Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem

The problem was right there on the screen: Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, 6 foot 3, 210 pounds, athletic, fit, one of the very best goalies in the NHL, in the handshake line after the Lightning had won an early-round series in last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs. From the side, his belly seeming to hang low in front of him, he looked like Humpty Dumpty.

This story is not about any particular goalie, but about the position itself and how it increasingly dominates the way hockey is played, and not for the right reasons. This story is about goalies and their equipment, and about how they’ve learned to use it. It is a story that has evolved very slowly, almost without change or notice for hockey’s first 100 years, then, since the 1980s, in actions initiated by goalies mostly, and counteractions by NHL regulators, players, and coaches, until today’s state of near-acceptance and resignation. It is not about fewer goals being scored: The total number per game doesn’t change much from year to year. And this season, in these early weeks, scoring is up slightly and save percentages are down, just as they were after other shortened NHL seasons. The less urgent tone of practice offers goalies little preparation for the jamming, bumping scrum of goalmouth action. The real and ongoing story is about how goals are scored in today’s NHL, and how teams have to play to score them.

Never in hockey’s history has a tail so wagged the dog.

A goalie’s equipment is big because a puck is hard, can be shot with great velocity, and can injure, sometimes seriously, an inadequately protected goalie. In most of hockey’s first century, heavy, stiff, wooden sticks limited a shot’s speed and lessened the need for goalies to have anything but rudimentary equipment. A goalie’s glove, as in baseball, began as something closer to an actual “glove,” and followed the contours of a hand. A leg pad followed the contours of a leg. Both were introduced to take away at least some of the sting of a catch or a block. The popularization of the slap shot in the 1960s, and the much lighter composite sticks that came later, changed all that. The goalie’s silhouette—for protection, of course—correspondingly ballooned. The size of the net has stayed the same.

This was only the beginning of the changes. The next ones were both less organic and less predictable. The principle of goaltending is to put as much of your body between the puck and the net as possible, as often as possible. For Vasilevskiy, who is 6 foot 5 on his skates, almost two and a half feet of his body mass resides above the bar, blocking nothing but useless air. But to bring all of his body below the bar would mean exposing his head to 100-mile-an-hour vulcanized-rubber projectiles. Getting hit in the face with a puck, at least until the advent of much more protective masks in the 1980s, always seemed a bad bargain. If you watch game footage from the 1970s or earlier, you’ll see that most goalies played in an upright “stand up” style, for safety if not for efficiency. But with new masks that protected the head as much as a catching glove does the hand, goalies could bring the rest of their body down to fill more of the net, especially if, instead of positioning themselves in their standard crouch, where one body part folds in front of another to cover space already covered, they extended their legs laterally to the lower corners of the net in what is called the “butterfly” style.

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Their equipment changed too. Pads that had been made of heavy leather, deer hair, and felt were replaced with nylon, plastic, and foam rubber. These lighter materials, which made the pads less awkward to move around in and less tiring to wear, could then also be made bigger. And bigger equipment, covering a body now in position below the bar, filled even more space.

The NHL’s regulators couldn’t help but notice the change. The equipment was just too big. Something had to be done. But when regulators argued for smaller gear, the goalies couldn’t help but fight back. They argued that every fraction of an inch of their equipment was there for no reason other than simple protection from potential catastrophic injury, and that for anything less to be mandated would be inhumane and unconscionable. This was a matter of safety, pure and simple. The league’s regulators, almost all of whom were former forwards or defensemen, acted decisively, reducing the width of each leg pad from 12 inches to 10. But in doing so, they had looked for their answer in the wrong place.

In response, the goalies would take things further still. Now that a goalie had his entire body below the bar, on his knees in butterfly position, with his legs splayed out to each corner, he no longer stopped many shots with his legs, or even his hands. More often, he was employing the biggest part of his body, his torso, which, unlike his legs, had no openings through which pucks could squeeze.  And if he was upright, his torso’s height combined with that of his body from his knees to his waist would, coincidentally, add up to almost four feet, the precise height of the net. The extra two inches he’d lost from his pads, it turns out, hardly mattered. And to the extent that his splayed legs provided the shooter with an opening—“the five-hole”—he found a way to close it. His leg pads might need to be narrower, but nothing restricted their length. If he had them manufactured longer, and left them loosely attached at the top, in butterfly position, the upper part of his pads, instead of protecting his legs, would rest horizontally on the ice—and fill the five-hole. The goalies had lost the width battle and won a bigger one. And they were not yet done.

An NHL goalie’s torso might be his best blocking part, but no matter how big his upper body pads are, they can’t extend the full six feet from post to post. Bigger arm pads and gloves and football-size shoulder pads help, as does the stick, but particularly tricky is the space from a goalie’s ears to each top corner. His mask can’t be made to extend that far unobtrusively. Naturally then, this is where the scorers began to shoot. So goalies had to develop a counteraction – one hinted at in Vasilevsky’s profile. Why did his torso pad reach so far forward and hang beneath his belly? Why was it so loose? Think of a balloon. When it’s suddenly constrained from moving in one direction, it expands in another. As Vasilevskiy’s body went down in butterfly position, the bottom of his torso pad hit up against his pants, forcing it forward to offer a pillowy cushion to suck up any rebound from a puck hitting his chest, but also ballooning it upward and outward … toward the top corners. Two wicked problems solved with one natural-, unremarkable-looking, nearly invisible adaptation to his equipment.

Once they had the equipment and the strategy, goalies focused on putting all of this into play. Particularly intriguing is to watch them position their body when the action is to one side of their net, near the goal line. On their knees, one leg extended to the bottom far corner, the top of that leg pad filling the five-hole, their upper body crammed up against the post, their shoulders shrugged upward to take away the top corners, all of their body parts coming together so seamlessly. It is like watching an origami master in action, constructing not a paper crane, but a perfect wall.

When the puck then moves to the other side, the goalie, still on his knees, with a little shove off the post, quickly glides, like a disc in an air-hockey game, only a few inches, into a mirror-image position at the other post, his geometric construct still in place. Sometimes Vasilevskiy, as the Lightning gained possession and began moving the puck toward their blue line, would remain on his knees. And why not? As the puck moved to the other zone, he did get up, but he didn’t really need to. Maybe he was more comfortable standing. Maybe he found it more restful. Maybe it was just habit—goalies are supposed to be on their feet at least some of the time. Maybe constantly being on his knees seemed weird. But really, in that equipment, with those body strategies, why get up? Why move? What better puck-blocking position could he take?

In fact, when he does get up, when he does move, when his body parts open up just a little, when he is in slight transition from up to down or side to side, that’s when he is most at risk—offering a sliver of an opening to breach his perfect wall.

For youth goalies, this strategy doesn’t entirely work. They’re too small. Their wall is too small. Of course, opposing shooters, of any age, then try to come up with their own answers.

The most basic instruction every coach offers their forwards has always been, “Go to the net”—for rebounds, to deflect shots, to screen the goalie. Now they say the same but slightly differently. “Take away the goalie’s eyes. If he can see it, he’ll stop it.” If a goalie, even in his near-perfect position, can’t see the puck, he can’t move the few necessary inches to fill the unguarded spot, and if the puck happens to be shot exactly there, it will go in. Or, alternatively, if the goalie doesn’t see the puck but it hits him, he won’t have known ahead of time whether or when to shrug his upper body to create the cushion that swallows up any rebound. Instead, the puck will hit him and rebound somewhere in front of him and his instincts, his own worst enemy as it turns out, will take over. He will move toward it, opening himself up just enough. Or if the puck is deflected and goes in a new direction he couldn’t anticipate, the result is the same.

So for shooters and coaches, that is the strategy. Rush the net with multiple offensive players, multiple defensive players will go with them, multiple arms, legs, and bodies will jostle in front of the goalie, and the remaining shooters, distant from the net, will fire away hoping to thread the needle, hoping the goalie doesn’t see the needle being threaded, because if he does, he’ll stop it. The situation for the shooter is much like that of a golfer whose ball has landed deep in the woods. He’s been told many times that a tree is more air than leaves and branches, but with several layers of trees in front of him, somehow his ball will hit a leaf or branch before it gets to the green. Somehow, the shooter’s shot will not make it to the net. So he will try again. Because what else can he do?

The result: This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested.

Part of what made this so obvious over the summer was what was on the other channels. This was the year that hockey and basketball became “summer games.” Contests in both leagues ran back-to-back-to-back on our screens from morning to past midnight to morning again, day after day, viewers clicking from one to another, the action, the passions, the noise, the scores, even the sports themselves, sometimes blurring and blending together.

It was amazing to watch.

Hockey is incredibly fast. Its players, in skates, move much faster on ice than players in sneakers can on hardwood. A puck moves much faster from stick to stick than a ball from hand to hand. And a hockey team’s five moving players (its sixth, the goalie, being static) have much more space to maneuver and pick up speed than those of a basketball team: The NHL’s rink, 200 feet by 85, is more than three and half times the size of the NBA’s 94-by-50-foot court. There’s one more crucial difference. After 40 seconds of sprinting all over the ice, hockey’s five players get replaced by five fresh players, while basketball players must await a whistle. Basketball’s best players play three-quarters of a 48-minute game, or more. Hockey’s best players play less than half a game. A 60-minute hockey game is a 60-minute relay race. Its players get winded and tired, but the pace of the game never does.

But both sports, and soccer as well, face a challenge that football and baseball do not. Both have a net, and although action can happen all over a rink or court or pitch, ultimately it must move toward the net. A soccer net is huge, 24 feet by eight feet, far bigger than the soccer goalie who must guard it without body-protecting equipment. A basketball net is small, only 18 inches in diameter, less than twice the 9.5-inch diameter of the ball, and has no player to protect it directly. In hockey, the net is six feet by four feet, a puck is small, only three inches in diameter and one inch high, and in front of it is a goalie in very large equipment.

The question in each sport is: How do you score? The players a team selects, the skills they have, the strategies they employ, are all with this in mind. A team has to score and stop the other guy from scoring. The rest is foreplay. Given the nature of each game, where can you score from? How close to the net do you need to be? And does a game’s action necessarily funnel toward the net, its space and time, variety and creativity ever-diminishing, or can it spread out, utilize all four, and still be productive?

Not long ago, basketball had the same problem hockey now faces. It was a game dominated by huge men—most notably Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—who could position themselves near the basket to score, rebound, or discourage any opponent from getting to the hoop. And the closer a player got to that hoop, the better, as a slam dunk or two-footer earned him the same two points as a 30-footer, and with much greater chance of success. The game’s real action, confined mostly to the paint, got predictable, static, and boring. Forty years ago, the NBA introduced the three-point shot.

It began as not much more than a gimmick. In its first season, fewer than three three-point shots a game were attempted, by both teams, and even fewer than that went in. Over the next two decades, the role of the three didn’t change much. Nor did its effect on the game. By 2000, fewer than 14 shots were attempted each game. Fewer than 15 points of a game’s roughly 200 were scored this way. The three-pointer was still largely a novelty for novelty players, for three-point shooting specialists. It was merely a sidebar skill that might have some impact some nights at some moment.

Only in the past decade has its effect been profound. The key player? Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Curry is not a novelty player. He is on the floor most minutes of every game. He is a central player on a team that has won many championships. Curry’s success shows again that when the impossible becomes possible, it quickly becomes the norm, and then, sometimes, it snowballs: The basic approach, the underlying strategy, the way a game is played, is forever changed.

Now more than 34 threes are attempted each game. Many more players shoot them, yet the overall success rate for the three-pointer has hardly changed. The exceptional is now the norm. And a good NBA player isn’t considered a serious star if he can’t hit them. Not only because of the extra point that it might bring, but because of what the threat of it does to a defense, and to an offense. Many more two-pointers are scored than threes. A two-pointer remains a team’s bread and butter. But the three-point shot is very visible. The fans can see its long slow arc on its way to the hoop. The players can see it too. It offers time for anticipation and hope, for realization and energy-generating excitement. It is a momentum changer. In a sport of big, shifting moods and fortunes, it stops one team’s scoring run, and starts the other’s.

The three-point shot has now become a basic strategy, the way every team plays. A team goes up the floor looking for three-pointers. Two is okay; three is the target. The players position themselves for a three, the ball zinging from corner to corner to corner to find the open man with just enough time to take the shot that has a real chance of going in. If that doesn’t work, and a two-point shot is the only option, the shooter looks to attract contact from his opponent to create the foul that gives him a chance for a “hoop and a harm,” his three points scored a different way. Yet even when a three doesn’t happen, in their preparation for it, offensive players spread out, defensive players follow them, and the 10 players come to inhabit a bigger space. All 10 now have more room, more time. Quickness of feet, hands, and mind now matter more.

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Players no longer need to get to the hoop. The action no longer needs to funnel toward the redwood forest of big men that guard it. Only the ball needs to get to the hoop, and in this NBA game, it doesn’t matter whether you are 7 feet tall or 8 feet tall; a ball shot from beyond the 23-foot-9-inch arc will loop over the outstretched arm of even the tallest player. In basketball, you can go over the congestion and score; you don’t have to go through it. This is no longer about a small guy having to play big. A big guy now has to play small. If a big guy can’t pass and shoot, there’s no place for him. With big guys dispersed and away from the basket, little guys now even get rebounds. All 10 players are involved. All 10 players can have a role. All 10 players, on the best teams, and on even better teams in the future, need to have a role to win.

This NBA game, played on a much smaller surface than a hockey rink, is now far more open, much less congested.

But imagine if the NBA made one rule change to its game. Imagine if it reduced the size of its net, its 18-inch-diameter hoop to 15 inches, or 12 inches, still much larger than the 9.5-inch diameter of the ball. The effect would be profound: Scoring would be much harder, especially from a distance. Players would need to develop the skills, and teams the strategies, to get closer to the hoop. As the action funneled toward the basket, it would jam up, slow down. There would be more bumping, more fouls, eventually more allowable contact. Despite all their great shooting, passing, and ball-handling skills, with less space and time, less variety and creativity, the NBA would become a big man’s game again. Introduce congestion, and the only answer is force. Imagine what would happen to football if a touchdown could be scored only from inside the red zone.

In a sense, this is what you could see on the ice this past summer. The NHL’s nets have, in essence, gotten smaller over time because the goalies are bigger. The rest followed. All the players’ amazing skills, developed in hours of practice, visualizing and dreaming in basements, on roads and local rinks, in drills with coaches and expert teachers, their minds and hands now able to move as fast as their feet, to find and use all the open ice that is there. But with so little open ice where open ice matters, for what?

Fewer goals are now scored from beyond 20 feet; fewer are scored “off the rush.” Hockey’s greatest scorers now dive in front of shots, to do anything, everything to keep pucks from “getting through.” It’s wonderful to see their courage, as commentators often say, to see them show their commitment to their team, but in doing so, they risk injury, take themselves out of the offensive action, and give themselves, their team, their fans, fewer moments to be superstars. These players who change the game are, in turn, being changed by it.

There is no hockey-answer equivalent to the three-point shot. No extra points are awarded for a long-shot goal. In the 1960s and ’70s, the much harder slap shot coming from banana-blade-shaped sticks allowed shooters to score from a greater distance on smaller, less protected goalies. These shooters had to be defended against. Defenders had to move away from the net to check them. Space opened up. Then the goalie’s bigger, more protective equipment ended that. Nor is the bigger, international-size ice surface the answer. Make a rink as big as a soccer pitch, it offers more space, but it doesn’t offer more space near the net, where it matters. Some hockey experts think that moving the blue lines in or out might make a difference, or having fewer or no lines at all. Maybe hockey should go to four-on-four, not five-on-five, all the time, which might make some difference, just as it did when this change was introduced for regular-season overtime. Other suggestions are more disruptive, and less in the spirit of the game itself. (What about new stick technology, to shoot harder, to make the shot-blocker pay a bigger injury price and think again?) The key is not to look for answers in the wrong places.

And of course, whatever action is taken, the goalie will respond with a counteraction, and his answers are far easier. He can play on his knees and stay on his knees in his puck-blocking position. He doesn’t have to move much. The more he moves, the more he opens himself up. The more athletic he is, the more tempted he is to move, and the more he moves, the more trouble he creates for himself. If you take away his eyes, he will just let the puck hit him. No need to worry about a deflection or rebound to one side or another. If he stays near the goal line, in puck-blocking position, there is no one side or another. He is just there. Or if his team faces an out-numbering rush, or turns over the puck in its zone, no need to foul the opponent to prevent the scoring chance, because, really, what advantage has he gained? What opportunity does he have to score? The goalie’s back here. He’ll stop him. Besides, if the player is fouled, a goal is far more likely to result from a power play than from any contested chance.

And if that’s not the whole answer, teams can scout for and develop bigger goalies. They are taller now than they were in every generation before; why not bigger still? Why not wrestler-size, or lineman-size? Or as the old joke went, why not just put a big fat guy back there?

Really, the biggest reason for a goalie to get off his knees is that if he doesn’t, people might notice. Then they might think, Isn’t it crazy that in a game that moves so fast, somebody can stay on his knees? Then they might wonder why. Then they might want to do something about it. A goalie’s standing up every so often is a small price to pay.

The problem isn’t the game. The problem is the goalie, who is changing the game.

I like goalies. But I also like to see the remarkable, hard-earned skills of the other players rewarded, skills that have never been greater, and that, if undiscouraged, will be greater still. Push these forwards and defensemen, challenge them, by all means make them be more. But make the goalies be more, too. Allow the super-talents like Carey Price and Vasilevskiy to demonstrate how much better they really are. Make them show signs of athleticism and intelligence. Make them move and think. Put them to the test. But reward them too.

The NHL has attempted to make a goalie’s equipment smaller. It has won small battles. It can create precise measurements for leg pads and gloves. But it has been annihilated in the bigger war. Employing the principle that equipment is intended to protect the body, not the net, the NHL could also introduce regulations on the allowable length of leg pads, factoring in the different heights of goalies and limiting the maximum pad height to five or six inches from the point of the knee cap, so the five-hole would have to be covered by the body, not the equipment. But how do you create measurements for the upper body? The fact that a goalie’s silhouette has grown so much speaks to the difficulty of achieving this. Maybe the only real standard for the upper body is the “eyeball test”: If it looks too big, it’s too big. Unfortunately eyeballs change. They become accustomed to the different, and blind to the ridiculous.

Maybe there is no foreseeable way to make the goalie smaller. Maybe you have to make the net bigger. Don’t fight using an old, losing narrative. Change the narrative. New golf-club technology made courses too short, so championship courses got longer. A lighter soccer ball allows players to do tricks with its flight, in some ways making soccer’s already huge net even bigger. A player can shoot the ball several feet outside the net’s 24-foot width and curl it around the goalie (“bend it like Beckham”). Or he can shoot it several feet above the net’s 8-foot-high bar and drop it down (“loop it like Lionel” Messi). A hockey puck is too dense and moves too fast for that. But the size of a hockey net could change, and the change needn’t be too much. Maybe only six inches or a foot wider, maybe only six inches higher. And only for those in junior and college leagues and above. Just so a goalie’s carefully constructed, seamless wall can’t cover everything. So a goalie has to move, has to play off his goal line, has to go up and down. So he has to open up. So the slivers of open space are a little bigger. So he doesn’t think he can stop everything, and a shooter can think he might score. So an unscreened shot from farther than 20 feet might go in. So more “off the rush” goals might be scored. So players would want, and need, to spread out. So the action doesn’t always funnel and congest. And the rest of the ice surface matters. So all the skills the other players have developed, and will develop, matter. So the game is defined by every player on the ice, not just the goalie. So the dog isn’t wagged by the tail.

In 2005, after the NHL had locked out its players and the season was lost, the league returned to play with new rules to reduce the hooking and holding of “obstruction” that was strangling the game. The players, and their coaches, having more unconstrained ice, had reason to develop their open-ice skills, and the effect of these rule changes has lasted a generation. The time has come again.

The clever cat-and-mouse game between goalies and shooters has run its constructive course. The goalies, by winning, have changed the game. Hockey is a game that needs open ice. It is made for open ice. The problem is the goalies. The answer is the goalies.