“Bruised like crazy on my arms.” Those words, spoken by Philadelphia Flyers goalie Brian Elliott on Oct. 8, became a microcosm of many stoppers’ seasons. The NHL’s new streamlined goaltending equipment, contoured closer to the upper body, had Elliott feeling the effect of every puck that struck him. A day after he expressed his distaste for the new gear’s safety standards: a career-worst eight-goal shelling at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
We’re not picking on Elliott. Through early November, goalies had combined for a .909 save percentage, the lowest in 10 years. The league averaged 6.18 goals per game, the most since 1995-96. Part of the surge in offense began last year with the NHL’s crackdown on slashing, which slightly increased power-play frequency and gave high-skill players more space to work.
This season, we’re seeing the most power plays per game since 2010-11, but the additional surge in barnburner offense correlates with goalie pad reduction, which commenced with shrinking the pants and leg padding midway through 2016-17. To summarize the small print in this season’s new guidelines: various elements of goalies’ shoulder, elbow, bicep, forearm, chest and clavicle pads have been reduced. In some cases, that means an inch. In others, it means flattening the gear so it doesn’t protrude past a certain measurement.
The changes have produced some shocking on-pace stats. Among skaters with 10 or more games, 12 were scoring at a better than a 50-goal pace to start 2018-19. But all the fun also left many stoppers battered. “If goalies were saying now that the reduced equipment is just leading to more goals against and they don’t like it, I don’t think that’s enough to raise alarm bells, but we’ve gone from a somewhat legitimate policy to alleviate a legitimate concern about goalies being too big, and we’ve now implemented this policy before ensuring goalies would remain safe while they tend net,” said Octagon agent and co-managing director Allan Walsh, whose clients include Marc-Andre Fleury and Jaroslav Halak.
Walsh has been as vocal as anyone in the sport on social media about his concerns. He believes it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured. He says goalies tell him their arms are covered in welts, that their clavicles and Adam’s apples are exposed, that they’ve had to change their practice habits to reduce the number of shots they take. Part of the problem, he explains, is the goalies received their new up-to-standard equipment so late in the off-season that they didn’t have time to properly test it and get comfortable in it.
Retired NHL goalie Kay Whitmore, now the league’s vice-president of hockey operations, oversees all equipment changes. He declined to comment for this story because he said he didn’t want to rehash a bunch of sound bites from the first week of the season and felt the NHL, NHL Players’ Association and players had made significant progress by month’s end. Despite the safety concerns, the rollout is not completely disastrous. Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA’s special assistant to the executive director, fiercely defends Whitmore and insists he has stayed in constant contact with NHL goaltenders, sponging up their feedback.
Schneider also dispels a few myths. For one: goalies are allowed to work with their equipment manufacturers to alter their equipment as long as the reinforcements still follow the required measurements. “Guys think, ‘I’ve got my gear, this is it, I’m stuck with it, I’ve got to just get used to it,’ but that’s not the case,” Schneider said. “We don’t want guys to be taking shots off their collarbone or clavicle. We don’t want guys coming off practice with their arms being bruised. That should not be happening, and we’re working to try and make fixes for that.”
Schneider also points out that, because every manufacturer is different, with some smaller companies producing their pads locally versus others that ship all the way from China, there was no chance of every netminder receiving his gear at the same time. He also doesn’t think getting it in June versus September would’ve made any difference. “The challenging part to introducing a new piece of equipment like this is that it’s next to impossible to simulate an NHL season,” he said. “Guys can wear stuff in the off-season and play with it and train, but it’s never the same as getting into training camp, getting into the regular season, the day-to-day grind of practices and playing. And a layer on top of that is that this is a piece of equipment where you may have goalies who have played with the same chest protector for five, six, seven, eight years.”
Washington’s Braden Holtby says he’s more banged up than before but feels he can handle it. He isn’t flinching or afraid. Goalies know their job is to get rubber shot at them for a living, he says, and he believes Whitmore has communicated with goaltenders well to help them make modifications.
Holtby’s issue is the fact goalies are the target for so many changes, that the equipment is shrinking “because a few guys think goalies are too big,” and he’s frustrated that he has to change gear just when he gets comfortable. A lot of the modifications make the equipment bend and move differently, which can affect athleticism and even sightlines, he says.
And when it comes to safety, Holtby wonders if the problem lies beyond goalie equipment. “My main concern is stick technology keeps get harder and harder every year, and goalie equipment seems to be going the other way, forced to go the other way, be it the pants a couple years ago and now upper body,” he said. “If we’re going to keep wearing these, then I’d like to see some way to monitor what the stick technology is, because if the trend keeps going this way, it’s going to get real dangerous.”
When Holtby debuted, every team had two or three deadly shooters, but now he feels every single guy on the ice can wire the puck thanks to his stick. It’s one more possible explanation for all the pucks popping twine this season. It’s also another threat to goalies’ welfare.
The league, players and manufacturers are working hard to fix things on the fly. The question is: will a previously routine save put a stopper on the sidelines before they do?