- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2013

NHL goaltenders have come a long way since Garth Snow looked like the Michelin Man, sporting gargantuan pads that blocked out the net. But they’ve also come a long way since the 1970s and ‘80s, when goalies had thin pads and shooters had everything to aim at.

But in the everlasting quest to create more offense, the league’s general managers recently approved trimming goaltending equipment, mostly having to do with the size of knee and leg pads.

“We can reduce the size of some of the equipment, and we can enforce the way it’s worn,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “The way it’s worn has created this style of play that I’m not sure is healthy for the game and it’s allowing goalies who aren’t that good to be almost as good as top goalies in the league.”

In the grand scheme of things, cutting the size of the “landing pads” between a goalie’s legs and trimming the length of pads above the knee might not make a huge difference. But one analyst figures that the effect on offense isn’t worth the safety concern for goaltenders.

“To me, they’re fishing for answers that they’re not going to find by making these changes,” said Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild. “I don’t think that change is going to make that big of an impact in terms of scoring going up.”

GMs approved shortening the length of leg pads from 55 percent and making knee pads less bulky, which Goldman said could lead to more knee and hip injuries.

“The size of the pads from the knee up don’t have to be as big as they are,” McPhee said. “It just takes away the whole five-hole when they go down when they wear oversized pads. They don’t need that much length there.”

There’s not much of a safety argument for the length of the pads, known as thigh rises. And Caps goaltender Braden Holtby said the changes won’t affect him too much.

But Holtby cares about knee pads, and shrinking them could pose problems.

“Anytime you’re taking away the size of that landing pad on the inside of your knee, that’s more space for a puck to come and hit you and really damage your bones or damage your body,” Goldman said. “It’s a dangerous area. You take one slap shot off the inside of your knee, there’s no muscle there. … The more you reduce that landing pad, the more strain it puts on your hip area as well.”

Caps backup Michal Neuvirth suffered a hip injury late last season that knocked him out for part of the first round of the playoffs. Chicago Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery almost had his career end after a severe hip problem a few years ago.

From a safety perspective, McPhee said the design of these changes was to open up more of the bottom of the net because so many shooters aim high. That’s likely not going to change.

“Shooters, I think, for most of their lives, especially today’s 19- to 25-year-old hockey player, it’s ingrained in their mind that they’ve got to elevate shots because the space you’re going to find against a goaltender, whether he’s 6-foot-0 or he’s 6-foot-6, is going to be in the upper half of the net,” Goldman said. “Even a 6-foot-0 goaltender, a 5-11 goaltender, when he goes into the butterfly, he’s still taking away the bottom part of the net.”

Because of shooters trying to elevate, Holtby’s main concern is staying protected when pucks come up high.

“The arm pads is the main thing,” he said. “It’s just the shrinking of the upper body is usually the one that scares most guys because the way guys shoot now, if you have a break in your armor up top you know you could be out for a couple months pretty easily.”

Scoring is down, Goldman pointed out, more because of advanced coaching techniques and goaltending coaching than equipment. Going into Sunday night, NHL games included an average of 5.53 goals a game.

Just about everything in the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout, from pushing back the blue line to cracking down on more penalties, was designed to increase scoring output. That’s OK with Holtby, who doesn’t use the maximum allowed size of his thigh pads and prefers to make stops based on athleticism.

“Whatever they think is best to promote the game is good by us,” Holtby said. “It’s going to be an even playing field, so it doesn’t really change that much for us. I think their main focus is they just want to get away from the boring goaltending where there’s no excitement, when the guys just go down and block everything.”

Given the amount of advancements to improve offense, Goldman doesn’t believe goaltenders should lose too much of an edge. He pointed to lighter, composite sticks that make it easier for even weak shooters to blast shots upwards of 75 mph without much effort.

“They’re always taking off little advantages that we have in terms of being safe and being able to cover the net, and the forwards just get all these great opportunities to use the lighter sticks,” he said. “It’s a give-and-take process, but to me it seems like it’s all take from the goalies and no give from the shooters.”

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