What We Learned: Are bigger nets really answer to NHL scoring woes? (Puck Daddy)
- Updated: May 11, 2015
(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it. The difference is just 1.21 inches. That’s about the size of a U.S. half-dollar. And yet in the NHL, it seems to be everything. Or so people would have you believe. That number is the difference in size between the average NHL goaltender in 1983-84 to present. And among many other things, that has lately been attributed to the much, much smaller number of goals being scored in the average NHL game. Over that same span — and this is a bizarre coincidence — the average number of goals scored per team per game is down… 1.21. Yup, add in everything from bigger pads and better training to larger players and improved theory, and goaltenders today have become dominant, near-invincible juggernauts who loom over results like malevolent clouds, ready to render the game boring. The average save percentage in the league this year was an all-time high .915. Back in ’84, it was just .873. Meaning that on every 1,000 shots, the average goaltender gives up 42 fewer goals than he did 31 years ago. Goalscoring is, in fact, at stultifying low levels for a lot of observers in the game. While the 2-1 wins being eked out on a near-nightly basis in these playoffs might leave fans’ nerves frayed, they also leave grouchy neutrals grumbling about where the hell all the goals they used to see 20 years ago went. The size of the goalies is certainly being blamed; the two guys in Saturday’s game check in at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-3, and the other goalies who were still alive for Sunday’s games are all at least 6-foot-1. These are large men, who in most cases are sizable even by NHL standards The average player has been about 6-foot-1 for a while now , and goalies tend to be the tallest among them. It’s almost impossible to believe that anyone would look at 1.21 inches and say to themselves, “Well this is the problem with the damn sport now,” but they might actually be right. These lines fit together pretty convincingly (all this data from Hockey Reference ): That increasing goaltender size would negatively impact goal-scoring stands to reason to some extent: bigger guys are typically going to have better save percentages because they take up more of the net. In theory anyway, because Anders Lindback is the second-tallest goalie in the league and he sucks. But what’s interesting is that these larger goaltenders with better save percentages also tend to play a lot more. In 1983-84, only 20 goalies played more than 40 games for their teams, meaning that there were guys who were clear starters for their clubs. This season that number was 30. Vancouver was the only team to double up exclusively, because they pulled and sat Ryan Miller (45 appearances) so many times that Eddie Lack got into 41 games. Arizona used Mike Smith in 62, and also gave Devan Dubnyk (58) some reps before trading him and allowing Minnesota to start him in many consecutive games. But again, we’re dealing with the size of a half-dollar, a little bit more than the tab on a can of soda (or beer if you like to party). So that can’t be the only reason. Again, though, 1983-84 — as far back as save percentage statistics go — is, coincidentally, the same year in which the Capitals hired the first goalie coach in league history. Now all 30 teams have them, and one would have to think there’s no coincidence there. Goaltenders now get specialized training not only at this level but throughout their playing careers, and kids can attend goaltending-specific hockey camps at a very young age. The reason NHL goalies back in the mid-80s were so bad by today’s standards (the league leader back then was Roland Melanson at a .903 that would have gotten him drummed out of today’s NHL faster than he could say “Pavelec”) that many highlights from back then featured goals being scored against netminders just standing there five feet out of their crease and kicking futilely at the puck, or simply laying down on the ice. Obviously the butterfly changed everything by the mid-1990s, as did the trap, as teams practiced a more defensive approach. And while I don’t think team play is appreciably more conservative throughout the league now, we clearly see that goals per game is down about 10 percent from the “Oh my god the Devils are murdering everything we love about the sport!!!” days. Can you blame that entirely on the fact that goalies are bigger? Probably not. Is that a contributing factor? The closeness of the trends in the above chart are also reflected below. Simply put, there’s a lot of mathematical correlation here (even if the height issue is one of about a billion ways the sport is different now than it was even a decade ago).