Limiting Goalie Gear Will Only Have Limited Success
Goaltenders equipment has come under the spotlight again this summer, with two inches being shaved off the top of leg pads in a bid to increase scoring in the NHL.
Whilst this will likely lead to more scoring (much harder to cover the five hole and an extra inch on either side of a goalie is in full butterfly), I’ve maintained for some time that changes in goaltending equipment is not really at the root of why scoring has declined from its ‘hey day’ in the 1980s.
There is a grain of ‘goaltenders union’ to this post I grant you. I did attempt to play in goal for 10 years and appreciate both the protection modern equipment offers, and also the advantages having the right equipment to fit ‘your game’ offers.
Really, two goalies help encapsulate my view point though.
The first is Martin Brodeur – the winningest goalie in NHL history.
Brodeur always used pads ‘within the legal limit’. When equipment was adjusted previously, Marty had to change very little as he always valued the extra mobility wearing ‘smaller’ gear offered.
He also played on a Devils team with one of the best defensive units going for a decade under a system which could often be described as ‘defence first’ (despite having some very handy offensive players like Patrick Elias).
Brodeur was an elite netminder who played on a team with a strong defence. It was a recipe for success without the need for excessively large gear.
The advent of ‘trap hockey’ and greater emphasis on defence slowly spread across the NHL. And as teams got smarter in their own end, well, scoring naturally went down.
You only need look back at Tampa’s infamous forecheck (or non forecheck as it were) against the Flyers two years ago to see how far this tactical approach to defence can take us.
The second goaltender I want to refer to is Pekka Rinne.
The Predators superstar is a perfect example of the growing trend among NHL goaltenders now – well over 6′ playing the hybrid style.
First came the butterfly, then the hybrid style. Both have been taught to help goaltenders stop more pucks – the position has evolved perhaps more than any other in professional sports in the past 20 to 30 years.
Now, in full butterfly, goaltenders like Rinne, Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford take away basically the entire lower part of the net. They are simply that much taller than some of the stars of the past (Manny Legace anyone?).
An excellent Q&A InGoal Magazine put together with Nashville goalie guru Mitch Korn highlighted this changing attitude towards goaltending:
InGoal subscriber James Weise asks: “How have the attributes that you want in a prospect changed in the time that you have been in the NHL? Is height being stressed now a lot more than in the past?”
Mitch Korn: “I used to talk about flexibility. Now I talk about contort-ability. You see I think a lot of the lower body flexibility, the need for it in standard situations has somewhat disappeared because of the pads. And they wear them loose and they rotate on their leg, and I don’t think they need the kind of flexibility they used to need in ordinary situations. But in special situations the ability to contort is still valuable, and there is no piece of equipment that can make a guy be flexible enough to contort in scramble situations.
Among the biggest changes in NHL goaltending, says Nashville coach Mitch Korn, is the size of today’s puck stoppers, with the Predators almost 13-foot tandem of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback a great example.
“Now let’s look at this question for what it is. What’s changed? The first, most important thing is it’s still skill. It’s always been skill. Skill is the single most important thing. The second most important thing is the understanding that it is a game of square footage. And because of traffic and redirects and the speed of the game and the precision of the shots, size has become a factor. Square footage. Now you need to find, and we are finding, guys that are big and skilled. Traditionally the smaller guys were a little more skilled than the bigger guys, and the bigger guys were a little slower, a little more cumbersome than the smaller guys. But that’s not true anymore. So what are we looking for now? We’re looking for the most-skilled, biggest guy we can find.”
“We’re looking for the most-skilled, biggest guy we can find”
That quote says it all really.
Even as a goaltender, I wasn’t sad to see the back of the days when certain goaltenders just made themselves as big as possible by using over sized gear and just setting out to block shots rather than save them. I think we can all agree that was kind of tedious.
But with sizing limits in place, it feels as if goaltenders have now just been made scape goats – whilst player equipment evolves (composite sticks and so forth) the goalie market takes frequent proverbial shots when it’s own kit moves forward – all in the name of increased scoring.
The difficulty is, as long as goaltenders get bigger physically and teams set out to play the tightest defence possible then there will always be ‘limited’ scoring.
The NHL cannot simply remove the trap, limit the height of their goaltenders or undo three decades of technical evolution in the profession – but to pretend goaltending equipment is somehow the root of all evil is false.
Jacques Lemaire has far more to answer for than Marty Brodeur, Patrick Roy or Jonathan Quick do.