Bigger nets? Smaller goalie equipment? NHL weighs options to boost scoring

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Blackhawks goalies Tony Esposito (left) and Scott Darling (right). (AP Photo)

The last thing Patrick Kane needs right now is a bigger net to shoot at. The red-hot winger has scored a goal in seven straight games, something no Blackhawks player has done since Steve Larmer did it in 1987. But Kane, who’s scoring on forehands and backhands, breakaways and one-timers, pretty shots and greasy smacks, is very much the exception in the NHL these days, not the rule.

Scoring, as always, is down this year. Teams are combining for an average of 5.28 goals per game, down a bit from last season’s 5.32, which was down from the previous season’s 5.34. Ten years ago, after a wave of post-lockout rules changes designed to boost scoring from levels as low as the current one, the average was 6.05 goals per game. Twenty years ago, it was 6.29.

In the 1981-82 season, teams combined for a whopping 8.02 goals per game. That season, Wayne Gretzky scored a record 92 goals, and posted an unthinkable 212 points.

Current players can’t imagine what it must have been like to play in the 1970s and ‘80s. Last season’s scoring champion, Dallas’ Jamie Benn, had just 87 points.

“We’re fine,” Teuvo Teravainen shrugged. “Sometimes you score, sometimes not. Of course, maybe the fans want to see more goals. But I think it’s fine.”

Well, Teravainen isn’t the paying customer, or the casual television viewer. The NHL wants more fans, and it thinks the best way to attract them is with more goals. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has been beating the drum for larger nets, to account for the increased size and skill of modern goaltenders, provoking an interesting discussion around the league in the wake of last week’s GM meetings about the best way to improve the game, without fundamentally altering it.

Larger nets, of course, present a host of concerns. The record book would be split into two completely different eras. Goalies who have spent their whole lives building muscle memory to cover a 4-by-6 area would have to relearn their positions. Kane even wondered if it would be changed at only the NHL level, or at every level of hockey, from pee-wee to the pros, and how logistically feasible that would be.

“I don’t really know,” Teravainen said. “But thank God it’s not my decision.”

Kane had a simpler solution, one that’s shared by most fans and players around the league.

Well, everybody except for the goalies.

“I know players shoot with a lot more velocity and acceleration than they used to, but maybe if you could take down the goalie gear a bit first, and then see how that works instead of widening the nets,” Kane said. “I think any offensive player would like to see that.”

While the stick technology and the fitness levels of skaters is dramatically better than it was in the past, the most glaring thing you notice when watching highlights from the freewheeling 1970s and ‘80s are the goalie pads. Go back and watch Tony Esposito or Murray Bannerman — the thin leg pads, the slight shoulders, the small glove and modest blocker. Somewhere along the line, those leg pas grew into inflatable rafts, with massive shoulder pads and gloves. While the pads have been scaled down a small amount since the days of Michelin-Man goalies such as Arturs Irbe and Garth Snow in the early 2000s, they’re still massive. Factor in how big and athletic goalie are, eschewing the clunky stand-up style for modified butterflies, and there’s nothing for a shooter to shoot at anymore.

Goalies counter that the extra gear is needed because of the extra power shooters have with composite sticks. But it’s over the top now.

“Fans want to see goals,” said Hawks goalie Scott Darling, who’s 6-foot-6. “Everybody loves to watch highlight-reel great goals, other than the goalie who got scored on. It’s what people want to see. But coaches and players adapt, and find out new ways to play defense or keep pucks out of the net. I don’t know what else you can do other than stop people from getting better and changing their game.”

It seems inevitable that the league will try to shrink the goalie equipment to boost scoring, rather than widen the nets — “I’m not ready for that kind of action,” Joel Quenneville joked. And Kane will be happy to see it, because it’ll make him an even more prolific scorer. But he thinks the problem is blown out of proportion to begin with.

It might be easy for him to say, considering he’s basically scoring at will these days, but he thinks the game is just fine the way it is.

“It seems like you gather more fans, more interest, just the way the game is right now, especially the way young players are coming in, how skilled they are, how fast they are,” Kane said. “You’re seeing a new generation, as far as the way players come into the league and are able to play at such a young age. I think that’s great for entertainment value. I don’t know if I’d change too much. I think the game’s in a pretty good place.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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