For years, the NHL has been looking for ways to create more goals. The running theory is that more goals will draw more new fans, which is good for all involved parties, but is that really what is needed to draw new fans? Will the possible NHL rule changes for either smaller pads or larger nets equate to better hockey, or just dumb the game down for fans who want the highlight reel goals? There are arguments for both sides, and each has some validity.
Don’t Go Changing
For the hardcore hockey aficionado, the NHL’s talk of smaller goalie equipment, or bigger nets should hold considerably less appeal. The game of hockey used to be a free-wheeling, high-scoring affair back in the days of Wayne Gretzky, and well before him. In that era of the NHL, teams seemed to score at will, on a nightly basis.
Today’s game is different, though. While everyone loves to see the highlight-worthy goals, would more really be better for hockey in the long-term? Sure those highlight reels entice new fans, but would more of them dull the effect? And would they still be highlight reel worthy, if the goalies had no chance to stop them?
There are no goons protecting the franchise players; They are no longer a necessity as the rules have changed to better protect the league’s best assets. Players like Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin are often covered by multiple defenders who can skate and stick with them, where Gretzky more often than not could get past the defenders on skill alone.
Today, players have to shoot the pucks through bigger bodies, and better screens only to find a bigger, more athletic goalies standing between the pipes. That’s not to say that players like Gretzky had it easy, but there were a lot of things that today’s player deals with, that he, and others like him did not. Gretzky will always be one of the greatest, if not the greatest to play the game, but this is no longer the NHL that he came up in; Even he will concede to that.
The Goalies are not only more skilled, but considerably bigger, and more athletic than they were just a few years ago, let alone a few decades. As the forwards and defensemen have become more skilled, the pace of the game has increased by leaps and bounds, forcing the netminders to adapt as well.
There's been some chatter about bigger nets and/or smaller pads. Scott Darling gives a goalie's perspective.
— Eric Lear (@BHTVeric) November 11, 2015
Goalies like Corey Crawford (6’2″) were once considered big, but now with the guys like Scott Darling (6’6″) and Ben Bishop (6’7″) the bar has been raised. More and more teams have goalies in their system that are nearing 6’5″ or better.
Today’s defensemen skate as well, or better than many forwards, with Duncan Keith being one of the prime examples in the game. He glides effortlessly down the ice, and many believe his skating technique plays a big role in his other-worldly stamina that helps him play well over half the game, on a nightly basis.
Long gone are the days when the defense lumbered around at the blue line, now the defensemen are the quarterbacks, handling the puck in every situation. Players like Bobby Orr paved the way for this type of defense, and today’s blue liners are simply perfecting it.
Evolution Is a Blessing and a Curse
One conclusion that can be drawn is that the game has become a lower scoring affair simply because the game is being played in a different way than it was a couple of decades ago, or even one decade ago. The goalies have already been through the smaller equipment changes in the 2013-14 season. That change obviously made little difference given the fact that now two years later, the issue is open for discussion once again.
Would making the net a couple inches larger, or changing the pads again, really make that much of a difference?
My inclination is that the pads would not make any more of a difference if they are shortened another inch; However, much more than that could start to compromise the players safety, as it could create gaps in the padding. The nets, on the other hand, could create a short-term solution; Though with the athleticism and size of today’s netminders, it is entirely possible that they would adapt quickly and alter their style of play.
Isn’t that essentially what has already begun to happen without any intervention?
Players are working harder in the off-season, coming in with a whole new level of fitness each, and every year. They spend more time on the ice, in the gym, studying video and constantly work on every aspect of their game. Even youth hockey has improved by leaps and bounds. Gone are the dads coaching their sons, today they have conditioning coaches, stick handling coaches, skating coaches, goalie coaches, and sports psychologists involved at a much earlier stage than there were even ten to fifteen years ago.
Let’s face it, the game has changed, and maybe scoring was always going to be a casualty to the higher skill level from the top to the bottom.
On the other side of the argument, the NHL is looking for ways to make the game more exciting for the new fans. In fact, they are very important for the league’s growth, and the Hawks, who are quite reliant on the continued increase of the salary cap.
Expanding the nets, could make the game more exciting to the fans that only understand the bare minimum; The puck goes in the net, and that is a good thing. Perhaps they don’t yet know what icing is, or what a good hit looks like. Maybe they don’t understand why Jonathan Toews is so dominant, because they couldn’t care less about advanced stats that show his scoring is far from his only valuable asset. And perhaps, they think Patrick Kane is really good because he puts the puck in the net…a lot. Not because he also sets up some pretty nifty goals for his linemates, or dangles the puck on a string between defenders like a cat with a brand new toy.
The point is, the NHL isn’t looking to make the goalie’s job impossible, or a defender’s job more difficult, or even make a scorer’s job easier. They are looking to ensure that the league that employs them continues to grow and develop new fans, and perhaps build new teams, in new cities. After all, this is a business and they are always looking for ways to increase their profit margins. The best way to do that is to expand their fan base.
Impacting the Blackhawks
For the Hawks, a change in the size of the net might impact Corey Crawford temporarily, but he is a quick goaltender who has spent the better part of his career adapting to change. He came into the league with a target on his glove side, but with a single minded focus, he broke that target down and won two Stanley Cups.
As for Scott Darling, given his larger stature, a small change in the size of the net is unlikely to cause too many problems. Darling is one of the more athletic goalies for his size, so covering a little extra ground shouldn’t be a concern for him. Changing the pads should not effect either netminder, as both have already adapted nearly seamlessly with the previous alterations.
As for how it might impact the forwards, a larger target could create more chances, especially for players like Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin who like to go top shelf from deep in the zone. For players like Toews and Hossa, it may also open up some nifty little wrap around plays in on the net. Screens will change as well, meaning Andrew Shaw might be a little busier, and have to battle harder, but a larger net should allow more heavy slap shots from guys like Keith or Brent Seabrook to find an opening, too.
The Blackhawks are a team that is accustomed to adapting on the fly, just look at their roster changes from year-to-year. The fact is, unless the NHL rule changes involve a soccer net and some shin pads, these changes are unlikely to phase the Blackhawks.
My personal assessment is that the game is plenty exciting in its existing format. I enjoy the league’s most recent rule change for the 3-on-3 overtime periods, and I don’t mind the Coaches Challenge (though I think that one requires a bit of fine tuning). However, I do not think that there needs to be more scoring. I think that with every new weapon the NHL produces, be it Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Carey Price, Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Duncan Keith or Bobby Orr the game will have to adjust, but change is good. Change keeps things interesting. If we keep trying to turn back the clock to the game of years or decades past, we are slowing down the most exciting and unknown part of the game, the evolution of the players, and the game itself.
If you are looking for more info on what the General Managers and the League are talking about, I recommend checking out this article by The Canadian Press’ Stephen Whyno
And if you’d like to see more on the Blackhawks’ views on the subject, take a look at the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hines article from Thursday’s Edition.