As a child, my father drove me across the snow-covered state of Wisconsin for countless youth hockey games. Although he was often pretty busy with work calls, we’d sometimes debate various topics, a few related to hockey. When I was in high school and the NHL started looking for solutions to create high-scoring games, my father had a bold solution that I scoffed at:
“Hey, what if shorthanded teams couldn’t ice the puck?”
The idea was completely laughable, me being an insufferable, indignant teenager aside. You want to take away shorthanded team’s ability to ice the puck? But that’s just part of hockey! You can’t do that!
Last week on a new episode of @2forpodcasting, my hockey podcast with my buddy Jack who I played with in college, we talked a little about the NHL’s goal-scoring initiatives (check out our website or follow us on Soundcloud if you want to listen). This last season, the NHL reduced the size of goalies’ pads as an effort to create more goals. While a lot of people seem to think that the initiative worked, it actually made nearly no impact. Scoring increased from 2.97 to 3.01 goals per game, a measly 0.04 goals increase.
While there was nearly no change in goalscoring, the side effects, if you will, were felt throughout the league. Sometimes a solution creates other problems, and reducing goaltenders’ pads led to the obvious issue of goalies having less protection.
Goalies have spoken up all season long about the smaller pads. Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitols predicted, “Sooner or later, someone’s going to get hurt pretty bad” while Ben Bishop told ESPN last October, “You honestly don’t want to get hit in the arm. It leaves bruises.” Finally, Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Brian Elliot informed the Courier Post, “It seems like every shot that you take that’s not clean on your blocker or in your glove, it’s leaving a mark.”
So, was this the right solution? The results were minimal and it put goaltenders at a higher risk of injury and fatigue. One could argue that this would benefit teams with a solid backup goaltender but, while I agree that it would be positive for hockey for backup goalies to get more playing time, accomplishing such a goal by injuring starters seems a little morally gray. Plus, if one argued that goal scoring increases with backup goaltenders because starters would be injured more often, that would go against the NHL as a brand trying to put their best product on the ice each night.
Some other mechanisms to increase goalscoring were floated about in conversation the last few years, one possibility being to increase the size of the goals. With greater dimensions, theoretically goalies would have more space to cover, and therefore it would lead to more goals being scored.
Increasing the size of nets is a fascinating idea, although I question if it leads to actual solutions. To begin, goaltenders would have to extend themselves much more with a larger net. It is possible to imagine a world where the butterfly-style goalies that dominate the NHL need to discover new forms and techniques to cover more space, but that seems to be more on the hopeful side of changes rather than the realistic side. What would be more likely is that goalies simply focus more on their positioning relative to the puck.
Additionally, in having to cover more net in scrambles for the puck, is it not more likely that a goalie would overextend themselves, leading to more injuries? Groin injuries are already common among goaltenders despite their acrobatic flexibility. People do not make it to the NHL without a competitive drive, and goalies are going to flex every limb in their body to make a save. In needing to cover more net, they are likely at a much greater risk of injuring a groin or tearing some other muscle.
Finally, wrap-around goals would become endangered. Think about it: if you have a wider net, forwards need to cover more space and change their angles differently when skating down by the goal line. Presumably, goaltenders would have more time to react to a skater making a wrap-around attempt. They would have much more time to adjust to such skaters and to foil such attempts.
Therefore, if the NHL really does want to increase goalscoring, why not go full nuclear and tell teams that icing will be enforced when a team is shorthanded?
First and foremost, the team on the power play is going to have the puck in their offensive zone much more often if the other team cannot ice the puck. On the podcast, my co-host Jack argued that players could just become better at chipping the puck out at the perfect distances, but that really only accounts for when players have time and space. Players on a penalty kill, unless they are facing the Predators, typically will never have time and space with the puck. So often, players will race to the corner for a puck and the shorthanded team will try and smack it as quickly as possible and as hard as possible out of the zone. If they pull back even slightly on that puck, the likelihood a defender is able to intercept that puck increases dramatically.
Second, power play goal scoring is going to increase because of this rule. Shorthanded players are not going to be able to change as often, leading to more tired bodies on the ice defending. Should they ice the puck, they still are going to be stuck out there. Perhaps the solution is brutal towards the shorthanded team, but it is just standard hockey rules with one less body on the ice.
Third, because power play scoring is going to be increased, players are going to be more deterred from taking penalties. Or rather, if the players are not deterred, general managers are not going to risk keeping high-penalty-minute players on their rosters. The risk of penalties becomes simply too high.
This would theoretically lead to a decrease in penalty-inducing behavior, which, as we saw with the NHL cracking down on slashing in 2017-18, could lead to a dramatic increase of scoring. When slashing was addressed by the NHL, goals per game jumped from 2.77 to 2.97 goals per game, the biggest increase since the 2005-06 lockout. This was five times the change in scoring from this past season with smaller pads. When players have the ability to just play hockey, goal scoring is going to increase. Therefore, enforcing icing when a team is shorthanded would indirectly lead to more even-strength goals.
I understand why the NHL wants to increase the number of goals scored per game. Whether more goals is necessary or not is a whole other debate, but the NHL is going about this all wrong in reducing the size of goaltenders’ pads. In what should have been the most impactful season, the reduction in pad size made little difference in goals per game while putting goalies at a much greater risk of injury and fatigue. With goalies the caliber of Carey Price and Sergei Bobrovsky now commanding upwards of $10m per season, do we really want to put them at a higher risk of injury? Of course not.
Instead, as I failed to do as an angst-filled teenager, we should take the advice my father gave me driving back from a rink in Kenosha to Milwaukee: shorthanded teams should not be allowed to ice the puck.