Crashing the Crease: Will Smaller Pads Really “Fix” NHL Scoring?

With the league’s 30 General Managers meeting to discuss ways to tweak the NHL product, the issue of goal scoring totals has once again reared its head. Since the resumption of play from the cancelled 2004-05 season, scoring has slipped from 6.05 goals per game to 5.25 goals per game. Whether or not that is really a problem that needs fixing is an argument for another column, but the fixes being discussed are rather relevant to goalies.

Goalies have gotten huge – but will shrinking them ‘fix’ scoring? Courtesy Ottawa Sun.

What is the solution? Well, according to some – including Mike Babcock — the answer is a simple ultimatum: bigger nets, or smaller goalies. Again.

His thinking behind an increase in net size is that as goalies keep getting bigger with monstrosities in the league like Ben Bishop (6’7″), Pekka Rinne (6’5″), Anders Lindback (6’6″), and their behemoth brethren, the core of the NHL game is changing due to the increase in player size. By failing to change the goal size, Babcock asserts, purists are allowing the game to change through inaction.

It’s a fairly interesting and somewhat compelling argument for larger nets, but it’s not going to happen. The threat is a way to force the NHLPA’s netminding members to accept equipment shrinkage. Here’s the thing: at best this will likely be a short-term solution that will lead to a few more pucks leaking through goalies for a season or two before adjustments are made and scoring trends downward again.

When guys like Stamkos get room, they score more often than not. Courtesy Lightning.NHL.com

Think about it. When was the last time Steven Stamkos had time and space in the slot to pick his shot or received a pass for an open one-timer and was stopped by a pure blocking goalie who just had a little too much gear rather than a skillful ‘great save’? It’s antiquated and uninformed thinking that says goalies make saves just because they’re big, nonathletic robots that fill net. The NHL’s best aren’t getting stopped too often because goaltenders have gotten big or wear too much gear; they get stopped too often before they even reach the goaltender.

It may be that slimming down the goalies will cause goals to go up briefly, most likely on “soft goals” squeaking through the arms and body where that extra inch of padding used to be. For my money, more soft goals doesn’t make for better hockey just because scoring is up. Besides, since 05-06 goalie gear has been further tinkered with, yet save percentage continues to rise. Why? Goalies haven’t gotten that much bigger or better, but one glaring issue has changed.

Scoring chances are way down. Clutch and grab has made its way back, the neutral zone has been turned to a quagmire by new-age trapping, and perhaps most importantly, everyone dives in front of shots or passes. It used to be that only the bravest and boldest heart-and-soul players on the team laid out, but the reality is that player equipment – like goalie equipment – has minimized the pain involved in absorbing NHL shots. Big blocks are no longer the hallmark of desperate playoff hockey, but are instead standard fare for the 82-game grind.

Rows of shot blockers prevent a puck from even reaching Lundqvist’s spotty coverage. Courtesy SI.NHL.com

So what are some other ways to boost scoring chances, rather than just scoring? For starters, bigger ice would give NHL players more room to play with, opening up skating and passing lanes through the neutral and offensive zones to get more looks at the net. However, there is a cost involved in losing seating and renovating all 30 barns, so that’s unlikely to happen.

A better idea that may help unclog the offensive zone and give shooter and passers more room to get pucks to the net may be to prevent defensemen from laying out to block lanes. Just think of all the shots absorbed by falling bodies, or the 2-on-1 back door passes taken away by a D-man sliding into the corner. If defenders can’t drop, more pucks get through low, and odd-man rushes are no longer a matter of half-playing the pass until a slide can block up both it and the shot.

Using some of the numbers on HockeyAnalysis.com, I decided to determine the average number of blocked shots for NHL teams in 2011-12 by adding up all 30 teams’ Fenwick For and CORSI For numbers, then subtract the Fenwick For from the CORSI. Fenwick For is a stat that accounts for all of a teams shots on goal and missed shots, and CORSI is Fenwick For + shot attempts that are blocked by the other team. (To understand more about advanced hockey stats, check here.) From there I broke down the average per one club, per game. These numbers may be slightly off because only Even Strength and 5-on-4 PP numbers are available, but it’s enough to get a ballpark figure.

ES FF ES CORSI PP FF PP CORSI ES Blocked PP Blocked Blocked Per Team Per Game
78258 105370 5200 7130 27112 1930 903.73 11.02

So in any given game, an NHL club has about 11.02 shot attempts blocked. If we make the dubious assumption that one half of these blocked shots actually make it to the net if players are no longer allowed to drop in front of the puck, each team gets an extra 5.51 shots on net per game. And considering that the average NHL Club’s shooting percentage sits at 8.99%, the result is an additional 0.495 goals per game, per club. Which, doubled for each team in the game, makes for an extra .99 goals per game. Add to the 5.25 goals per game found last season, and the final result is 6.24 goals per game – sitting quite comfortably where the last round of goalie equipment rule changes left off in 2005-2006 when the ‘New NHL’ product was deemed an exciting success.

Blocked Per Game Adjusted On Net League Shooting % Extra Goals/Game Total Goals/Game
11.02 5.51 .0899 0.495 6.24

Perhaps the assumption that half of all blocked shots can be prevented if players can’t drop is a stretch, but that is still discounting the possibility that players will miss the net less if they aren’t forced to shoot over falling bodies, or the possibility that more passes will get through seams if players are no longer allowed to lay out to block them – both of which should produce more shots on goal and therefore more goals.

Conversely, let’s guess that gear changes can reduce save percentages to what they were in 05-06. Last season, teams averaged 29.748 shots on net, while goalies combined for an average .914 SV%, giving the league its 5.25 goals/game average. However, if shrinking goalie equipment further leads to the same kind of reduction it did in 2005-2006, when goalies averaged 1.3% less than last year at .901, goalies will give up on average of 2.945 goals per game each (or 5.890 goals per game combined.) It would require an additional full percentage point dip (dropping 2.3% rather than 1.3%) in league average SV% from .914 to .888 to get scoring up to a higher level, as the goals per game would then jump to 6.66.

This exercise, while most likely statistically imperfect, shows us that goalie save percentages by 1-2 percent is one way to improve scoring at least temporarily before they can potentially adjust and their defensemen start blocking even more shots to make up for their dip in prowess, but the increase is not immense and the quality of goals may not necessarily increase. I am not necessarily advocating any of these changes.

In fact, I personally believe that there is no problem to be fixed. However, if the league is bent on “fixing” this problem, I would like to see some real solutions, rather than tunnel vision focused solely on goalies and ignoring everything else that has changed in the past twenty years to prevent scoring. To that end, there are some other creative solutions that may result in not only more goals, but better plays leading to them rather than focusing entirely on the comparatively leaky goalies of old.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=547387954 Robert Roth

    I have a two pronged solution.

    1) Eliminate all hard plastic from player’s elbow and shoulder pads. Let’s see how many guys go out there and dive in front of shots now that it will REALLY hurt?? It will also improve player safety with hits to the head not being as destructive.

    2) Change the point system for wins. Follow me here.

    Win in Regulation 3pts, plus up to 3 bonus points for score differential as in a 5-1 win is 6pts in the standings. A 2-1 win is 3pts in the standings.
    Win in OT, 2pts.
    Win in SO 1pt.
    Lose any time…0 points.

    This puts the focus on scoring, rather than holding on to guarantee a point by getting to OT. It will force teams to get rid of the defensive specialists and reduce shootouts which will improve the TV contracts.

    Now imagine, last day of the season, you’re 4pts out of a playoff spot…how exciting is THAT game going to be?

    Goalie gear is a red herring. Change the rewards system. Current rewards system of the NHL is one that rewards zero risk hockey. High risk hockey creates more scoring chances.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.j.appel Kevin J Appel

      I’d never seen the score differential bonus points suggestion before. It’s a very interesting concept, and it certainly would give teams incentive to open up.

      However, I doubt it would ever get implemented because it would wholly change the points system in such a way that would utterly shatter any semblance of keeping with existing records.

      I agree entirely that the goalie gear (and net size) have become something of a distraction for the league on this issue. The problem is in front of the nets, but it’s not the goalies. Creative offense and scoring chances are at a premium, and until talent has time/space to score, all the goalie changes on earth won’t fix it.

      A perfect example is roller hockey. Goaltenders in high level roller hockey wear the same pads and play in the same size nets as ice hockey goalies, and yet the game is an entirely different animal because of how it’s played outside the crease.