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.
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.
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.
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|
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|
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.