Is it time for larger nets?

NHL goaltenders have been improving, year-over-year, in nearly every season since the league started tracking save percentage. In the early 1980’s, an NHL team could expect to score 13 goals for every 100 shots it took; today, they can expect to score on less than nine.

Are bigger nets the answer?

League Average Save Percentage

The chart above shows the rise in save percentage over the time the NHL has recorded the statistic (data courtesy of QuantHockey).

The term “dead puck era” gets used a lot for that period in the mid-1990’s, but really it’s defined the Gary Bettman-run NHL. Bettman took over the league in February 1993; at the time the league-average save percentage was 0.885. It was up to 0.895 within one year, over 0.900 the next, and aside from a slight dip in 1995-96 it’s been going up ever since. In 2003-04, league-average save percentage hit a high at 0.911; it dropped following the lockout but matched that figure again in 2009-10 and has been that high or higher in every season since.

Larger Nets

Photo: Elliot/Wikimedia

Goal-scoring is a complex item that has to do with a lot of things – power play opportunities, the standard of officiating, coaching, player ability, player equipment and a host of other things. The 2005-06 dip was mostly a result of tightened officiating and increased power play opportunities, but either NHL teams have adapted or the standard has slipped because those power play opportunities have gone away and teams aren’t scoring more frequently at even-strength.

Larger nets address only one part of the problem, by making it easier to score once a player gets into shooting position. But addressing that one problem could help with the rest.

Part of the reason scoring has slipped is the prevalence of defensive systems. With modern goalies being so capable of stopping pucks, teams cannot consistently score their way out of trouble. What they can do is keep the other side from scoring, so my belief is that a low-scoring NHL is in some ways self-reinforcing; the rarer goals become, the more the emphasis is placed on preventing them.

Larger nets would allow teams to become more confident that getting shots will lead to getting goals, and should allow coaches to be more offence-focused – as well as placing more of a premium on guys who can score goals rather than guys who can prevent the other side from scoring goals.

Adaptation

The league adopted standardized nets (designed by Art Ross – he’s the fellow on the far right in the front row, posing with the rest of the Kenora Thistles and the Stanley Cup) in the 1920’s, in the same season that forward passes were legalized in the neutral and defensive zones (but not the attacking zone). The NHL has fiddled with supports and the shape of the frame, but the basic dimensions of the net – 6’ by 4’ – haven’t changed since then.

What has changed is goaltenders, and goaltending equipment. Goalies are bigger than ever; goaltending equipment is both larger and weighs much less than it did in years past. Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock made this point recently as he voiced his support for larger nets:

If the goalies [are] getting bigger than the net is getting smaller. By refusing to change you are changing. Purists would say you can’t do it because you’re changing the game but by not changing you are changing the game.

Goaltending equipment has received lots of attention over the years, and rightly so, but for a 6’4” goaltender it doesn’t matter how form-fitting the equipment is – he’s going to take up a lot of room. Additionally, at some point cutting into goaltending equipment introduces injury risks – something that isn’t true with larger nets.

In general, I’m a traditionalist. But the game has changed in the slightly less than 90 years since forward passing was the league’s biggest hot-button rule issue, and changing the size of the net to help compensate for the tremendous increases in goaltender size, equipment and ability seems a logical step to take.

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  • Quicksilver ballet

    Must-reading for hockey traditionalists would be Ellen Etchingham’s blog from March 2012:

    http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2012/03/05/history-lessons-what-hockey-is/

    Unlike baseball, which has been remarkably stable and balanced for over a century (the only really significant change to conditions under which baseball is played that I can recall in my lifetime is when they lowered the height of the pitching mound), hockey has always been and is always evolving. And that’s a good thing.

    My opinion only, but increasing the size of the nets to compensate for bigger, better goaltenders who wear equipment that is sometimes cartoonishly-bulky – (I mean, have you seen Ryan Miller being interviewed after a game? His “torso” is so disproportionately large that he looks like the victim of an Amazon head-shrinker) – is long overdue.

    Thanks for raising the question, Jon.

  • Tony Montana

    My thoughts, not that anyone asked for them. 🙂

    You will never see the playing surfaces get significantly larger. The reason for this are many.

    Finacial – fewer seats = less revenue

    Practical – It is simply not practical to convert every arena in North America to accomodate an “International Ice surface”

    Multi Use facilities – Many, if not most of the arena house a basketball team, which plays on a much smaller court than a hockey ice surface, building arenas that accomodate the international ice surface would negatively impact the game experience in these buildings for basketball.

    Is making the nets bigger an ideal solution? Maybe not, but it is the best and safest solution. If it could turn the league from the current 2-1 / 3-2 league that it is now into a 4-3 or 5-4 league then the sport as a whole would benifit.

    1-2″ wider and 1 – 2″ taller is a minute change that could pay huge dividends.

    As to the arguement “why punish the goalies?” Leagues punish certain groups all the time. The NFL makes it harder to play defense every year, why? Safety and scoring. This is a solution for the NHL which will not impact safety negatively but will affect scoring positively. Though to be fair a friend of mine and I were discussing this very issue last week, so of course I am going to support an idea I was floating to him last week.

  • ubermiguel

    See that big jump from around 1992 – 1995? What happened around that time? Expansion. The talent pool was diluted and systems were introduced. Too many talentless forwards in the NHL.

    Two part solution to increase scoring:

    (1) Reduce the size of goalie equipment which can be done without reducing safety. Pads, gloves, blockers, sticks, everything.

    (2) Contraction.

    • NewfoundlandOil

      There might be a jump, but it a minor fluctuation on a longer trend of upward SP.

      The same trend in the SEL.

      This seems to suggest that it is not due to a rule change at the NHL level that affects the overall trend.

      So yes expansion had a limited affect, but there is a larger underlying reason for increasing SP with time that is independent of:

      NHL rule changes, League and overall skill level, National Development programs, and Ice Size

      I am not sure what the explanation is.

      Is it a combination of: goalie equipment, rule changes, better fitness, goaltending style (see Patrick Roy), more focus on defensive systems?

      • ubermiguel

        The trend in the SEL (and other European leagues) could still be explained by expansion in the NHL.

        Talent would generally move away from the SEL into the North American minor leagues to fill 4 teams worth of players that were not good enough for the NHL previously.

        It’s not a total explanation, but that 0.015 increase over the same 2 years is suspicious.

        • NewfoundlandOil

          I was referring to a longer term trend in the SEL save percentage average from 0.868 in 1984 to 0.917 in 2012-2013.

          I get your point on the shorter term fluctuations from one league affecting the other, but the more significant variation seems a long term trend.

          From Post# 25:
          “Although I like the idea of larger ice I see your point and agree they are issues.

          Is there a correlation (or inverse correlation) between the rink size (KHL, SEL, etc.) and save percentage?

          Looking at rough Average SP for the SEL I get the following:

          1984-1985: 0.868 1995-1996: 0.882 2004-2005: 0.903 2012-2013: 0.917

          So it would seem to be a phenomena independent of ice size or league, but something globally changing with the game on an incremental basis (e.g. fitness, better player development/training, equipment, etc.)”

  • Dryden on bigger nets:

    “The real tradition we need to protect is the fair contest between the shooter and the goalie. You want a balance where real skill gets rewarded, and if the balance gets out of whack, the traditions have already been broken. The real traditionalist looks for a situation where the shooter has a chance, and the goalie has a chance.”

    That isn’t the case anymore. The stats JW present clearly show a dramatic shift in favour of the goalie.

    And if Luongo retires as a result, who gives a crap?

    • StHenriOilBomb

      Canucks fans give a crap. I sure as hell think it would be a funny ending to an embarrassing saga.

      I’m not sold on giving points in the standings for scoring a certain amount of goals in a game. The point of a hockey game should be to win, not to score a certain amount of goals. Every game I have ever played (cards, sports, board games) have different strategies based on whether it’s win/lose or if there are shades of both within a result. I think awarding 3 points for a regulation win has a similar effect without changing the emphasis of the game completely.

      Ken Dryden shows again his ability to think critically about the world. Smart cookie, that one.

      • ubermiguel

        The basis of this article is how to stop the increase in ave save percentage and the only way to do that is by scoring more goals. Taking away some of the goalie advantages(cheater on catching glove for eg) will help but I think you need to give incentives to teams to try to score more goals and win 5-3 or 4-2 rather than getting a goal and trying to hold on to win 1-0.

    • ubermiguel

      Goal posts in soccer and football; basketball hoops; cups in golf; bases in baseball…they aren’t changed. Rules are changed, equipment evolves and is regulated…but the purity of the game is the end goal being the same across generations.

  • ubermiguel

    In 1912 they went from 7 players to 6. Presumably the ice was too crowded or the quality of entertainment was too low.

    Today’s NHL players are too big for North American ice, and so the NHL should adjust by dropping from 5 skaters to 4. Games played on European-size ice can keep the current rules.

    The league ought to love it…fewer salaries. Fans ought to love it…more open ice, bigger need for people that can actually skate and pass. And the ice will be in better shape. Hell, maybe you could drop one referee because there are fewer players on the ice.

    NHLPA won’t like it, but if most members get higher salaries (hey, revenue sharing amongst fewer guys!) they’ll throw the guys who couldn’t keep their jobs overboard.

    Meanwhile, make the goalie use a regular stick, and reduce the size of his blocker and the cheater on his catching glove. (“Why is it called a cheater, Dad?”)

    • The Soup Fascist

      Three words addressing 4 on 4:

      NEVER NEVER EVER

      It would be a much more entertaining game, to be sure.

      But if you think the NHLPA will voluntarily give up 20% of it’s jobs, I am afraid you are dreaming in technicolor.

  • ubermiguel

    The reason goalies are bigger IMO is because they have over-sized equipment. They don’t have to be as fast as they once did. They can play the odds and just cover the high percentage areas of the net because they can block so much of it.

    Dubnyk is likely hooped if a change was made.

    Defensive systems of course contribute, as does obstruction when they don’t call it. By reducing the equipment size to safe and reasonable, players would be more likely to score from medium distance which would reduce the effect of better team play.

    It might also reduce injuries to skaters if they had more area for high percentage scoring chances.

    It definitely would make the games better to watch there being more offense. Nothing more boring than 5 collapsing to the front of the net. I miss the athletic goalies of the past.

  • T__Bone88

    Increasing the height and width of the net is the only logical solution. Expanding the ice surface to increase scoring should not even be discussed since North American arenas are built for the current ice size and owners would not take away potential income to increase scoring by 1 goal a game. Hockey in north america is a business and must market it self as such, a fast paced game. The 2-1 defensive games are sometimes great but most are boring if watching on TV and if the NHL wants to increase viewership it must allow for more scoring which makes the game more exciting. Increasing the size of the net by a few inches would not even be noticable and is less of a gimmick than the current trapezoid and shoot out.

  • NewfoundlandOil

    Reduce the goalie’s glove sizes and stick size. Enforce the rule book for holding and interference.

    Change one rule: Now, any period with fewer than 2 goals scored in it means the next period is played 4 on 4.

    The purists keep the purity of the game (the same game that they are currently complaining about because no one can score) and those of us who want to be entertained can be entertained.

    Do that for a couple of years and see what the appetite is for going back to the old ways.

  • Spydyr

    I’m a traditionalist but the game has changed .Watch a game form the 70’s or 80’s players had net to shoot at.Goals were scored off the wing with good shots. Messier used to beat goalies with a hard wrist shot on his off wing.

    Today the best way for teams to score is crowd the net and hope for a screen or a rebound.To me that is boring as hell.Bring the skill back give the shooter some twine to see.

    I’m with Dryden on this and if you have never read his book the game give it a go you won’t be disappointed.

    • Spydyr that is well said, could not agree more.

      Valid points.

      It’s a good discusion, constant improvement is not a bad thing.

      The NFL is now in the process of widing it’s feild because the players literally have out grown the original field.

      Would it be so bad if:

      The NHL put a moritorium on goalie equipment?

      If you were to make the ice surface 89 in width and 202 feet long?

      If you were to make the back end boards to the icing line 12 feet in length?

      What if goalie nets were 5 feet from top to bottom and 7 feet from side to side?

      To me you would see an increased flow to the game, maybe more end to end hockey and less trapping.

      players would be able to use there shot again, you may even see a tic-tac-toe scoring play!

  • Eddie Edmonton

    Increasing the size of the rink would not only make the scoring better and higher, but it would also make the NHL less boring and showcase more of the actual game of hockey.

  • Spydyr

    Nets don’t have to be any wider, the back door play still works wonderfully well, but make the nets a full 6 inches taller and that gets the goalies standing up. One or two inches taller will not be good enough.

  • Eddie Edmonton

    Great job JW. I truly don’t get the fear about this. As Dryden says, this game is based on a fair competition between shooters and goalies and that competition is out of balance. by NOT changing anything you are in fact changing everything. We’re viewed as radicalists but in fact we’re he ones who want to stick with tradition…the tradition of a balanced match between offence and defence. At this point a good 80% of goals are scored via some sort of screen, bounce, deflection or rebound.

    As in the NFL there should be a competition committee who meets every offseason with the express purpose of keeping scoring in a certain optimal range. The debate can be what that range is…is it 8 goals a game? 7? 9?

    So once they decide what that number is everything is on the table as far a changes go until they reach this optimal level. If equipment size, obstruction penalties and ice size don’t work then the more radical changes are looked at. Getting to 8 goals per game is non-negotiable. Maybe the next step is larger nets and if you have to you go to 4 on 4.

    Sure this is a difficult thing to consider because the changes needed are so huge but once they are implemented it would be tiny, tiny tweaks every year or two. Stop and think before you answer this question…

    Do you really think you’d even notice nets that are a few inches higher and wider after about 2 months?

    A few of the posters are correct about the long term impact of larger nets. Tiny increases in net size may have beautiful and meaningful effects on the game.

    -will taller nets keep goalies on their feet. If so, making a save becomes an action rather than the result of perfect positioning and technique.
    -since goaltending will now require movement coaches will be forced to change the culture of defensemen playing goalie. Too much net is unprotected and if a goalie can’t see the puck they can’t move to stop it. Shot blocking will be early (at point of shot) or not at all.
    -larger nets means more clean goals are scored and more clean goals means the hiring of more players who can score clean goals. In this world Linus Omark can find work and Lennert Petrell can’t.

  • Eddie Edmonton

    To all those who have mentioned contraction as a way to attack boring hockey, I salute you, the few the proud.

    I used to think Euro ice size might add to the excitement of a game, changed my mind. A 1-0 game can be electric. It’s scoring chances that provide much of the exciting aspect of hockey, if a goalie committs robbery on the SC, so be it, also exciting.

    MORE TALENT PER TEAM. CONTRACTION.

    Start with contraction, then tinker with other stuff.

    I am a broken record on contraction, and will stay broken 😉

      • Wax Man Riley

        Alternative to larger ice surface:

        Make the blue line 2 feet (or even 3 feet) wide instead of the 1′ they are now.

        It would make each zone longer since the puck or the player has to full cross the line before the are in or out of the zone.

        Now:

        defensive zone: 75’…

        neutral zone: 52′ (50′ + 1 foot each side for the blue lines)…

        offensive zone:75′

        total of 202′ actual playing surface.

        extended blue line to 3′

        defensive zone: 76’…

        Neutral zone: 54’…

        Offensive zone: 76′

        total of 206′ playing surface.

        Not a huge difference I know, but having an extra foot (or 2 feet depending on where the lines are drawn) in the offensive zone for world class players and defenders makes a difference.

  • TeddyTurnbuckle

    Forget about bigger nets. A 5% Goalie pad reduction over the next 3 to 4 years for an overall 15% size reduction. Goalie pads are ridiculous these days from the shoulder pads to the cheaters on their gloves. Most goalies look like the Michelin man out there. I think this would add 15% in goal production. Goalies should look like Bill Randford out there.

  • Eddie Edmonton

    Excellent topic

    The 4inchs wider and maybe higher would change the game big time.

    How many games have we seen three or four ring off the post.Those would be goals.

    Your point about coaches not being able to sit on leads would bring back fire wagon hockey.

    Now if you can only convince all the GMs to buy in .

  • Reg Dunlop

    How about standardizing goalie equipment( 20lb horsehair pads and Eddie Giacomin sized shoulder protection) combined with standardized sticks for skaters(straight wood Westars so goalies don’t get killed). Better yet, just watch hockey on ESPN Classic. Or still better, leave the damn game alone.

  • The reason it can’t happen is that it draws a permanent line under every scoring record ever achieved. 92 goals? Maybe someone beats it but is it legitimate? Perhaps the goal got 9% bigger… does that mean the new records have to be diminished by 9%. It would completely destroy the history of the game.

    Rather than more goals I would rather see better goals. Did it seem to anyone else that there is getting to be more and more goalmouth scramble goals and fewer from the traditional scoring areas?

  • Aitch

    Purists = those who can only remember hockey in their lifetime. The game is constantly changing, so, to hear anyone claim you can’t change due to tradition things is a crock.

    And I think we should throw out the argument about the record books too. Whoop-ti-do… a record. Does anyone really care if a record gets broke. No. Players don’t play to set records. Fans don’t watch to see if someone sets a record. Players play to win and fans watch to see wins and to be entertained. There are only three things that tend to entertain hockey fans… big saves, goals and fights. Fights are dying off and with the current defensive systems big saves and goals are becoming more rare as well.

    Bring on the bigger nets!