NHL dabbles in bigger nets, and they're shaped like purists' tears

Shhhh ... no one tell Roberto Luongo that the NHL is monkeying around with widening the nets again.

Please recall that the Vancouver Canucks goalie famously threatened in 2007 to quit the NHL if the League decided to expand the size of the scoring area behind him. From the Vancouver Province in Sept. '07:

"I've been working 20 years at a game I love trying to improve myself and to start over from square one is not something I'm interested in," Luongo said at today's morning skate. "It changes everything for the goalie and it doesn't, in my mind, bring more excitement to the game if the nets are bigger and guys score from the blueline."

Granted, much of the scuttlebutt back then involved a "soccer-sized" increase between the pipes, which some believed was a scare tactic floated to get the NHLPA to decrease the size of goalie equipment as the lesser of two evils. But the less extreme idea of changing the size and shape of the goalposts in juice scoring has been kicked around since 2005, when goalies like Marty Turco and Martin Brodeur were shown prototypes.

That concept was on display yesterday at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice; where, in what must be a total coincidence, a slew of reporters from the hockey media's most influential newspapers just so happened to be working. The League described the goal as having posts with "a 'teardrop' shape, like the rim of a paper coffee cup that has been squeezed."

The results were intriguing for those who believe more scoring means better hockey, and naturally depressing for the puckheads who don't believe big numbers in the box score and the leader board do anything to enhance the game's entertainment.

Which leads us back to a debate that's once again on the front burner: Should the NHL increase the size and change the dimensions of its nets to juice scoring?

First, from the Globe & Mail, here are the specifics on the goal that was tested, with a few comments from Anaheim Ducks goaltending coach François Allaire, who came up with the concept nearly five years ago:

The prototype is still six feet wide and four feet high, but instead of circular posts, the net tested has oval-shaped posts with the flatter, longer side positioned on the inside of the goal. The belief is when pucks hit these posts or crossbar, they have a better chance ricocheting in for a goal, instead of bounding out. ...

... "I don't have any official stats, but I would say one out of every four shots that beat a goalie but hit the inside of the post bounces in rather than straight out," Allaire explained. "If we can cut the posts in half and have a flat surface turned inward, you would see more goals. This would make the net bigger by about two inches on the width and an inch on the height. ... It would not take away from the skill of a goaltender, but would reward the shooter for beating the goalie."

As the Globe pointed out, the net at Leafs' practice was a tad different than Allaire's concept because "instead of a totally flat surface on the inward part of the post, there still is some curve to the post."

The Toronto Star had reactions from NHL VP of hockey operations Mike Murphy and Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph, who has a few years of experience playing goal on a professional level with a regulation net:

The initial reaction, from Murphy and Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph, is that pucks off the crossbar were indeed likely to go in but shots off the post didn't necessarily react in the same way. Some pucks that might have gone in off the rounded posts seemed to stay out at certain angles.

Joseph said he noticed more shots were going in on the short side but fewer on the far side, where pucks tended to kick out toward the boards. "It's just a guess. You'd have to shoot a thousand pucks (to get a true reading)," he said. "The jury's out."

A possibility now, said Murphy, might be to experiment with "a combination of leaving the posts round but changing the crossbar only. We'll look at it and see if it is worth moving forward with."

There are plenty of these procedural debates among NHL officials, players, media and fans: fighting, head-shots, obstruction and the like. The bigger-nets debate has been an interesting one because the battle lines aren't as clearly drawn.

Sure, from a purist's perspective, the notion of tinkering with the size of the scoring area is a mortal sin at this stage of the game's development.

It's a fundamental altering of the sport, akin to the NFL shortening the field by 10 yards or the NBA increasing the size of the rim. 

Then again ... rule book, schmule book. In case you haven't noticed, there have been a few changes since they started tabulating the stats in hockey. How do you think that Gretzky fellow would have fared in 4-on-4 overtimes with the 1980s Edmonton Oilers?

If it comes down to what the players' want ... well, just look at what Matt Bradley of the Washington Capitals wrote this summer in our "5 Ways I'd Change the NHL" series:

2. Make the nets bigger. With the size of goalies and their equipment now, sometimes you look up and there's not much net to shoot at. Some of us can't always hit the part of the net we see. Make'em bigger and there will be a little more margin for error.

Those in favor of larger nets have a simple premise: Everything else in the game has been changed for the benefit of offense expect for the goal cages, which have remained static even as goalies and their equipment have had less in common with Terry Sawchuk and more resemble the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man.

Those against larger nets also have a basic philosophy: It's not about the goals.

Good hockey means good offensive flow, with back and forth scoring chances. Widening the nets will turn a 3-2 game into a 5-4 game, but so what? If it's still NHL hockey with clogged neutral zones, big players crushing skill players and more defensive systems than offensive flair, a few more goal horns doesn't change that. Perhaps widening the ice surface, rather than the nets, would give the game more excitement while juicing offense as well.

For a purist, the NHL's intentions for making the nets bigger fit right in with its other recent changes to the game. You'll get more highlights for SportsCenter, just like with the shootout. You'll get records falling thanks to artificially created circumstances, just like when the League crows about attendance or all-star voting. And hey, you'll get to hear the goal song in your local arena a few more times, which is always exhilarating.

But will you get better hockey?

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