Kovacevic: Want more goals? Try net gain
A couple weeks ago, the NFL's commissioner strongly suggested he'd be open to eliminating the extra point. Roger Goodell called the kicks “automatic” and added, “You want to add excitement with every play.”
A bit before that, Bud Selig, Goodell's counterpart at Major League Baseball, began pushing a ban on home plate collisions. His motivation wasn't excitement, obviously, but to prevent concussions and other injuries.
Bold stuff, huh?
Both those changes, if approved, would wipe out prominent elements of football and baseball that have existed since their births more than a century ago.
Now, in that context, let's look at the NHL. And let's assume the league has a commissioner who prefers to address problems with actual authority rather than ducking or delegating.
(Yeah, I know it's Gary Bettman. Just play along, OK?)
What's the NHL's biggest problem?
From this view, it's the lack of scoring.
Feel free to disagree, but the game would be more entertaining, more popular and, thus, stewarded by more people who would care about more serious stuff like goonism and player safety. Nothing leads to change quite like multiplying outrage.
Since obstruction rules in 2005 offered a brief reprieve from the NHL's perennially sinking scoring, the league's average goals per game has gone from 6.05 a season later to 5.52 currently. There were 116 shutouts in 2005-06, and we're on pace for 155 now. We had six scorers hitting the 50-goal mark then, but only Alexander Ovechkin is on that pace now. We had 11 40-goal guys then, but only six are on that pace now.
This is a problem, even if Bettman abjectly refuses to even acknowledge it. For every great goaltending duel that brings a 2-1 game, I'll show you 10 dreadful duds. For every diehard who takes delight in tactical excellence, I'll show you 100 who change the channel after the first few minutes without a goal, never to return. And never mind the impact on players becoming individual stars.
There. I'm done.
I could moan about officiating and hooking and holding and traps and passive boxes. I could even get a little creative and propose that penalty-killers no longer can ice the puck. (I mean, seriously, who in the name of Guy Carbonneau thought to give the penalized team a special advantage?)
But there's no need when the solution is so painfully obvious.
The nets currently are 6x4, and that hasn't changed since the Stanley Cup was more of a Dixie Cup. And yet, in all the time that's passed, the players have grown by roughly 3 inches and 30 pounds in the past half-century, and the goaltending pads have grown at the pace of a Michelin Man a decade.
The rinks are at least a little larger, the lines have been repainted, rules have been modified, all aimed at additional offense, and none of it's working.
I say they should grow by the width of the post, so every shot that currently clangs off would now go in. That's the most common thought attached to this subject, and it's a sound one.
Or, in an idea proposed by former NHL vice president Mike Murphy in 2009, the only time this issue ever took traction, they could keep the existing size but angle the posts inwardly — rather than having them rounded off — so that more shots will enter rather than ricocheting out.
Wouldn't even look much different to the naked eye.
Well, be sure it won't be easily done, and Bettman isn't the only reason.
The most common argument against is that history would be distorted, that Sidney Crosby should have to shoot at the same net as Mario Lemieux or Gordie Howe, that goal records would be out of whack.
As Marc-Andre Fleury, who unsurprisingly chooses status quo, put it over the weekend, “The records are with these nets, right? That's big. There's history. They should think about that.”
Sorry, Flower. With all due respect, that history's already been blown to bits.
Look at footage from just 15 to 20 years ago. The goaltenders were comparative skeletons. In that era, a Guy Lafleur or Mike Bossy could burst down the wing and rip a slap shot from the outside hash that would find twine. Heck, I remember Ron Duguay and Randy Cunneyworth doing it. When it happens now — almost never — we call them “old-school goals.”
If anything, restoring the shooting room that was in place for the bulk of the NHL's existence will respect history, not defile or distort.
Another argument is goaltender safety.
Again going back to Fleury, “All of our training is on these nets, so it would be tough to switch. Even a small change would be big.”
He's right. Splits would be more extreme on the wider shots. Some would come higher, too, risking the head.
Moreover, you can't shrink goaltending equipment any more than was done through stricter enforcement two years ago. Skaters are faster than ever, and their sticks are now loaded weapons. Goaltenders deserve to counter that safely.
But hey, it's not like they're happy about shots hitting the posts now, right?
Another argument, plain and simple, is that it's just too big a change.
“Everybody talks about scoring, but the league is pretty good right now,” Kris Letang was saying. “Look at the standings. Basically, everybody but a few teams has a shot. That's what we want, right? It's supposed to be competitive. That's exciting, teams having a chance. Why change if it's already going good?”
So, tight and competitive, or high-flying and fun?
Hockey's greatest period of growth came in the explosive 1980s when Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux shoved the game into the national mainstream. I'll take growing the nets to grow the game.