
This was tweeted the same night that the Nashville Predators and the Ottawa Senators had a 7-5 game; since then, we’ve had a line brawl (again featuring the Predators, who are hell bent on proving Gretz wrong), close to a goalie fight (again, hello Pekka Rinne), and more goals from Arizona Coyotes rookies that have no business being scored ever. So, whatever.
The 3 Goaltending Change Proposals
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsWith the somewhat unanimous decision that forcing skaters to change is unrealistic and kind of dumb, though, came the shift to where we are now: watching the masses pick apart goaltending to determine what can be changed enough to increase scoring from an in-net perspective. Three changes that have been offered up as possibilities have kind of stuck; shrinking goal posts, shrinking goaltender equipment, and increasing the size of nets. They’re all kind of equally stupid and unrealistic, but they’ve all somehow managed to gain traction — and it’s not just dumb, it’s kind of dangerous, too.
Change #1: Shrinking Goal Posts
As I said before, approximately 3000 shots off goalposts and crossbars last season. https://t.co/6aMpihJn3i
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) November 14, 2015
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsPutting aside the fact that Colorado’s current record suggests that listening to Patrick Roy is probably a bad idea, this is probably the most realistic of all the options — and it’s also the one that has the potential to make the least impact (which brings us back to square one).
Goal posts are curved in a perfect cylinder shape; every shot that hits either the post or the crossbar has three general directions it can deflect in; making it bigger or smaller won’t change that, because that’s a geometric fact. I drew a helpful diagram to illustrate this: This is sloppily done by a computer-illiterate me, so the angles are stupid and I’m aware. The point is clear, though; empirically, one third of all shots off the post have a likelihood of going in, while another third actually produce rebound opportunities that provide a shooter with a second potential scoring attempt. Making it smaller could actually increase the risk of a shooter missing the net altogether — unless we’re planning on making the net itself bigger as well, since goaltending technique now makes it much harder to see those shots deflected inwards off the post go anywhere but the goaltender’s pads. It’s an option, but it’s a weird one that may or may not yield actual results.
Change #2: Shrinking Goaltender Equipment
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsIn Goal Mag’s Clare Austin (known on Twitter and her personal blog as Puckologist) pointed out very quickly: in order to shrink goaltending equipment enough to tangibly increase scoring, goaltenders themselves would likely be put at risk.
Some suggested that goaltenders change the way that they play in order to adapt to the significantly smaller equipment; with drastically decreased pad size, goaltenders would likely have to either limit the number of butterfly saves they made or eliminate butterfly from their game altogether. Let me refer you back to the suggestion that Marian Hossa stop playing two-way hockey; suggesting that goaltenders revert back to stand-up hockey, I promise you, isn’t going to make the game more interesting to watch.
Goaltending pads have already been sized down in recent years (something pointed out by current Bakersfield Condors goaltender Ben Scrivens back in August, who observed that his pads now are the same size his wife wore in college — and they’re five inches different in height), and scoring has still gone down. Mike McKenna tweeted out a helpful visual to show us how the current NHL regulation pads look compared to junior regulation pads:
Comparison: my 35.35″ max height pad (per NHL regs) compared to USHL goalie’s 38″ pad. I’m 6’2″. He’s 6′. pic.twitter.com/7BQDF00QiO
— Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) August 30, 2015
Of course, that’s just the pads. I had a Twitter follower point out to me that his biggest issue (no pun intended) isn’t with the size of goaltender pads in the first place — it’s with blockers, gloves, and lacrosse pads/oversized pants.
Yeah; until Shea Weber’s slapshot gets significantly slower, no goaltender is going to relinquish the added protection they’ve been granted in recent years without a giant fuss. Skaters block shots maybe one to three times a game, and a handful of them every year break bones doing so; suggesting goalie equipment be modified to mimick skater equipment is laughable. You might as well take out the goaltender altogether and start playing ice basketball.
Jamie McLennan did suggest that goaltender equipment be adapted to be more form-fitting without losing it’s protective nature, proposing that the equipment makers find a way to make this happen. When they do that, we can re-visit this as an option. For now, it’s just a theory.
Change #3: Making Nets Bigger
Patrick Roy has also endorsed this one, so I want to hate it — but so has Mike Babcock, who argues that goaltenders keep getting bigger. Borrowing the transcribed quote from Gretz’s article via CBS Sports’ Eye on Hockey:
“It’s impossible to score,” Babcock said. “All you gotta do is a math equation. You go to 1980 when the puck went in the net. You get the average size of the goalies in the NHL and the average size of the net. You keep growing the net bigger, that would make the game the same. We change the game every year because we don’t want to change the game. The net’s too small for the size of the goalies. Period. We can talk all we want, we still get quality, quality chances every night, the goals don’t go in. The goalies are too good for the size of the net.”
When asked a follow-up question about wanting to see a standard for what goalie intereference is, he responded with this:
“It is defined. You’re not allowed to bump them. But how do you score if you don’t bump them? We can do two-on-one drills in practice until the cows come home but the puck doesn’t go in the net. Why? Because they’re big, and they’re square, and they’re good.”
Babcock calls the reasoning for making nets bigger “a math equation”, but he also uses a word that a lot of people are ignoring: good. Goaltenders, he’s arguing, are both too big and too good to play in the nets that they do.
In theory, this is the option that holds the most traction — although goaltender Mike McKenna pointed out during the 2014-2015 season that this is a hard option to implement in practice. He tweeted out:
“RE: bigger nets. Silly to suggest AHL should be guinea pig: 1) goalies/shooters will be negatively affected upon recall. 2) Have to practice with same as game. Practice arenas often have outdated nets; we see this now. No incentive to buy. 3) AHL and NHL arena floors are made to accept posts that are 6 feet apart. Can’t change that without re-piping; HUGE expense.
The only option for increasing size of nets is to change shape of posts. I’m fine with that. But going past 6 feet isn’t logistically realistic.”
There’s also the fact that there’s only 11 feet of space in between each goal post and the end boards on current NHL rinks, per official rink dimensions; in theory, there’s not a whole lot of extra room on North American rinks to make nets bigger by enough to tangibly increase scoring.
You’d want to see the nets big enough that a goaltender can’t feasibly make the lateral stretch from one post to the other with his toe in time to make the majority of low saves, and that could mean adding anywhere from six inches to a foot of extra width to the post. It may work on international ice — there’s 13 feet of space from post to end board per those rink dimensions — but it’s still something that would take some tinkering to find an effective alteration, and McKenna points out that that’s costly. If this is the change that’s ultimately made, the league needs to be sure they’re making it for good before they do it.
Ignoring the Real Reasons
When reading arguments about goaltenders being too big and nets being too small, one would think that goaltenders wear sumo suits in front of nets the size of mailboxes; the harsh reality of it, though, is that scoring isn’t down because goaltenders are getting too bulky.
Instead, they’re just getting too good.
Braden Holtby, goaltender for the Washington Capitals, partakes in a bizarre and regimented routine nearly every day to work on his eyesight tracking; in Montreal, Carey Price’s training places heavy emphasis on tracking and positioning to simplify his first saves and eliminate wasted movement. Sites like In Goal Mag break down single saves to point out how goaltenders are taught to square to the shot, where to place their skate in relation to the post, when to use techniques like reverse vertical-horizontal, pad stacks, poke checks, butterfly, and post hugs.
The bottom line is what forwards often think about when it comes to a goaltender — they just need to know whether the shot went in or not — isn’t the whole story. Goaltenders themselves are evolving to catch up to skaters; technique is being focused on and refined more and more often, and that’s impacting the number of saves made more than the size of equipment.
There are other factors influencing scoring, as well — maybe more so than anything with goaltender equipment at all.
The number of skilled skaters in the league is going up, which is decreasing the number of mismatches that could potentially occur on the ice. Defensemen are playing a heavier possession game than before, leaving their own zone rather than simply blocking shots around the net — which seems like it would bring scoring up, but actually pulls the puck into the neutral zone more than before (which decreases scoring chances on the net initially being skated towards). The salary cap has started to level the playing field, and teams use two-goaltender systems now instead of riding one netminder through the season. That’s resting goaltenders more, offering fewer opportunities to capitalize on ‘off nights’ for the guys tending net.
Goaltenders have gotten better, and the league has evolved in a way that sees a more crisply-played, evenly-matched game; it’s not the goaltending equipment that’s causing scoring to drop, at least not by enough to make a noticeable difference should it be what we choose to change.
The biggest argument to shut down complaints about the goaltender being harder to score on for equipment reasons was made last week by Vancouver Province reporter Jason Botchford. He pointed out that in 3 vs. 3 overtime, the Canucks have seen five of six contests decided before heading to a shootout — and starter Ryan Miller’s save percentage is a .614 in that situation. “If goalie equipment was really the issue, why is it so easy to score during the 3-on-3 format?” he argued — and honestly, he’s kind of right.
Why Is It Still Being Discussed, Then?
Because no one listens to goalies.