On April 4, 2004, the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers wrapped up their seasons with third place in the historic Southeast Division on the line. Although the game didn’t involve a particularly historic set of teams, it did feature two lasts in NHL history. The 6-6 tie was the last time an NHL game ended in a draw.* It was also the last time that a goalie who stands less than 5’10″ has appeared in an NHL game, as Arturs Irbe played the final game of his NHL career.
James Mirtle has a fantastic post up about goalie size on his blog at the Globe and Mail and I thought I’d chime in with a little data because the extent to which small goalies are being chased out of the game is surprising to me.
The first table is a simple table that shows the percentage of shots faced since 1997-98 by goalies of a certain height, in inches. The second table shows the cumulative percentages. As you can see, no goalie under 5’10″ has faced an NHL shot since the lockout. Just to explain the second table a little, 20.9% of shots in 1997-98 were taken against goalies 5’10″ or shorter; just 2.9% were last year.
The percentage of shots seen by goalies 5’10″ or under will fall this year – there are only three guys 5’10″ who’ve seen at least a shot this year – Jonas Enroth, Richard Bachman and Chris Osgood. Osgood’s closer to the end of the trail than the start. It’s possible that, within a few years, we might get a season in which nobody shorter than 5’11″ sees an NHL shot.
As I took a look through the data, something struck me. It’s no secret that the league average save percentage has been drifting up over time. This started before 1997-98, but from 1997-98 to last season, the league average save percentage moved up from .9062 to .9113. That doesn’t really sound like much, but it’s as if each team loses 12 goals or so over the course of a season.
It’s generally been thought that this was simply due to improvements in goaltending technique and in the capacity of teams to take away quality scoring chances as the league became more defensive. James suggested to me that goalies getting bigger might have had something to do with the increase in save percentage.
As you can see from this table, there’s probably something to that. Generally speaking, that seems to be the case: the taller the goalies, the better the save percentage. You can see the impact of the rule changes and calling so many penalties post-lockout in this data – save percentages for most heights are down. Due to the shifting of shots away from lower save percentage smaller goalies to higher save percentage taller goalies though, the league average in the seven years preceding the lockout matches the league average in the five years since at .9071.
This is, I think, a pretty fascinating development. James touches on some of the reasons for it in his story but teams are really focusing on bigger goaltenders in the draft and otherwise than they once did. There’s been a bit of a running joke with Brian Burke signing goalies but it’s worth noting that he keeps acquiring large ones – JS Giguere (6’1″), Ben Scrivens (6’2″), Jonas Gustavsson (6’3″) and Jussi Rynnas (6’5″) are all big fellows acquired by Burke since joining the Leafs.
I think, tactically, that this is a pretty sensible thing to do. I’ve linked to Vic Ferrari’s post before about the reaction time that a goalie has but his comments are worth revisiting, I think:
At the risk of sounding like a goalie apologist, some shots are just unstoppable. Just are. If the shooter is in close and makes his shot, or if there is a deflection of a point shot from within 20 feet of the goal, the goaltender literally doesn’t have a chance.
There is a time delay between seeing something and reacting to it, the time it takes to hit a red button whenever a light goes on, for example. The average for a healthy person is .19 seconds. Reacting to sound is a bit quicker, at .16 seconds.
There’s a great chart there showing where the goalie is at the mercy of a shooter or a bounce. My sense is that shooting has really improved over the years, although I don’t have any empirical evidence to back it up. Composite sticks, better training…it’s a different game than it was in 1970 or 1980 or even 1990. Ultimately, I think that the interesting question is where this leads if the trend continues. I like to think that I’m a pretty traditional guy when it comes to hockey – I’m not wild about cheerleaders in the rink – although I suppose I’d be fine with a fighting ban and a ban on headshots, so I suppose I’m a bit more liberal than I realize. The grand poohbahs of hockey, both at the IIHF and NHL, might want to consider whether or not bigger nets might be something worth considering.
I certainly accept the argument that more goals does not necessarily mean more entertainment but, at the same time, it’s in the interests of the people who govern the game to engineer a game in which leads can be blown. It’s beyond the confines of this post but one of the tactics that has become a lot more common in recent years is players collapsing towards the net, permitting shots from the outside that have to find their way through a maze of bodies and an (increasingly large) goalie who is trained to be in the position that the puck is most probably going to be in. If the net’s bigger, all of a sudden it becomes less profitable to let guys hammer away from the outside, as it’s harder to take away the net, which opens up space in the offensive zone for talented players to do their thing as forwards have to guard against shots from up high more aggressively.
It’s all inter-connected and, if this trend continues, bigger nets are a discussion that should be revisited, regardless of the traditionalist view. 4 foot by 6 foot nets don’t make hockey a great game – it’s the peculiar blend of speed, violence, beautiful plays and the potential for sudden reversals of fortune. When developments in training, technique and player selection threaten that blend, it’s in keeping with the game’s tradition to take steps to preserve that blend. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
*(“Fun” aside for Oilers fans: If Carolina had won that fateful April 4, 2004 game, they would have had the ninth pick of the first round instead of the eighth. It is, at the very least, plausible that they might not have been able to trade up to fourth from the ninth spot. If they hadn’t been been able to trade up to fourth, they might not have obtained Andrew Ladd. Doug MacLean’s Columbus Blue Jackets, who traded the pick, used the picks that they acquired to get Alexandre Picard and Kyle Wharton. MacLean was, of course, fired shortly thereafter. Ladd went on to break Dwayne Roloson as the Oilers finished a goal short of the Stanley Cup. Doug MacLean is a managerial Angel of Death – somehow his trade poisoned the well for two teams.)