Will NHL goalies switch back to bigger pads for Olympics?

With new NHL rules frozen, guess what that means? Goalie pads won’t have to be reduced to their new NHL standards for the Olympics.

In 2012-13, at 5.31 goals per game, the NHL had its stingiest season since 2003-04. This past off-season, the league set out to bolster offense via some high-profile rule changes. The adjustments included making nets shallower and, most notably, reducing goalie pad height.

It’s an interesting revelation approaching the 2014 Sochi Games, because the IIHF has confirmed to THN it will not carry over any of the NHL’s new 2013-14 rules for the tournament. As IIHF communications director Szymon Szemberg explained, certain teams qualified for these Olympics playing with one set of rules before the NHL’s changes, so it wouldn’t make sense to subject those teams to a new set of rules in Sochi.

With new NHL rules frozen, guess what that means? Goalie pads won’t have to be reduced to their new NHL standards for the Olympics. “There will be goalies in the Olympics who are not NHLers,” Szemberg said. “Say the IIHF would adopt the NHL rules, why would you have a Norwegian, Slovenian, Austrian or Latvian goalie change his gear just because the NHL has different gear?”

So theoretically, any NHL stopper heading to Russia in February could dust off his big, honkin’ pads from last season and take up more net on the international ice.

A goalie’s first inclination may be to jump at the chance to cover up more for increased protection and better performance. Especially when, over the past three Olympic tournaments, goalies have posted collective save percentages of just .901 (Vancouver 2010), .905 (Torino 2006) and .900 (Salt Lake City 2002).

But the decision isn’t simple. After more than half a season adjusting to the new pads, switching back could throw off a netminder’s movements and force a readjustment period when he returns to the NHL after the Olympics. Sergei Bobrovsky, a candidate to start for Team Russia, wants more time to get a feel for the streamlined equipment. “There are some pluses and some minuses,” Bobrovsky said. “But I really just focus on my game and try to stop the puck and nothing else.”

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More importantly, have the pad reductions actually put goalies at a disadvantage performance-wise? Through mid-November, the answer was a resounding no. As of 325 games played league-wide, or 26 percent of the season, goalies posted a .915 save percentage, which is better than last season’s .912 mark and would break the league record of .914 set in 2011-12. And if the sample size is too small, it stands to reason goalies will get even better as they adjust to their smaller yet swifter pad configurations. So a switch to larger equipment this winter in Sochi is anything but a slam dunk. “To be honest, I don’t know,” Bobrovsky said. “When the time comes, I will think about it and decide.”

Expect most Olympic hopeful NHL goaltenders to adopt the ‘Bob’ philosophy. There’s no point tampering with equipment until they know they’ve made their respective teams and they’ll want to get the maximum number of NHL games in with their new pads before deciding whether to beef up for Sochi.

And anyone from another league who plans to backstop his nation at the Games should pay close attention to the NHL numbers. If shorter pads continue to produce outstanding results, we may see international goalies trimming their leather, too.

This feature originally appeared in the December 2 edition of The Hockey News magazine (stats in the third paragraph were updated). Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.