Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sports

the goals: more of them

At 6 feet 5 and 235 pounds, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner is big even by NHL standards, blocking much of the net using his bulk.

Yet he has noticed during the past several seasons that his counterparts in the opponent's crease tend to eclipse their net, too.

"I know what all the goalies around the league look like with their pads on," Lehner said. "Some of the small guys look the biggest."

The reason: supersized and layered equipment.

"A guy that's 175 shouldn't have a chest protector where he looks like he's a 350-pound guy," he said. "I don't think anyone should have pants underneath their pants. There's goalies that have pants underneath their pants. That's a fact. People in the league know it."

Last year the NFL endured scandal with Tom Brady of the New England Patriots accused of deflating footballs to gain an advantage. In the NHL, complaints center on goalies inflating their profile to better stop pucks.

The NHL, and its players' association, are in the process of overhauling standards governing the size and design of goaltenders' equipment. They plan to roll out slimmer-fitting pants and chest protectors and beefed-up enforcement during the season, which begins Wednesday.

"It's basically we want to have fairness that your gear shouldn't make you a better player, giving you an advantage over your athleticism," said Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director of the players' association. "The idea is that it creates more goal-scoring as well."

Despite increased emphasis on enforcing obstruction to open up the game, scoring has remained flat, and the league and the players' association continue to tinker with rules. In the meantime, goalies continue to get bigger and better at stopping the puck.

Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6 feet 7. The only expected No. 1 goaltender on an NHL club who is shorter than 6 feet is Jaroslav Halak of the New York Islanders, who is 5-11. During the past 10 seasons, only one goalie under 6 feet, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins (5-11), has won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top goaltender.

"If he's not 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2, in the draft, you don't even look at him, unless he's really special," said Martin Brodeur, assistant general manager for the St. Louis Blues.

Brodeur, who is 6-2, retired in 2015 as the NHL career leader in wins (691) and shutouts (125). During his career, he was involved with the effort to reduce the width of pads from a maximum of 12 inches to 11 inches.

"I'm sure goalies are tired of getting targeted all the time," he said. "I couldn't care less what guys wore. I felt more comfortable with smaller equipment, so everyone was always asking me questions about it. If I felt I could play with bigger equipment, trust me, I would have done it."

Three years ago, the most recent changes to goalies' gear reduced the coverage of the pads from the knee to the pelvis by 10 percent.

But scoring did not rise. The average of goals per game has hovered just below 2.8 per team during the past six seasons, according to hockey-reference.com. In the meantime, save percentage across the league increased from .914 in the 2013-14 season to .915 the past two seasons.

Like Brodeur, goaltenders said they felt more agile and effective with diminished pads.

"There's a chance that happens with this," Schneider said about slimmed-down gear. "When you look at the size and athleticism of guys today, at all positions, but particularly in goal, these guys are incredible athletes. Gone are the days of the doughnut-eating, cigarette-smoking goalie."

The new pants will be more rounded, and conform to a goalie's body, Schneider said. Manufacturers have made prototypes, but only select goalies have seen them, including Halak, who backstopped Team Europe to a runner-up finish at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto last week.

"I tried them on, but I haven't had a chance to try them in a practice yet," he said. "Once we get back to our teams, there will be pants waiting for each of us over here, and we have to get used to them quickly."

Schneider said the rollout for new pants was still undetermined, but he was confident they could be implemented during the coming season.

Agreeing on a design for a new chest protector has proved more challenging, with some goaltenders citing concerns about safety being compromised by a streamlined design. Schneider said the first set of prototypes went out to select players in July, and he was hopeful they could be rolled out later in the season.

The pants and chest protector were originally scheduled to be ready by the start of the season. But Schneider said continuing feedback from goaltenders and delays with manufacturers pushed back the timeline.

Once the new equipment arrives, enforcement will be robust.

"The first goalie that gets a suspension or a fine won't be happy about it," Schneider said, "but the idea is that we're doing this, and we're not going to do it halfway."

Whatever their personal dimensions or preference for equipment, goaltenders have agreed on one thing. When asked if they would prefer to alter their equipment or make the nets bigger, the response was unanimous, Schneider said with a chuckle: No one wanted to make the nets bigger.

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