Before we delve deep into this topic, let me begin by saying I love goalies.
My father played goal in beer leagues around Toronto until he was in his early 70s. One of my best friends from childhood grew up to beat the odds and become a professional goalie who saw the world and represented his country. I’ve enjoyed the efforts of superior talents like Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and others up close and in person in my early days watching the Maple Leafs from the press box at Scotiabank Arena.
Goaltending has been made into a near-science, with a good dose of instinct establishing the difference between those who made it to the NHL, and those who didn’t. I respect the position, and the people who play it, a great deal.
But let’s be real: we’re at the stage where great goaltending too often overshadows the other superstars of the sport. The NHL’s top netminders – including the starters for the two Stanley Cup Finalists this year, Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal’s Carey Price – can now post save percentages at or near the .940 mark on a fairly regular basis. That’s terrific for them, but not nearly as good for skating stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews, the latter of whom was the only NHLer to get close to or broach the 40-goal plateau this past regular season.
To me, someone who grew up in the Wayne Gretzky/Mike Bossy/Guy Lafleur Era of iconic goal-scorers, that’s just not good enough.
The league has tried to address the issue by cutting down on the size of goaltending equipment, but for many reasons – chiefly, safety reasons – the crackdown hasn’t had much effect. The league had a goals-per-game average of 2.74 in the 2021 campaign – the lowest number in that regard since 2016-17, when the number was 2.59.
Coaches in this league cannot teach offense in the same way they teach defense, so any gain in the goals-per-game aspect usually fades as coaches, bless their hearts, find new ways to dull down the game (normally in the guise of “cutting down mistakes”). The days of coaches like the late Pat Quinn, who always wanted to play an up-tempo, more entertaining style than many of his peers did, are long gone. Goalies, like the average human body, are only growing bigger. This issue will only get worse as the years pass.
But if the league chose to increase the nets, just by a few inches on either side and on the crossbar, something different would happen: stars like Price, Vasilevskiy and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury still would be stars, but there would be much bigger separation between them and the game’s “average” goalies. Suddenly, the sport’s top snipers would have different angles and shooting targets, and they could pick apart inferior goalies and increase the number of goals paying fans and TV watchers enjoy seeing.
Of course, some will say, “I love a good defensive game”, and that’s fine – you’ll still see defensive games with bigger nets. You just won’t see teams relying on their defense to win games as much. With bigger nets, you won’t have a situation like there is now, when only five players in the entire league had 30 or more goals this past year. Players are more talented than ever, yet somehow, their offensive output is more challenged than ever.
Other leagues and sports have undergone similar, serious changes when confronting systemic shortcomings. Major League Baseball lowered its pitching mound in 1969, after the “Year of the Pitcher” a year earlier saw 22 hurlers post earned-run averages below 2.00. And that change did not diminish the impact of pitchers that followed the change. There were Jack Morrises in the 1980s and 90s to rival the Bob Gibsons of the pre-1969 era. But MLB’s decision to even the playing field in favor of batters made the game better for it. And even today, with strikeouts skyrocketing in the league, MLB has been experimenting with – gasp! – moving the pitching mound back by 12 inches.
As league consultant Theo Epstein put it, “Fans, players and many others in the baseball community have expressed an interest in seeing more regular (ball-in-play) action on the field. Therefore, it’s important that we use the 2021 season to explore various ways to create more frequent contact – and the increased action and athleticism on display that will follow.”
Similarly, the National Basketball Association, in 1954-55, introduced the shot clock to its games. This was no small tweak; it took one of the league’s owners to fight back against a malaise that had crept into games and made it easy for teams with a lead over their opponents to go into entertainment-challenged cruise control. And the shot clock made a huge and immediate mark: In 1954, the NBA’s teams averaged a now-meager 79.5 points per game. The following season, with the shot clock in place, its teams averaged 93.1 points per game. In three years of employing the shot clock, each and every NBA squad averaged more than 100 points per game.
We also know the NHL has seriously considered bigger nets under commissioner Gary Bettman’s reign. In 2003, Bettman referenced the issues with goalie equipment, noting that, “At some point (goalie) equipment will become too cumbersome and just make the nets bigger and that will take care of any issues that anybody has about whether or not the equipment is too big or too small or whether or not we’re scoring enough goals.”
I don’t often agree with Bettman, but I have to give him and league powerbrokers credit for being willing to change course on nets and experiment with making them larger. In 2005, the NHL experimented with different net sizes, by examining three different options.
None were adapted, partially due to pushback by – surprise! – the goalies and crusty “traditionalists” of that time.
But that hasn’t stopped the issue from continuing. Indeed, one of the greatest goaltenders and hockey minds of all time, former Canadiens superstar Ken Dryden, recently published a very convincing piece in The Atlantic on the goaltending conundrum; Dryden noted, correctly, that it isn’t so much that goals-per-game are doing down (even though they are), it’s the manner in which goals are scored that has radically changed.
Where superbly skilled players like Gretzky, Lafleur and Bossy normally had singular styles and signatures for the way they scored, current stars must depend on chaos-based goals – quick-response rebounds, or hail-Mary deflections too quick for goalies to adjust their big bodies and padding to stop. I still maintain goals-per-game averages matter, as they reflect the realities of scoring in the modern era. But Dryden’s point is a great one, and sooner or later, when goalies’ bodies grow into the 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 average, the league will be confronted with this issue again.
When you tend a garden, you need to prune it on the regular to keep it looking good. A professional sport is no different. Left to its own devices, a sport almost inevitably will skew toward the defensive side. Again, that’s primarily because of the hyper-coaching that has affected all sports, but it’s also because one element has grown too powerful.
It’s time the NHL moved forward with its previous designs on making their nets bigger. They needn’t be huge, but they also shouldn’t be obsessed with protecting the status quo. Times change, bodies grow, and goalies and coaches adapt. For the style and substance of the sport, we need to be honest and brave in making changes today that will impact the quality of games tomorrow.
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