Let's talk about goals. No, not the goals young people like me are all about—squad goals or relationship goals and goals af. I'm talking about the goals we don't see enough of anymore. NHL goals.
During the first two weeks of the season, the league had an average of slightly more than six goals per game. It wasn't much, but it was as good as it had been in years. As we turn the calendar to December, NHL games have an average of 5.36 goals, the lowest total since the 2003-04 season that preceded the season-long lockout.
It appears to be an obvious problem that should be addressed by the NHL, but since this is the NHL, nothing has been done save tweaking a handful of rules over the past few years—none of which have increased scoring. Meanwhile, there's weird sentiment among some hockey types that a lack of goals isn't a problem, not so long as the tedious race to three goals in most games has "good flow."
The heck with flow. Here's a simple, logical, practical solution to the NHL's goal drought: make the nets bigger.
Of course, no one wants to hear that. Instead, here's what a lot of hockey people will tell you—2-1 games can be just as exciting as high-scoring games!
Please. Hockey suffers from a #pleaselikemysport dynamic that manifests itself as aggressive pride. The players are the toughest. The championship trophy is the best and given to the CAPTAIN, not the OWNER. If a player returns after a slapshot that knocks out 14 teeth, you can be sure it will turn into a meme that mocks LeBron James because he once left a NBA game with muscle cramps.
Also: If you need to see a bunch of goals to make the game exciting, then you're just not as good a fan as me, the nuanced, smart hockey watcher. The NHL is a sport desperate to attract the casual fan, yet it won't take the one measure that would increase scoring and attract said fans. Can a 2-1 game be exciting? Sure. Can a Gerard Butler movie be good? Sure. But it's rare when it happens, and nobody wants to read Tweets from someone at one of those things condescendingly talking about how they see the beauty in this particular piece of entertainment while you can't.
Really, why are nets sacred?
I've read and heard all kinds of wild ways to increase scoring. Take out the blue line. Allow for two-minute power plays to be treated as major penalties. Make all power plays 4-on-3 instead of 5-on-4. Play the whole damn game at 4-on-4. Two years ago, in an effort to minimize shootouts, the NHL went from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 in overtime, a move that worked. Only even with more goals during overtime, scoring is still at an all-time low.
Make. The. Nets. Bigger.
Goaltenders went from tiny little men in pads your 7-year-old wears when playing knee hockey in your basement to giant humans with pads that make them look like Jeremy Renner in the bomb suit in The Hurt Locker. Yet the nets have remained the same size, and people are wondering why goals are declining and new fans aren't coming to the game.
Make. The. Nets. Bigger.
The strongest argument against making the nets bigger is that it's a drastic change, one that will fundamentally alter the game forever. Yes. That's true. And why is that bad? Why would you want your sports league to be more rigid than baseball, a sport so behind the times guys fight each other over bat flips?
Let's go back to 1968. Baseball sucked, and baseball knew it. It sucked because nobody could score runs anymore. So after that season, MLB decided to lower the height of the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and shrink the strike zone. We won't even get into how stadiums moved outfield walls closer to home plate over the years. Instead, let's compare the baseball landscape in 1968 to the NHL in 2016.
Bob Gibson led the league with a 1.12 ERA. That's a pretty big red flag indicating a need for change. He is a Hall of Fame pitcher, no doubt, but his next best full-season ERA was 2.18. Pitching, much like goaltending, had become so dominant that MLB needed to adjust the rule.
Through 16 games this NHL season, Carey Price has a .947 save percentage. The Canadiens have 59 games remaining so there's time for a correction, but Price is on pace to finish about nine points better than the next best save percentage in league history.
In 1968, seven starting pitchers had an ERA below 2.00. As of now, there are seven goaltenders with at least 10 starts that have a save percentage of at least .930. In the 100-year history of the NHL, only 18 goaltenders have played in at least half their team's games and finished with at least a .930 save percentage.
Carl Yastremski won the 1968 MLB battling title with a .301 average; Connor McDavid is on pace to win this year's NHL scoring title with 105 points, which would be the sixth-lowest total since the 1968-69 season. Two years ago, Jamie Benn won the NHL scoring title with 87 points.
In 1968, Seven teams had batting averages of .230 or lower; today, 13 NHL teams are on pace to score fewer than 200 goals, which would be by far the lowest since the 2004-05 lockout.
Make. The. Nets. Bigger.
Nothing else has worked and nothing else will work. The time is ripe for fundamental change. The nets have always been 6 x 4. Instead of debating if we should make the nets bigger, we should be debating how much bigger they need to be. Do we go 6.5 x 4.5? Maybe 7 x 5? The NHL should have been testing net variations in the AHL years ago, instead of doing things like changing who puts their stick down for a faceoff first.
Goals are especially important for a league that doesn't want to market its players, who in turn aren't good at marketing themselves anyway. It's much easier to sell a game when you have players challenging the all-time scoring records, which allows you to sell the offense instead of individuals. It's like when baseball was dying following the 1994 strike, before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started chasing down Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Casual fans took notice.
Think of increasing net size as hockey's version of steroids, only it's legal and doesn't shrink your testicles.
Baseball has lowered the mound, tightened the strike zone and shrunk the field to increase runs. Imagine what the sport would look like today with Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner pitching from a raised mound to a wider strike zone in parks with bigger dimensions.
It would probably look a lot like hockey.
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