Ask any hockey fan, what is the most hotly debated topic in the NHL right now?
A few might tell you concussions, a few might utter out something about fighting, and a handful of others may say something about illegal checks to the head.
Most of them, however, will tell you that the debate over the size of the nets has been on everyone’s mind lately. And it is showing no signs of dying out.
In fact, there are so many opinions and so many conflicts over the topic that a quick Google search will have you reading for hours.
There are people out there who are all for the change, give the fans more to cheer about because right now, as John Buccigross from ESPN would say, they’re stuck in their seats. You can debate that all you want, but as a fan think back to some of the most exciting games you’ve been to. What was the score?
I can personally tell you that through covering the Flyers, two specific games stick out. Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Pittsburgh in 2012 is one of those. It was quite literally a battle on ice that saw 158 penalty minutes and 12 goals. The other was a game against the Winnipeg Jets which saw 17 goals, a four goal deficit erased, and a goal scored with a minute left to seal a 9-8 win for Winnipeg.
That’s the type of hockey that puts people in the seats and gets them tuned in on the TV set. Maybe not 17 goals every game, but just more scoring in general, people want to see the puck in the net.
But of course with every argument, there’s another side to the story.
Changing the game this drastically by altering the net size will most likely upset every single netminder that wears an NHL jersey. It’s also going to upset many of the hockey “traditionalists” who would label it a sin to change something that’s stayed the same since essentially the NHL’s inception.
So what could possibly be done to find a happy medium? Keeping the nets the same size but increasing scoring to make everyone happy.
Let’s take a look at some ideas.
Larger Goalie Equipment
The photo above is from 1996 and is of Patrick Roy right after he was dealt to the Avalanche. Keep in mind, Roy is 6-foot 2-inches and 185 pounds. That year, the save percentage in the NHL average .898 % and teams averaged 3.14 goals per game.
That picture is Henrik Lundqvist in 2013. Also keep in mind that Lundqvist is 6-foot 1-inch and 188 pounds. That season, the average save percentage was .914% and teams averaged just 2.74 goals per game.
The two goalies should take up about the same amount of net, right? Well judging by the pictures that is far from the truth.
Aside from Lundqvist appearing more bulky in the upper part of his body, the most noticeable difference between the two goalies is the sheer size of the leg pads. They are almost in the same position squared to the shooter, Roy’s pads don’t even reach his waist and Lundqvists’ pads are nearly touching his stomach.
Same net size, much larger goalie. So I’d say this one is pretty obvious, put stricter limits on the goalie pads.
More and more it seems like goals on the rush (not talking rebounds, etc.) are scored in the top part of the net and rarely along the ice. Those days are a thing of the past, there’s just no room. Lundqvist could go into the butterfly with the pads he has and close the five-hole, along with those pads taking away any chance of the puck slipping through anywhere else along the ice. It’s not going five-hole and it’s not going far side along the ice, that shot is seldom there anymore.
On the other hand take note of Roy’s pads. They’re small enough that he has to read the shooter and choose his course of action. If he closes the five-hole up, it leaves more of the net vulnerable. If he decides to stretch post to post in leaves more of the five-hole vulnerable.
Moral of that story? It was tougher for guys like Roy. That’s not to take anything away from Lundqvist or any other present-day goaltender, they’re just bigger.
The size of the pads has a noticeable effect on scoring. The first time the NHL allowed larger pads (allowed 12 inch wide instead of 10) in the modern era was in the 1989-90 season. To show just how big of a difference it made, in the 1988-89 season, save percentage was .879% and goals per game averaged 3.74. By the 1990-91 season, save percentage had gone all the way up to .886% and goals per game had dropped all the way to 3.46.
If the NHL wants to really increase scoring, they should make serious provisions to the goalie’s pads. It’s made a difference in the past and will make a difference again.
Special Teams Situations
This is a category that frequently gets overlooked when talking about increasing scoring, and I’m not too sure why, because it could have a big effect.
The NHL could take a page out of the NCAA’s book here.
Incase you aren’t familiar, in NCAA hockey, if the attacking team scores during a delayed penalty, the goal is counted and the penalty that was assessed still has to be served. The attacking team scores and still is awarded the power play. Under NHL rules, the goal would count but it would nullify the penalty.
People love to talk about momentum in hockey, and this is no doubt something that would not only create momentum, but allow for more offensive opportunities given the fact that a fresh two-minute power play would be awarded. If the NHL wanted to experiment further they could even make the player serve the full two minutes regardless of if a goal is scored or not.
The next thing they could do in regards to special teams is not allow the defending team to ice the puck. While that may sound harsh, it would certainly force players to be more careful in the defensive zone and make it harder for them to get a change and some relief on the penalty kill.
There could be exceptions to the rule, it could be altered a bit, so that the defending team can dump it all the way down as soon as they clear the zone, instead of having to get all the way to the red line.
Those things would definitely increase scoring and certainly increase scoring chances.
The Ice Surface
Before we get into the nuclear option here, there are a few other things the NHL could do.
The first of those would be reverse the ends at which the teams shoot.
This would mean both teams would have a long change in the first and third periods rather than just the second period.
Another frequently overlooked part of the ice surface that could be changed is the hash marks at the faceoff circle. Those are there to enforce a neutral zone during each faceoff, meaning that the attacking and opposing player are supposed to be separated. This rule is rarely enforced and on almost every draw you see guys rubbing arms.
Enforce the rule and maybe separate these hash marks a little further and it will make it harder for the defending team to defend against a faceoff in the offensive zone. The NHL widened the hashmarks just recently, but as I mentioned above, you rarely see this rule in effect. Players cheat in the faceoff circle all the time.
This would be extremely dangerous for guys like Patrice Bergeron and Claude Giroux who win faceoffs at will. More offensive chances would definitely arise.
Last but not least would be increasing the ice size, but not to an international level.
An NHL ice sheet is 200 feet by 85 feet. An international sheet is 61 meters by 30 meters (essentially 200 feet by 100 feet). Yes, it is true that there is much more room to skate on the international sheet, but making the sheet too much bigger will just result in defenders relaxing in the middle of the ice, forcing wingers to the outside where there is little chance of scoring.
If the NHL were to say, make the rink maybe 5 feet wider (2.5 feet on each side), that could give attacking players just enough extra room to squeeze by a defender or open themselves up to a pass.
Of course there would be hard opposition to this, and it’s probably a last resort because it involves physically altering the dimensions of the arena (Rogers Centre didn’t even do it for the Olympics) and it would involve taking seats away which is lost money for owners.
There are alternatives to making the nets bigger, some minor ones and some major ones, but without a doubt the first of them starts with the goalie equipment. And until the NHL tries out some of these, making the nets larger should be an afterthought.