Philadelphia Flyers: Bring on the Smaller Goalie Pads

Goalies often make up the backbone of most teams. Yet the uniform has often caused some controversy.

One my favorite Philadelphia Flyers anecdotes is from the 1997 playoffs.  As the heavily-favored Flyers were beating up on the Buffalo Sabres, Sabres coach Ted Nolan accused Flyers goalie Garth Snow of using wood blocks to prop up his shoulder pads.  After one game, the Buffalo media asked to inspect Snow’s pads, and Snow gave the all-time classic reply that they could not because the pads were in the woodshop.

Some of that interchange was certainly playoffs gamesmanship, but a forgotten denouement was that the league later decided that Snow’s pads were illegal.  The league cited Rule 21, section (a): “With the exception of skates and stick, all equipment worn by the goalkeeper must be constructed solely for the purpose of protecting the head or body, and he must not wear any garment or use any contrivance which would give him undue assistance in keeping goal.”

That same text above survives in the 2015 NHL rulebook at Rule 11.1, but the fact that there is a bulky part of the goalie blocker commonly referred to as the “cheater” might imply that the NHL isn’t making much of an effort to enforce that rule.

Steve Mason, for one, doesn’t see a problem.  “I don’t see why the goaltenders can’t be the stars of the league and have the nice numbers as opposed to 50-, 60-goal scorers. Why can’t guys have .930 save percentages and low goals against? That’s my opinion from a goalie’s standpoint.”

Dec 17, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason (35) makes a save against the Vancouver Canucks during the third period at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers defeated the Canucks, 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Legendary NHL goalie Ken Dryden offers a different goalie’s standpoint.  Dryden has noted:

The principle, so universally understood as to require no discussion, was that equipment was to protect the body..Anything more was unthinkable.

But if by protecting your body, equipment also made you a better goalie, over time it might seem that the real purpose of goalie equipment was to make you a better goalie…Besides, shot at one hundred miles per hour, even with a well-protected goalie, even one with equipment that sticks well out from the body, the puck hurts. So to a goalie, anything new that he adds to his equipment is arguably for protection. And to a League administrator, a former forward or defenceman, who wouldn’t be caught dead playing goal, who doesn’t understand goalies, and who by now is so confused by all this, it all seems allowable…goalies have gone from Gumbylike stick figures to net-protecting objects as big as a house. The principle that the purpose of equipment is to protect the body, not the net, has been forgotten.

These are not new points.  I’m not sure what has set off this new round of discussion amongst the media and the league to revisit the issue, but it’s past due.  The issue is pretty obvious when you compare a photo of the 6’4″ Dryden against a photo of the 6’2″ Ryan Miller.

Nov 7, 2015; Buffalo, NY, USA; Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller (30) gets a standing ovation from the Buffalo Sabres fans in commemoration of his time in Buffalo during the game against the Vancouver Canucks at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

For the record, Ryan Miller weighs 168 pounds, and is beanpole thin without his pads.

Such changes lead to obvious results.

There is nothing wrong with a 2-1 game.  Indeed, they can be very exciting.  The problem is, the average 2-1 game has a lot fewer scoring chances than the average 5-3 game.  With hitting reduced and fighting all but removed from the game, scoring chances and goals are the plays that fans cheer.  Hockey fans don’t go to the rink to give polite golf claps for efficient neutralization of the opponent in the neutral zone, or to see the puck disappear in a giant puff of goalie equipment.

A lot has changed in the game in recent history.  Players are faster.  Teams are better coached.  Lineups are deeper, shifts are shorter and everyone backchecks much harder.  There are not many obvious areas for improvement amongst the skaters, but things don’t feel right in the crease.

To be fair, goalies are better they ever.  They are bigger and more athletic.  They are also better coached, and their butterfly technique has been perfected down to a science.  It should not be forgotten, however, that equipment improvements pre-date and allowed the butterfly style to be created in the first place.  Now we’ve gone around the bend where everyone plays a butterfly hybrid style, and the equipment is designed specifically to make that style of play more effective.

There is no correct answer for how many goals there should be per game, or what goalie saves percentage are supposed to be.  The league should not target specific numbers, but it should recognize that we are at historic levels in favor of goalies.  Furthermore, there is no sign that the trend of increasingly dominant goalies won’t continue to become more and more aberrant.  Fighting the feedback loop of increasingly dominant goalies looking for an edge with equipment designed to protect the net instead of their body is the affirmative duty of the league.

There is nothing unfair to goalies about shrinking historically large equipment.  If a good goalie with large equipment plays well and wins 30 games while being top-5 in the league with a .930 save percentage, he is none worse off he plays well with smaller equipment and wins 30 games and is top-5 in the league with .920 save percentage.  In the latter case, the fans win by having more exciting and eventful games with an increased sense of danger and uncertainty on each shot.

Goalies will complain.  They will make both real and contrived claims of their safety.  None of that excuses inaction by the league.  NHL hockey used to be played by skaters with curve-less sticks shooting on mask-less goalies who were forced by rule and necessity to play a standup style.  Throughout all the changes in player skill, size, and equipment, the goals have stayed the same size.  If changing the size of the net is sacrilege, the least we should ask is that the net is protected by a man wearing pads, instead of a “net-protecting object as big as a house” with a man somewhere inside.