Scoring went down this season when goalies were forced into their smaller pants and that presents the NHL with something of an existential crisis.
When the NHL mandated streamlined goalie pants midway through this season, it was seen as grabbing the low-hanging fruit in an attempt to increase goal scoring. With the league, the NHL Players’ Association and the equipment manufacturers unable to come to a consensus on goalie pads and chest protectors in time for this season, the pants were viewed as an easy fix.
Well, as it turned out, streamlining goaltending pants may have actually fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences. One thing we do know is that if the NHL was looking for more goals by forcing its goalies to stop looking like circus clowns, the opposite has actually happened.
Scoring was actually up this season. That’s the good news. As my THN colleague Brian Costello tweeted Tuesday, scoring increased to 5.45 goals per game in 2016-17 from 5.34 last season. (Those scoring totals do not include the goal that is awarded to teams for winning shootouts.) In fact, the last time scoring was this high in the regular season was 2010-11. But a funny thing happened with the pants. Prior to Feb. 4, the day the NHL mandated all goalies to start wearing streamlined pants, teams were scoring an average of 5.46 goals per game. (Some goalies were wearing the new pants prior to that date.) From that date to the end of the regular season, though, scoring actually went down very slightly to 5.43 per game.
And so far in this year’s playoffs, scoring is down significantly from last spring. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams scored an average of 4.88 goals per game in the first round of the playoffs, compared to 5.02 in the first round of the playoffs in 2016. Scoring in regulation time was down even more, from 4.87 goals per game last year to 4.45 in the recently completed first round. In fact, the goals per game haven’t been this low since the Dead Puck Era, prior to the 2004-05 lockout.
So what does this tell us? Well, there could be one explanation. According to Steve Valiquette, a former NHL goalie and analyst for Madison Square Garden Network, the reduction in the size of the pants has actually been a boon to goalies who, after a very short period of adjustment, found they could move more quickly and get to pucks faster in the smaller pants.
“I remember (Devan) Dubnyk saying when he first got the pants and he said, ‘You know what? Goals are actually going to go down because we feel we can move better,’ ” Valiquette said. “That same thing happened when they brought the pads down. We used to have 12-inch pads, so when you’re standing up and you have your pads together, the puck would hit your pads off a dead angle and all of a sudden, you’ve got a long way down to get to the ice to cover the puck. And when the pads came down an inch, now we’re going down with the ‘VH’ and the reverse ‘VH’ and we’re already at the ice, so you’re not getting beaten on the initial shot and you’re all over the rebound.”
Like everyone else watching, Valiquette saw the goal Mats Zuccarello of the Rangers scored on Carey Price that went between Price’s catching glove and his pants and was tempted to think that goal might not have been scored had Price been wearing bigger pants. “At first glance you might say, ‘Bigger pants might have helped him there,’ ” Valiquette said. “But I think if you ask Carey Price, (he’d say) he brought his glove back to his hip instead of making contact down and in front and that’s more of a technical issue than it is an equipment issue.”
So even when the NHL and NHLPA finally get around to streamlining the other goaltending equipment, there might not be a discernible difference in the number of goals scored. Which might lead us to believe it’s a systemic issue in the way the game is played instead. After all, goaltenders are more athletic than they’ve ever been and if they can not only adapt to, but thrive, in smaller equipment, the game will be faced with something of an existential crisis.
Valiquette studied both the Rangers-Canadiens and Ottawa-Boston series extensively and came up with some interesting findings. The rallying cry for teams is to get traffic and screens in front of the net to take away a goaltender’s eyes, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Valiquette said in the six games in the Rangers-Canadiens series, Henrik Lundqvist faced just 10 screen shots (including deflections) and allowed no goals, while Price saw seven screens and allowed one. In the Senators-Bruins series, Craig Anderson allowed two goals on 12 screens and Tuukka Rask gave up three goals on 11 screens.
So over the course of 12 games combined, 797 minutes and 27 seconds including overtimes, those four teams took a total of 731 shots. Only 40 of those shots (5.5 percent) where the goalie was screened actually got through to the net and only six of them resulted in goals.
So if you’re looking for more goals, maybe, just maybe, reducing goaltending equipment isn’t the way to go. In fact, if the NHL wants more goals without fundamentally changing the way the game is played and called, it might want to consider actually making the equipment bigger.
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