No one doubts that something will have to be done about protecting the goaltenders. This crashing the net is out of control.
But something also needs to be done about protecting the game from the goalies, as goaltending itself is pretty much out of control.
There was a moment during Wednesday’s introduction of new Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin when this hit home. Bergevin was talking about the importance of signing goaltender Carey Price to a new contract this summer, and to underline why, he added: “That’s what’s left in the West – it’s good goaltending.”
It was an acute observation. While the Eastern Conference has the anomaly of the Pittsburgh Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers opening round (56 goals in six games), the West has, so far, largely been the story of outstanding netminding.
This is nothing new in the playoffs. Since the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP was first awarded in 1965, it has gone 15 times to a goaltender, the latest last year when Tim Thomas led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup.
What is new, however, is how the game is being played. It is so defence oriented that defencemen could check their e-mail before any opposing forward checks them. Whereas once a team might feature a single good shot blocker – hello, Bob Goldham – teams like the New York Rangers now insist on everyone trying to block every shot.
The old mantra of “Let the goalie see the puck!” has been replaced by new thinking that says it doesn’t matter if the goalie sees nothing, and if a puck should somehow get through, it will be stopped by one of two critical factors: a highly athletic goaltender’s sharp reflexes or, just as importantly, the goaltender’s size.
And it’s working. Thirty years ago, in the scoring heyday, only rare goaltenders had a goals-against average below 3.00. This year there were dozens.
It is fascinating to compare the goaltenders of the last years of the Original Six to the Still Standing Eight of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. Gump Worsley stood 5 foot 7 and weighed 180 pounds. Rogie Vachon was the same height but 10 pounds lighter. Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuk and Gerry Cheevers were all 5 foot 11. Jacques Plante lurched about his crease at six feet, 175 pounds.
In the Western Conference now, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings is the tiny one at 6 foot 1, 212 pounds, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators the giant at 6 foot 5, 209 pounds. The Phoenix Coyotes’ Mike Smith is 6 foot 4, 215 pounds, and the St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott is 6 foot 3, 201 pounds.
In the East, the smallest goaltender is the brilliant Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, at 6 foot 1, 195 pounds.
If the players themselves have ballooned, it is nothing compared to the inflation their equipment has gone through since the days of Gump. Combine the goaltender’s size with his equipment, and you have the hockey equivalent of the bathtub plug.
That something will have to be done is fair speculation. NHL hockey has moved from a time when a goaltender’s crease was sanctuary to a time, today, when only the most flagrant violations are called. The reason for this is obvious: If the league eliminated crashing the net, some overtime games might go into 2013.
This open season on goalies is likely to change – general managers cringe at the thought of a Milan Lucic putting their greatest asset out of action – and once it does, goal scoring will shrink even further. Television audiences are up, which is good for hockey, but if scoring goes down even more, it can only be bad for the game.
There is a valid argument that a 1-0 game can be exciting, but it is not a blanket argument. There have been low-scoring playoff games this year that have been a trial to watch.
It is not entirely coincidental that so many fans feel the greatest games they have ever seen – the 1972 Summit Series, the 1987 Canada Cup – ended in a 6-5 score. Fans like goals, even if goalies do not.
There has been much talk in past years of either enlarging the net or reconfiguring the bars so that they ricochet more inward than outward, which would have given New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk that third-period game-decider Thursday night.
Goaltending guru François Allaire proposed just such a change in 2003, and three years ago developed a prototype that was used in a Toronto Maple Leafs practice.
“I never heard from them since then,” Allaire says. “But I still believe that will be the best way to increase offence without compromising the security of the goalies.”
Another way – one favoured by Hall-of-Fame goaltender Ken Dryden – is to shrink the equipment, something that is possible with today’s materials, but something that, as Dryden says, would be difficult to convince goaltenders that they’d still be protected as well.
No solution would satisfy all, but a solution, surely, will have to be found.
After all, there will be no shrinking of the actual goaltenders.