The New War On Goalies
It's funny how the people with the loudest voices in the war on goalies are those that understand the position the least.
— Greg Balloch (@GregBalloch) November 11, 2015
The Cold War between goaltenders and, apparently, everyone else who plays or watches hockey, is entering a critical period. Hostilities began in 2008, when Damien Cox announced that general managers were declaring war on goaltenders. A fragile détente has obtained since, with the Goalies Union (a shadowy organization with no official existence) making repeated concessions to maintain the peace. The league’s last attack, a reduction in the length of leg pads and stick paddle, came just two seasons ago. The outcome was the same as always: the goalies won.
They always win.
The league is now proposing further reductions to goaltending equipment, focusing especially on the chest-arm unit, and pants. Catherine Silverman provides a thorough and detailed overview of the current battle, required reading for those who haven’t been following the verbal volleys and political machinations closely.
Anyone who has been tracking developments in goaltending knows that equipment, which grew in tandem with rising save percentages from the 90s to the early 21st century, has been shrinking since. Gear is now smaller than it has been in almost 20 years. The result? The league average save percentage sits at an all-time high of 91.5 percent.
In a less serious mood, I might suggest that the correlation between shrinking gear and increasing save percentage over the last decade is causal: smaller gear leads to better goaltending results. There is something to this, of course: every equipment reduction is a tradeoff between decreased blocking area and increased agility through decreased bulk. Trimming equipment might have, ironically, saved goalies from their own flawed surface area/mobility calculations.
Since I’m being serious, however, I will limit my point. Decreasing equipment size has not lead to a scoring increase. It hasn’t even slowed down the decrease. The relationship between goals and equipment size is not empirically supported.
All of this should go without saying: anyone who has followed the game and paid attention to goaltending over the last decade should know this. My suspicion, however, is that many who follow and even write about hockey haven’t actually been paying attention.
Sportsnet’s Mark Spector recently wallowed in a sty of popular unsupported arguments for decreasing the size of goaltending equipment. The content is beneath contempt, of course, but the article is valuable as a case study in the ongoing vilification of goaltenders.
The first assumption Spector makes is that goaltenders have been united in an effort to keep equipment big to preserve their jobs. The support this view receives is astounding, considering how nonsensical it is. The idea that goaltenders are a unified body opposed, in principle, to a higher-scoring league, is pure fiction. If the league-average save percentage suddenly plummeted to 85 percent, and the average goals-against average ballooned to 4.50, goaltenders would continue to be individually evaluated based on their distance from the average. How, precisely, would anyone’s job be in jeopardy here? If the playing field is level, no change is likely to lead the cohort of current NHL goaltenders into unemployment.
Despite Spector’s claim to the contrary, goaltenders are legitimately very concerned about safety when they question or challenge equipment reductions; if they don’t insist on minimum standards of protection, no one is going to do it for them. Even former goaltenders, whom one might expect to be sympathetic, are too quick to wave aside serious safety issues. In an important article outlining specific, detailed, and mostly reasonable suggestions for reducing equipment, retired goaltender Corey Hirsch explains that, if pad length were significantly reduced “knees would be exposed to pucks, yes, but the knee pads today are more protective than ever, and it’s definitely not an issue.” No current goaltender could believe this.
I play with NHL-regulation pads strapped tighter than many (younger) goalies prefer, and the most protective, bulky knee pads available. I have had welts and swollen knees from adult-league shots deflected onto my knee pads. While indeed better than ever, these pads are not designed to protect from direct impact at any senior level. A direct hit from an NHL-caliber slap shot would injure. Even on wrist shots and deflections, you can expect goaltenders with exposed knees to be momentarily incapacitated after hard impacts.
Goaltenders who fear injury aren’t as effective. If you now find yourself thinking “Good! More fear = more goals!” you’ve lost touch with your essential human decency.
The second set of popularly supported assumptions Spector makes is that reducing equipment is easy and should lead to an overall area reduction of 20 percent. Take a current goaltender in full gear, and chop off a full fifth of him. That’s about equal to his full right arm (including blocker) and his glove. Most of the bulk of goaltending equipment, contrary to popular belief, actually sits atop human flesh, which, to the dismay of many, should probably not be removed to create scoring space.
How much reduction is possible? That’s a question of actual measurement and mathematics. It’s far too simple to wave at a 6’7” goaltender in full gear and cry “See! He’s clearly enormous and bloated with equipment!” Before you can make any claim about the potential for area reduction, you have to sit down with the equipment and actually consider how it works and protects. Plucking a target reduction percentage from the air and trying to squeeze the goaltender into it comes at the problem from the wrong end. Corey Hirsch’s article, linked above, starts from the right perspective. He knows how the equipment works, and considers where specific reductions are possible. This is the minimum threshold of understanding needed for a productive conversation to take place.
Spector’s final, and perhaps most seriously flawed popular assumption is that reducing equipment will lead to a more exciting brand of goaltending, a return to the style of the 80s and 90s. Imagine Carey Price challenging two metres outside the crease on a rush. Imagine Tuukaa Rask standing tall, kicking out, toe up, to stop rising shots to the corners. Imagine Henrik Lundqvist coming post-to-post with a double-pad slide. Glorious.
The problem, of course, is that this will never happen. Even if you somehow manage to reduce equipment by 20 percent and make the nets seven feet wide, goaltenders would not change their fundamental approach to the game. Goaltending in previous eras was worse not because the goaltenders were smaller in form-fitting equipment, but because they approached the game in an entirely different way.
Goaltending was historically an upright affair: goalies went down only when required for specific saves. This made sense in many eras: the only sufficient padding against hard shots was on the legs and hands, so these were employed whenever possible. Since a goaltender’s pads, dull skates, and overall weight didn’t permit lateral motion while down, leaving your feet was a last resort. If you could remain on at least one foot, you had a chance of recovering for the next shot.
That logic no longer applies. Goaltenders can move into the high-coverage butterfly without fear that they’ll be wounded with a gut shot. Once down, goalies remain mobile thanks to pads designed to slide, skates sharp enough to push, and a continually evolving set of techniques. Keeping the centre of the body on the angle line (between the middle of the net and the puck) while minimizing holes (under the arms, between the pads) is a far more effective strategy than relying on reflex. We’ve also learned that returns for extreme depth diminish rapidly once you leave the blue paint; you cover marginally more space, but give up enormous potential net on rebounds and passes.
None of these advances will be undone by shrinking gear or expanding the goal. The promise of old-time scoring and acrobatic reflex goaltending is empty.
Even the promise of more scoring is a dubious one. Supporters of smaller gear and larger nets imagine that scoring will rise in some proportion to the newly exposed area. If there is 20 percent more net to shoot at, surely scoring will increase by at least two percent. If the net is expanded by the width of the posts, surely all the shots that hit the post last season would result in about that many more goals the following season.
This theory is simplistic trash. There is no one-to-one relationship between scoring and the equipment/furniture of the game. Goaltending is a niche within the dynamic ecosystem of hockey. Changes in the goaltender’s environment will prompt him to make compensatory changes to mitigate the new threats. The changes the goaltender makes will be complemented and supported by changes in defensive structures, striving to limit exposure to new weaknesses. Less talented teams will sacrifice even more offence than they do now to ensure better coverage. The system will arrange itself to once again achieve homeostasis.
Although it seems I’ve been making an argument against reducing goaltending equipment, I’d like to propose the opposite. When the league mandates its new reductions, I hope it trims equipment to the bone. Take away all the excess, and ensure equipment is as streamlined as possible without sacrificing safety. Test it, tweak it, and get it right so we never have to have this conversation again. I’d personally love to play in less cumbersome, lighter, more responsive equipment, and I cannot imagine a professional goaltender who wouldn’t.
Then, when scoring is down again next season and save percentage climbs to another record high, we can focus on actual solutions that might have some impact on the game.