It’s not a rule change, but the decision to enforce the 26-inch maximum paddle length on goalie sticks after years of ignoring it has forced a lot of NHL stoppers to swap sticks and adjust their games on short notice.
Estimates vary on the number of goaltenders that were using sticks with paddles longer than 26 inches. One NHL goalie coach pegged the number at “roughly half,” while an industry insider, whose company makes NHL sticks for three different brands, said it was closer to 80 per cent.
So imagine the surprise when the NHL sent a memo to teams September 5 confirming the 26-inch maximum would be enforced this season.
“We had to change my stick because I have used the same stick for five years and all of a sudden it’s too long,” Edmonton Oilers No.1 Devan Dubnyk told InGoal Magazine during the pre-season. “We’ve tried to work with it to make it as little of an adjustment as possible. I need a little bit more grip around it because I narrowed it down, and that’s it.”
At least Dubnyk started tinkering before training camp. There was talk of the NHL enforcing the rule as early as mid-August, but few, including most manufacturers, believed it, saying they’d heard many times it before.
This time, though, it’s actually happening. And just like any other piece of illegal equipment, if a goalie is caught with a long paddle in a post-game inspection, they are subject to an automatic two-game suspension, the equipment manager is fined $1,000, and the team is dinged $25,000.
Unlike a player’s stick, it is not subject to in-game measurement.
Ottawa Senators backup Robin Lehner is having a tougher time adjusting to a paddle that is two inches shorter. It certainly didn’t help that he didn’t find out about the reduction until midway through training camp, and didn’t get his new, shorter-paddled sticks until two days ago.
“I haven’t even practiced with them yet – and we go on the road to Buffalo tomorrow,” Lehner told InGoal Magazine late Wednesday night.
Lehner wasn’t aware the rule already existed because it was never enforced.
“I had no clue. I had my 28 inch for a very long time,” he said.
Two inches may not seem like much, but goaltenders grip their stick where the shaft intersects the thicker paddle, so changing that point relative to the ice can force an altered stance or blocker position, opening up holes on the blocker side arm, and even causing balance issues in the crease.
Lehner said it was a much bigger adjustment than the new, smaller pads. And with stick usage and discipline expected to become even more important as those trimmed down pads open up the 5-hole, getting comfortable with the shorter paddle will be important.
“You balance a little on your stick,” Lehner said. “When I feel it touch the ice, I know that I am in my right stance. And now all of a sudden I don’t touch the ice, and all of a sudden it throws my balance off. It throws a little bit of everything off. It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s different.
Lehner switched to a longer paddle stick when he came to North America and played his first season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2009.
“We develop a posture, a goalie stance, that we are comfortable with, and when I was younger I had big problem with bending over too much and I was getting beat high a lot, and then when I got over here I started changing paddle height and got more upright, a new stance that has just really been working for me,” he said. “And now all of a sudden … when you change the stick, you change your balance and your stance.”
Eddie Lack, who has yet to get his shorter sticks, worries about that too.
“I don’t really know yet,” Lack told InGoal. “The fear for me is that I get a little too low and then you lean forward and it changes your stance.”
Lehner stopped several times to make it clear he didn’t want to complain, saying he was “very new to the league too, so it’s really not my spot to say too much.” But he admitted it was a little frustrating, especially since goalies that are 6-foot-6 are allowed to use a longer paddle.
At 6-foot-5 Lehner is limited to the same paddle as a goalie under 6-feet tall.
“That’s a little frustrating because I just don’t see the logic,” he said. “A goalie under 6-foot can have 26 inches and I can only have 26 inches at 6-foot-5. But if you are one inch taller, you can have two inches longer. Of course I am frustrated because it changes my game but it’s not my spot to complain about it. I can just say it will affect my game and it will.”
Complicating matters further are the inconsistent measurements from one company to the next, with a stick stamped as a 28” paddle in one brand stacking up the same as a 26” paddle from another manufacturer. Even the measurements outlined in the NHL rule book rely on determining where the paddle starts above the heel of the stick, which can vary depending on the lie of the blade and the curve as it transitions up to the paddle.
Of course that wasn’t an issue when the rule first came into being because goal sticks were still squared off at the corner, so establishing a standard on curved heels will be important now that the NHL is enforcing it. Unless the goalies get their way next summer, and make the rule as antiquated as those old square sticks.