Roy MacGregor

Are bigger nets the answer to combat giant NHL goalies?

The Globe and Mail

Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller looks back as a shot by the Tampa Bay Lightning hits the post during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

They are hockey’s most visible minority.

Their names are Anton Khudobin, Jhonas Enroth, Jose Theodore, Niklas Backstrom and Jaroslav Halak.

Thirty teams, 60 NHL goaltenders listed on opening-day rosters, only five of them under six feet tall.

Whatever could the Boston Bruins (Khudobin), Buffalo Sabres (Enroth), Florida Panthers (Theodore), Minnesota Wild (Backstrom) and St. Louis Blues (Halak) be thinking?

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Maybe we should throw the Dallas Stars in there, too, as they later added Richard Bachman, who, at 5 foot 10, is the tiniest of all holding down hockey’s biggest job.

The issue, surely, is not so much the size of the goalie equipment, but the size of the goalies.

At the March 20 meeting of NHL general managers in Toronto, much was made of the size of goaltending equipment and what measures might be done to harness in the outrageous padding and jerseys that turn a stick-man like Buffalo’s Ryan Miller into a Euclid truck.

Shrink the trapper, some say. Slice the pads in half. Ban the spinnaker jersey. Mike Murphy, NHL vice-president of hockey operations, has even suggested increasing the height of the net by six inches to open up more “roofing” space, whatever it takes to up the scoring.

“I know the traditionalists will say it will alter all the records,” Murphy told a Toronto newspaper, “but if it makes the game more entertaining, isn’t that enough of a tradeoff?”

When the traditionalists kneel in worship of their mystical game of the past, they are recalling great goaltenders like Bernie Parent (5 foot 10, 180 pounds), Johnny Bower (5 foot 11, 180 pounds), Terry Sawchuk (5 foot 11, 195 pounds), Glenn Hall (5 foot 11, 180 pounds). Others, lesser known, were often much smaller: John Vanbiesbrouck (5 foot 8, 176 pounds), Rogie Vachon (5 foot 7, 170 pounds).

The great George Hainsworth, superstar for Montreal and Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, stood 5 foot 6 and weighed 150 pounds.

Cesare Maniago, considered a freak in the 1960s, stood 6 foot 3 and weighed 195 pounds. If he played for the Ottawa Senators, he would have to look up to Ben Bishop (6 foot 7) and rookie Robin Lehner (6 foot 4).

Maniago played when Frank Mahovlich stood six feet tall, weighed 205 pounds and was known as The Big M. Today, Mahovlich would stand an inch shorter than the average NHL player and would have to be known as The Medium M.

Beginning with Ken Dryden (6 foot 4, 205 pounds) some 40 years ago, the decades have seen a shift in goaltenders from the little guy chosen last to the biggest guy, whose bulk alone is seen as the last line of defence in a hockey game.

But that is not all that has changed. The entire way in which the game is played has changed dramatically in just a few years.

From Detroit’s Bob Goldham in the 1950s to Ottawa and New Jersey’s Anton Volchenkov in the last decade, players who blocked shots were considered curiosities. Goldham’s nickname, in fact, was Second Goalie. People argued over whether he had great courage or little sense.

Today, however, everyone is expected to drop in front of shots, no matter what the consequences. It is called – in the game’s silliest new cliché – “the right way to play.”

The shift in style of play has been astonishing. Whereas the rule of thumb used to be, “Get out of the way so the goalie can see!” it is today, “Get in the way and who cares if the goalie can see. If the puck gets through, it will likely hit him!”

And that is where size has become such a prized commodity in goaltending. The old lacrosse theory – take the widest player and widen him still with massive padding – has come to hockey.

The combination of giant goaltender and giant equipment has proved fatal to the sorts of goals Bobby Hull and Guy Lafleur were once renowned for. It just doesn’t happen any more. How can it? Even Dryden, wearing the equipment that took his Canadiens to those 1970s Stanley Cups, looks like a bean pole compared to the width of today’s goaltenders.

It’s almost miraculous that Steven Stamkos has scored 23 goals this truncated season. The Tampa Bay Lightning star admits, however, that the ballooning goaltenders have changed the way he plays in the short time (less than five years) he has been in the NHL.

“I don’t really shoot five-hole very often any more,” Stamkos said. “Goalies are just so good down low. First of all, you have to raise the puck 13 inches just to have a chance.”

He is talking about the 12-inch pads that a tall goaltender can stretch from one post to the other. Then there is the massive chest protector, the huge blocker and the growing trapper – leaving two top corners that require the puck to thread a needle if they are even open.

Stamkos says he isn’t sure what the answers are. “But,” he said with a laugh, “I would approve of it.”

Ottawa’s Ben Bishop is the largest goaltender in the league at 6 foot 7. He can go down on his knees and still appear to be standing guard in the upper parts of the net. He thinks Mike Murphy’s idea for bigger nets might be the answer, though he would prefer they not be six inches taller.

“They can make the blockers and gloves a little smaller,” Bishop said. “I don’t know what they want the scores to be. They want them to be 10-10 or so?

“I think the only real thing is maybe make the net a little bit bigger, maybe a couple of inches on either side, an inch or so higher. I think that might increase the score a little bit. I don’t think the goalies would be that much screwed up.”

Johan Hedberg, back-up to Martin Brodeur on the New Jersey Devils, has had more time than most NHL goaltenders to observe the trend and think about what might be solutions to the dearth of goal scoring.

“It’s a simple answer for me,” Hedberg said. “There’s a ton of things they can do on equipment, maybe not so much on the pads and the gloves, but it’s in the chest protector and the pants. There’s room to move.

“Look at some guys. They look like they are 250 pounds when they’re really 175. There’s definitely room there to do something about that.”

Hedberg thinks critics err when they point to the huge leg pads goaltenders wear. For safety reasons, he thinks it unwise to tinker with anything that protects.

“Anything that is not there for protection shouldn’t be allowed, is my point,” Hedberg said. “It would make the position more athletic. It would make it more fun to play. It would make it more fun to look at. I know personally if I was an eight-year-old kid today and I got taught that playing was just blocking with huge pads, I wouldn’t enjoy that.”

Hedberg also thinks that goaltenders are taking blame they don’t deserve, that much of the problem lies in the obsessively defensive coaching of the game.

“If the game was more wide open, there would be more scoring,” he said, “regardless of how big the goaltenders are.”

“That’s the thing,” Bishop added. “All the goaltenders are getting bigger, so you can’t make the equipment smaller when the goalies are getting bigger.”

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