The NHL has been searching for ways to increase scoring on and off for the past 20 years. Ever since the New Jersey Devils trapped their way to success in the mid-1990s, the league has taken measures to make life easier for the game's top goal scorers.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL abandoned the two-line pass rule, ceased tolerating all of the hooking and holding that slowed the game to a crawl, and added a trapezoid behind the net to prevent goalies from handling the puck. It all translated to an additional goal per game during the 2005-06 season over the 2003-04 campaign.
But as time progressed, teams learned to work around the rules, and once again, goal-scoring began to decline.
That's when the NHL thought it had another solution to the problem: Goalies would wear smaller pads, and there would be more room behind the net starting with the 2013-14 season. The theory was more pucks would find the back of the shallower nets than in recent years.
Through one month, however, goaltenders have had little to no trouble making adjustments.
This season, teams are scoring an average of 2.76 goals per game, which just about matches the numbers of the past two seasons. It may have been a concern for goaltenders in the early stages of the season, but they have risen to the challenge.
"At the beginning, I thought it was way tougher then than it is now," said Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding, who lost an inch and a half off the top of his leg pads yet leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.09) and save percentage (.951). "I just feel that I have to accept more with rebound control and your five-hole, you have to make sure that you squeeze tight because you’re missing a couple of inches now. More than anything, the more I play with them, the more comfortable I feel with them."
The NHL tweaked the rule regarding leg pads, which was instituted prior to the 2010-11 season. Previously, a goalie's leg pads could not go higher on the leg than 55 percent of the distance between the center of his knee and his pelvis. The new rule reduces the number to 45 percent.
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So if a goalie's upper-leg measurement was 20 inches, the pad could not go higher than 11 inches above the center of his knee. Under the new rule, the pad can't go higher than 9 inches.
The change made a lot of sense. The thinking behind the decision was it would provide more room for shooters to fire the puck, which is 3 inches in diameter, through the five-hole. Instead, goaltenders as a whole have adjusted with little to no difficulty. Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, who lost a little more than 2 inches off the top of his leg pads that looked like they could touch his throat at times, is at 2.10/.921 this season after going 1.94/.926 last season.
Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who is third among starting goaltenders in save percentage (.937) and fourth in GAA (1.96), lost a little more than an inch on his leg pads. He said the adjustment wasn't as big a deal for him because during summer workouts he uses old leg pads, which tend to shrink as they get older.
"Pads shrink over time, so by the time I got the ones that were shorter, they were about the same size as what I was practicing with all summer," Lehtonen said. "It wasn’t a big enough thing for me to notice whether they were shorter or not. I was one of the few goalies that the change wasn’t big. Some guys lost more than 2 inches per pad. That’s when you start feeling it."
Lehtonen said the biggest adjustment for him has been the shallower nets. The nets lost 4 inches in depth, which doesn't sound like much, but has created havoc for Lehtonen on wraparounds:
Those wraparounds come a lot quicker. That’s made it tougher for the goalies. I don’t think there’s been goals (scored against him), but there’s been a lot of really close calls. I’ve been a goalie over 20 years and you get used to how much time you have when a guy is wrapping around. Now it’s all changed. There’s only so much time. There’s lots of scrambling and lots of doing the splits and stuff like that. There’s not been goals scored yet on me because of that. It’s just a lot of close calls.
An issue that concerns Lehtonen is the rash of lower-body injuries that have been suffered by goaltenders this season.
How would you increase scoring in the NHL?
Both Harding and Lehtonen said they don't mind the rule changes as long as they feel protected. Several goaltenders have missed time this season with lower-body injuries—Cam Ward of the Hurricanes, Cory Schneider of the Devils, Devan Dubnyk of the Oilers among them—and Lehtonen, who missed five games with a lower-body injury this season, believes the confluence of the new rules could be contributing to the maladies:
I’ve talked to a few goalies about it because we’re seeing so many more lower-body injuries this year in goalies than before. I think that has something to do with it. There’s more scrambling and more doing the splits and stuff like that. And some goalies because of the smaller pads, some goalies have to stretch more to get behind the puck. Then also all the quicker little plays around the net because of the shallower nets. I think those two things are not helpful for goalies.
Lehtonen acknowledges he has dealt with groin and back issues in the past, so he didn't want to hang the blame on his lower-body injury this season on the new rules. Harding said worrying about injuries isn't going to help him do his job.
"I try not to think too much about all this stuff," Harding said. "If you start putting things in your mind, it’s going to make shots tough to stop. More than anything, I just worry about what I can do."
There's no way to prove that these injuries are the direct result of smaller pads and shallower nets, but the NHL clearly hasn't gotten what it wanted with these rule changes.
All quotes were obtained first-hand by the author.