Frederik Andersen feared the worst.
On Feb. 3, the starting goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs endured the unintentional wrath of speeding Florida Panthers forward Frank Vatrano. The skater was rushing toward the net to recover a pass, but he couldn't quite catch up to the puck and instead barrelled full speed into Andersen and the Toronto net.
The goaltender was slow to get up. He stayed in for the remainder of the first period before he was pulled and back-up Michael Hutchinson took over.
Andersen and the Leafs were fortunate. He passed concussion protocol and ended up missing just three starts before making his return against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 13.
But the experience has made him nervous and he now questions his safety on the ice. Knowing it could easily happen again, he isn’t keen on players policing themselves on the issue.
“I’m not that confident in it,” Andersen says of the officiating of players crashing the net. The NHL has “taken a really good step in putting the onus on [preventing] players hitting other players, especially in a vulnerable position, but I think the same could be done for the goalies and making sure nothing bad like that happens too often.”
The NHL has been making a concerted effort to increase goal scoring across the board for some time now, but some observers and players – such as Andersen – are wondering if the moves are coming at the expense of safety.
Goaltender concussions are on the rise. Just two NHL goalies were concussed in 2016-17, missing a total of 15 games, the Associated Press reported in September. In comparison, 14 different goalies have missed a total of 276 games with a concussion over the past two seasons.
The increase in injuries, observers say, is the product of a host of changes going back to at least the 2005-06 season, when officials removed the two-line pass and added penalties for obstruction, both of which resulted in more power-play opportunities. In recent years, the NHL added faceoffs in the attack zone to start even more power plays.
Equipment reform also came into effect in 2017, when goalie pants were slimmed down, followed by reductions in the size of chest and leg pads. Equipment advancements for skaters, meanwhile, have helped them move faster and shoot harder.
Another issue, experts say, is the inconsistency and subjectivity surrounding interference calls. A lack of clarity is resulting in skaters being more willing to risk crashing the net, with the intent that any goal call will be upheld on review.
“I think it’s one of the worst questions asked,” says former NHL goaltender and TSN analyst Jamie McLennan about the current definition of interference. “You understand the letter of the law of it, but the interpretation of it is still subject to the individual [referee].”
The collective changes appear to be working in improving scoring, with the number of goals per team steadily increasing in recent seasons, according to hockey-reference.com. Through 971 out of 1271 regular season games played this year, the number had increased to an average of 3.03. Should that pace hold steady, it will be the highest total since the 2005-06 season, when it was 3.08.
The byproduct of the increase, observers and some players say, looks to be more situations such as the one endured by Andersen. The collision in early February wasn’t his first – he has had at least two other serious injury near-misses.
Others haven’t been as lucky. Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Tim Thomas recently made his first public appearance since walking away from the game in 2014, where he detailed how a concussion suffered in his final season changed his life.
“I woke up the next morning after [the hit] and I couldn't decide what I wanted to eat, where I wanted to go,” he told reporters ahead of his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in December. “I survived following the team schedule the rest of the year and just made it through that season.”
Thomas revealed that two-thirds of his brain was receiving less than five per cent blood flow, meaning he suffered significant head trauma over the course of his career. The reveal reverberated within the goaltending community.
Hutchinson, one of the Leafs’ backups, says the NHL hasn’t taken a serious look at protection for goaltenders since 2005-06, which is when the Edmonton Oilers lost Dwayne Roloson to injury in the playoffs after a collision.
As the recent hit to his teammate Andersen illustrates, goalies need extra protection given how they play the game.
“I think the league has gone away from goalie safety,” he says. “A lot of times as goaltenders you are on your knees and you are already in a vulnerable spot. Your head is usually in the way if you get hit.”
Experts say analytics could help narrow the problem, with an important step happening in this year’s playoffs. The NHL is implementing puck- and player-tracking technology for the first time, so the actual speed of players crashing the net will soon be known.
Armed with data, officials will at least be able to take a fresh look at the issue and determine if new rules or protections are needed.
“I think there is something there to be honest,” McLennan says. “Goaltending safety has to at least be considered. I don’t think it’s not [considered], but I don’t think it’s the worst thing to shine a light on.”