May 14 2013 11:46AM
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.
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.
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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Recently around the Nation Network
There's a lot of good stuff up at Leafs Nation about the team's first round series agianst Boston. In his Post Game Recap, Cam Charron described some of the emotion of watching the club fall in seven games:
Sports break your heart. At some point each season, the championship aspirations of the teams we follow end one-by-one. It's like an Agatha Christie novel. In the meantime, we have things to cheer about. Things to swell us up with civic pride, the feeling of community, the visual and aesthetic appeal of watching our favourite athletes do things we could never do, and doing it for us, with the logo we've grown up cheering for on their chest, representing us.
Click on the link above to read more, or check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation: