Olympic-sized ice no cure for NHL scoring drought
"There's probably two things the fans love seeing most," Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane says. "Goals and fights." So while the endless debate continues to churn about whether there is a rightful place for fighting in hockey, when it comes to scoring, there is no question: the more, the better.
For SI's NHL preview issue, Michael Farber addressed the league's goal-scoring plight. Eight years after the 2004-05 lockout, during which the NHL took some drastic measures to increase scoring, make the game better, more exciting, the league is — at least numerically — back to square one. The league-wide goals-per-game average has returned to Dead Puck era levels. In his piece, Farber explains that with better athletes in bigger equipment now standing guard at the net, hope for a golden age of goal-scorers might be lost.
The league took steps to shrink goalie equipment, removing a couple of inches from leg pads, and create more skating room around the net, but through the first two weeks of the season, it has hardly shown on score sheets. Through 57 games, the NHL is averaging 5.52 goals per game, a number that will only go down as the season progresses and teams get more comfortable with the changes.
Many players told SI last month that they didn't think lack of scoring was an issue in the game today, but conceded that it was something to consider in the future. So going forward, how can the league get more pucks in the back of the net?
It's a shame to continue to pick on the goalies, but it is an obvious place to start. Shortening the pads was a step, but there are other places -- gloves and paddles, for instance -- where their equipment could shrink. Of course, it's important not to neglect safety, but consider that of the 35 reported injuries to netminders last season, 60 percent were to the lower body, where they are theoretically best protected from the puck's impact. There is biological evidence that a goalie's style could make him more susceptible to injury than the actual action of stopping hard rubbing disks shot at high speeds. So perhaps correlating the equipment to a goalie's style, rather than his frame, would be better for the athlete. In some of those cases, bigger won't always be better. Taking away some of the blocker or parts of the glove could also help. The original guidelines were based on old, heavy-when-soaked, leather equipment. But today's gear, which is much lighter, gives the goaltender the advantage.
But equipment modifications don't have to end in goal. One player pointed out that a development in skater's gear that has contributed to the issue. "Our equipment as players now has also become so protective," Flames forward Mike Cammalleri says. "Blocking a shot used to be a big badge of honor, to go down and potentially break a bone because you're willing to block a shot for your team. Now, guys have so much protective equipment on their skates and their feet that they're like goaltenders, and blocking shots has become so much more prevalent.
"You see these shot blockers now on their feet, the plastic where you can actually turn your foot out and block a shot and not feel it," he says. "Well, you never used to turn your foot out to block a shot because if you got that on the ankle bone, you're done."
Perhaps shot-blocking has gone from art to rote, and it has perhaps taken some scoring opportunities out of the game in the process.
But one of the main points that players often made when discussing the lack of scoring league-wide now as compared to the first year after the 2004-05 lockout was the role of officiating. There was a drastic spike in power play opportunities per game in 2005-06, and that in turn inflated scoring. But what's been interesting is that while goals-per-game have shrunk to about pre-lockout levels, power play opportunities have dipped even more. The last two seasons, the league averaged 6.6 man advantage opportunities per game, the lowest number since 1977-78. And in 2011-12, 75.6 percent of all goals were scored at even strength, the highest rate since '79-80. So, tighter officiating could go a long way to help cure the lack-of-scoring epidemic.
It's been a couple of weeks since Farber's story came out, and a number of the letters that SI received have tried to make the case for moving to the wider, Olympic-sized rink to increase scoring in the NHL. With more time and space for defensemen to carry the puck into the zone, or for the crafty snipers to set up, the logic goes, the wider rink would allow players more room for creativity and a boost in scoring would come right along with it. But that simply wouldn't be the case, players say.
Speaking with a number of NHLers, many of whom had experienced playing overseas, the wider rink might result in exactly the opposite outcome. "It would change the whole game," Flyers center Claude Giroux says. "I played in Germany and on the big ice, and it's just a different game. It's not quick. It's more control the puck and control the game. It slows the game down. When it's tight ice, you have to move quick, make a play quick. You don't have two seconds before someone's on you."
Theoretically, more surface area would suggest more time and space, the two things that hockey players and coaches talk about with bated breath, like treasures they've sought their whole lives. But time and space are that important because they are in limited supply on the narrower ice.
On the wider sheet, the game is much more passive. It's waiting and surveying. Like soccer, scoring chances require more time and more collective effort. "On the smaller ice, if you get a half a step on a guy, you're now in a scoring position," Cammalleri says. "Whereas, on the Olympic ice, if you get a step on a guy, he still has room to catch you before you get to the net. He can get an angle on you before you get to a scoring position."
It seems small, but in this game of inches, that's all it really takes.