Another installment in our Hockey “By The Numbers” blog series.

There is no question that scoring in the first couple weeks of the NHL season is up at an unprecedented level. With such a small sample size – and so early in the season – it’s hard to tell if this is an anomaly, cyclical event or if it is foreshadowing the upcoming season.

If it is an anomaly or cyclical event, it will simply level out to a more familiar level. That would be a shame for the fans, as the game has been very exciting to watch (unless you’re an empathetic goalie). If the trend portends how the upcoming season will go, then this could be one of the most exciting and record-breaking seasons ever. Records from the ‘80s that had already been declared unbreakable (did you ever see how wide-open ‘80s hockey was) may be in jeopardy being toppled.

Regardless of whether it is a permanent or temporary condition, let’s try to figure out why it is happening in the first place. I have a couple of theories.

Goalie equipment changes

The NHL Competition Committee has been implementing a long term plan to reduce the size of goalie equipment since at 2003-04. I have to agree with the practical goal of this, in that the goalies wear equipment that fits their body. Goaltending in the NHL has become a game for big men wearing even bigger equipment. Goaltending has become an uninteresting exercise in blocking. Gone are the days when small and athletic goalies such as Arturs Irbe, John Vanbiesbrouck and Dominik Hasek would provide at least 15 minutes of highlight reel each and every night. Hasek would spend more time on his back and making saves with his head than he would in a conventional way.

Goalies in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were beginning to wear pads so big that they forced the hand of the NHL. This finally happened in 2003-04 when the maximum length of leg pads was specified to be 38 inches. However, this wasn’t relative to the height of the goalie. The result was that small goalies continued to wear pads that were disproportionate to their height. Next, in 2005-06 the maximum width of the pads was limited to 11 inches. Prior to this, the norm was for pads to be 12+ inches wide each. They also made a small adjustment to the rules in 2008-09 related to the boot area.

In 2010-11 they conducted a major overhaul of the rule when they finally specified that the pads a goalie wear should be anatomically proportional to their physical characteristics. This was quantified as a pad that could only run 55% up the goalie’s thigh. They also wrote a pragmatic clause that allows the NHL to make determinations as to what that size should be. In other words, if it looks too big to a fan, it probably looks too big to the NHL and they can require a change.

In the middle of the 2017 season, the phased-in a new rule that limited the size of goalie pants and thigh guards to make them more form-fitting. Beginning with this season, new chest protector rules that spell out dimensions went into effect. The combination of all this reduction in the size of goalie equipment is designed to and undoubtedly will have a positive effect on scoring, and this roll-out appears to have had immediate impact.

One of the only remaining steps would be to increase the size of the goal, but that is a very extreme step with potential consequences across all levels and leagues worldwide. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so that should be a last resort.

Goalie injuries

A number of starting goalies are out right now with injuries.

  • Jonathan Quick – Los Angeles Kings
  • Roberto Luongo – Florida Panthers
  • Corey Crawford – Chicago Blackhawks
  • Scott Darling – Carolina Hurricanes
  • Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils
  • Matt Murray – Pittsburgh Penguins

This represents nearly 20% of the league! I am not making the assumption that the backup and call-up goalies who are playing are not capable but I am also not not making that assumption. I think most fans would rather see their starter play (except for Flyers fans perhaps, but bad news – Michal Neuvirth is also injured…).

More aggressive power plays

This is a trend that has been in effect for several years. It has become the new normal to run four forwards out on the power play in an aggressive attempt to score. And this season so far, the conversion rate is hovering around 20%, with four teams (Devils, Maple Leafs, Capitals and Stars) at 50%. My hot take is that by the end of the season, you may see the lethal power play of the Maple Leafs actually run five forwards out there. Here is an example:

  1. Auston Matthews
  2. John Tavares
  3. Connor Brown
  4. William Nylander (if he comes back) or Nazen Kadri
  5. Mitch Marner

That unit could be deadly, and I think that eventually all teams will run power play units with five forwards. But what is the flip-side to an aggressive power play? Shorthanded goals. And those are increasing as well. A five-forward power play unit is bound to screw thing up sometimes and the goalies will see shorthanded odd-man situations more often.

Conclusion

I am not sure if my theories are really why scoring is up, or if this trend will persist. I think that I am probably on the right track though, as the intended outcome of reducing the size of goalie equipment is finally being seen. I think that the aggressive power-play units we are seeing is a rare case of something new being brought into the league, akin to the Wildcat formations in the NFL. It’s not often hockey sees anything innovative like that, so it’s exciting. Innovation in the NHL is usually neutral-zone traps or trying to keep the goalie away from the puck behind the goal.

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