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Net Gains: Opening The Gate To More Goals

It's August, the most barren month of the year as far as hockey is concerned. The 2015 Stanley Cup Final is but a distant memory, the big moves of July have been made, and all the analysis to be done has been done. What better time to fill with an opinion piece?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Wasn't it great last season, seeing the Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn score 100 points and win the Art Ross Trophy? The Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin score 60 goals and win the Rocket Richard Trophy? The Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson lead all defencemen with 80 points? What? None of you remember any of that? Of course you don't, because none of that actually happened. Benn scored 87 points, Ovechkin scored 53 goals, and Karlsson scored 66 points. Not to take away from any of those accomplishments, but man, that is seriously underwhelming. What can possibly be done to reverse this trend and get more goals? It's simple, make the nets bigger.

An Offensive History

The Golden Age of Offensive Hockey, a period I just made up, lasted from 1968 until 1996. In this time, only once did the Art Ross Trophy winner not score at least 120 points (1994/95, Jaromir Jagr), only twice did the leading goal scorer not score at least 50 goals (1969/70, Phil Esposito; 1994/95, Peter Bondra), and only three times did the goals-per-game average fall below 6.0 (1968/69, 5.961; 1969/70, 5.809; 1994/95, 5.973). 1994/95 was a lockout-shortened season and offence generally drops when the players have a summer and fall of rust to deal with going in.

The 1970s saw routine 120+ point scorers, including Bobby Orr's two Art Ross Trophies, and had a handful of seasons with more than five 100+ point scorers. Mike Bossy had his nine consecutive 50+ goal seasons between 1977/78 and 1985/86. During the 1980s, Wayne Gretzky had four 200+ point seasons, establishing the current 215-point and 92-goal records, and Paul Coffey set the defencemen goal-scoring record with 48. The early-to-mid 1990s weren't devoid of offensive accomplishments, as Teemu Selanne set the 76-goal and 132-point rookie scoring records in 1992/93, among 20 other 100+ point scorers and 44 total 84+ point (one point for every game on the schedule) scorers. Cam Neely scored 50 goals in 49 games in 1993/94, and 1995/96 had twelve 100+point scorers and eight 50+ goal scorers.

After that, the Dead Puck Era started in earnest, with clutch-and-grab hockey and the neutral zone trap becoming the dominant playing styles. Scoring went down, only a couple of players every season would score 50 goals or 100 points. Some seasons even went without one or the other happening (1998/99, 47 goals; 1999/00 and 2000/01, 96 points). The nadir of this period was 2003/04, when three players tied for the Rocket Richard with 41 goals apiece, and Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis led with 94 points. The NHL introduced a slate of rule changes after the lockout and the 2005/06 season saw an uptick in goals, with its seven 100+ point scorers and five 50+ goal scorers being comparable to an early 70s season. The effect of those rule changes, however, were fleeting. Teams reacted to the changes, and the reduction to goalie pads, as well as further reduction prior to the 2013/14 season, had basically no effect on how many goals were scored. The scoring rates held on for a couple of years, though not at 05/06 levels, but have since returned to Dead Puck Era levels.

Why do we need more goals?

Well, we don't exactly need more goals, but that's a horrible argument against having them. We don't need NHL hockey either, but it would really suck if we didn't have it, as three lockouts and a strike have clearly shown us. As much as people claim otherwise, more goals would add an extra touch of excitement to hockey. To be fair, it wouldn't add much to game per se, but when has there been a goal scored and someone not get a little rush? Even if it's the small handful of traveling fans from other markets or the TV audience doing it, it evens out with the home crowd at a given arena, who will benefit just as much. And what about fantasy sports? What about checking stat leaderboards in the newspaper or on the internet? What looks more impressive? 40 goals and 90 points, or 60 goals and 110? And what about 80 goals and 130 points? How bonkers would it be to have a 100-goal, 220-point scorer. That's why we need more goals. It provides a narrative to follow over the season, how many people will score how many goals/points? Everyone loves seeing someone pass a milestone. And I don't know about anyone else, but I am sick and tired of hearing about how nobody will ever break Wayne Gretzky's records. That needs to change. Records are made to be broken. As much as people hate it, the other leagues of North America's Big 4 have all made adjustments to their rule books to encourage scoring.

But wouldn't it change the fabric of the game?

Yes. Yes it would. It would change the fabric of the game the same way other rule changes have. The original game of hockey had a sixth skater called a rover, but the NHL's predecessor, the National Hockey Association, eliminated it from its rule books, and the death of the various competing West Coast Leagues in the mid-1920s spelled the end of the rover in organized hockey altogether. Games originally began with a bully, where players tapped the ice, then each other's stick, three times before trying to get the puck, before it was replaced with quicker faceoff. Forward passing was first legalized in 1929. Goalies began wearing masks in the 50s and 60s. Players began curving their stick blades in the 60s. Helmets were made mandatory in 1980 and visors were made mandatory in 2013. Two-line passing was made illegal, and more recently legal. The offside, icing, and faceoff rules, as well as what penalties were handed out for what offences, have all been modified at one point or another. Overtimes were introduced to reduce ties, and the shootout was introduced to eliminate them, and both have since seen their own modifications. Have the increase in player and equipment size, changes in playing style, proliferation of offensive defencemen, and generations of European NHLers since the fall of the Iron Curtain not changed the fabric of the game? What makes the size of the nets so special?

What effect would changing the nets have?

Well obviously it would create an uptick in goals. As I mentioned earlier, players and their equipment are bigger than they were thirty years, at the height of the aforementioned "Golden Age". That rings doubly true for goaltenders, who are behemoths when fully padded. How many times have you watched a game and heard the loud *clang* of the puck ricocheting off the posts or the crossbar? Probably a lot, and with good reason. While the goalies are larger and their equipment covers a lot of otherwise empty space, their nets are still constructed to the standards of the past, when they didn't. With a small increase to the size of the nets, perhaps two inches taller and two inches wider on each side, a significant number of shots that would just ring off the border of the net, and perhaps the odd missed shot, would instead turn into a goal. The enlargement of the nets would have a trickle down effect that would make games legitimately more exciting. It would encourage offensive play and discourage the passive, shot-blocking-centric style of defence running rampant in the game today. If a higher percentage of existing shots are more likely to go in, one can reasonably assume more players will be willing to jump into the play, take shots, and create scoring opportunities. If it becomes a little easier to score, it makes it more likely that the inherent risk involved in playing offence will pay off, and players will be allowed to do so. It could take the form of more offensively-oriented systems or players being allowed to freewheel a bit. And if more offensive play styles could wind up losing effectiveness, and teams will rely less on them.

Won't it make goals too easy and diminish a goal's value?

It makes sense in theory, but when reality enters the picture, the argument fall apart. Would slightly easier goals devalue them? No more than the inflation of goaltenders and their pads have devalued saves. Goalie stats may go down, or perhaps their save percentages would remain fairly stable as the number of shots and goals, but not necessarily goal/shot ratios, would change. If nothing else, the best goalies would remain the best, and the best scorers would remain the best. And I don't think high-scoring or low-scoring outliers would go away. If the typical game becomes higher scoring, then the extremes adjust. The 8-7 or 9-8 game becomes the norm, and perhaps 12-11 games or 3-2 games become the exceptions. And besides, it's not like the suggested change would be a soccer net (would a soccer net even fit a hockey rink?) or a basketball-style scoring scale. A goal would remain a goal, and an assist would still count as a point. That wouldn't change.

Still seems a little extreme, why not make the pads smaller instead?

Because it's been done before. Twice since the advent of the "New NHL" and its done nothing. As I explained earlier, a multitude of rule changes were made, but they were all counteracted. Defences quickly adapted to new rules surrounding puck play, neutralizing their effect. Officials relaxed on their crackdown, reducing the number of penalties, and thus power plays, which were the main source of the 2005 scoring spike. The shootout does make it easier to win a game, and teams have certainly let tie-games play out to get there, but then again, not all games get to overtime, so it accounts for less than a goal a game. The only large-scale change that doesn't have anything counteracting it was the reduction to goalie pads. Since the 2004/05 lockout, there have been two, one that came into effect in 2005/06, and one that came into effect in 2013/14. When all the other changes, the ones most concerned with boosting offence, were counteracted in the ways I explained, scoring went back down to Dead Puck Era levels. There was only a two-tenths increase in average goals per game from 2011/12, the last full season preceding the most recent goalie pad reduction, and 2013/14, the first season afterward. The main argument against a pad reduction is that it could endanger the goalies. Even though I think the pads can get smaller still without risking injury to the goalies, I doubt they can get small enough to affect scoring rates and still ensure the goalies enjoy the level of bodily protection they currently get. Perhaps if the two previous reductions and any potential future ones were lumped together into one, rather than the incremental changes that goalies easily adjusted to, there would have been a change, but then again, goalies very easily adjusted. If more goals per-season long term is the point, we can't limit changes to ones that'll be easily countered or don't actually change anything. That's why pad reductions aren't the answer.

In Conclusion

Once upon a time, the NHL was very offensive. Slick snipers, intelligent playmakers, and point-producing blueliners set records and powered their teams to deep runs. The neutral zone trap and obstruction heavy systems made way in the 2000s for knee-jerk shot-blocking and dump-and-chase gameplay, ensuring that modern fans would have to accept one or two 50-goal or 100-point scorers a season, if that, and consider inferior marks like 30 goals or just a point a game, elite production. Other changes have been made since scoring really began to decline in 1996, but nothing's stuck. The continued effectiveness of the changes has largely relied on the diligence of officials who use the whistle sparingly and didn't seem to care much for the crackdown anyway, and teams whose coaches universally favour counteracting the changes with conservative structures, so of course they didn't last. As much as hockey purists hate the very idea, the key to reversing this trend is rectifying the loss of goal-scoring space by making the nets bigger. In addition to simply inflating the goal totals with would-be ricochets, such a change would probably encourage an uptick in players being allowed free reign on offence and/or offence-oriented systems, and would make offensive risk-taking more rewarding and defensive risk-aversion less rewarding. Hopefully, we could see a defenceman challenge for a scoring title, or the NHL's first 100-goal scorer, or the NHL's first 220-point scorer, or over two-dozen triple-digit point-getters. Perhaps even a broken record.