Things are a little slow here in Rangerland as we count down to the pre-season, so I thought I’d tackle a more global topic.
Not withstanding the (now completely predictable) labor squabbles of recent years, the NHL has consistently investigated and implemented ways to improve its overall on-ice product. They aren’t plagued with the constant felony arrests of the NFL and NBA, nor the drunk driving and steroid issues of MLB. Most of the athletes are humble professionals who respect the game and the fans. Now, the NHL is not without its problems. There have been several nagging issues that have persisted through rule changes, new committees, summer R&D camps and beta tests in lower leagues. The most demonstrative examples include not enough goal scoring, concussions and obstruction-type penalties.
Now, all three of these major problems could be solved by one simple solution, and it’s not one anyone around the league wants to consider, myself included: moving the NHL to olympic sized rinks. I know what you’re thinking, I don’t like it either. It seems borderline sacrilegious. The NHL has always played on North American sized rinks. It’s what has differentiated the NHL from the Olympics and the inferior European leagues. We like the physicality, the fighting, the hard-nosed style of play that comes along with the smaller rink, but consider each league problem…
While this summer hasn’t seen the ridiculous bowed-out nets or just plain bigger ones, the league is again reducing the size of goalie pads to help increase red light frequency. I’m not going to pontificate about how I feel about these new regulations (I’m sure you can guess my stance), but look at the underlying problem. This past season, the NHL averaged just over 5.0 goals per game, down from almost 8.0 goals per game in the 1980’s. Goals are what casual fans come to see, and there’s nothing quite as entertaining as a good ol’ fashioned barn-burner. The trapezoid and removal of the two-line pass are other examples of alterations to the rulebook for the sake of increased scoring, not to mention all the previous goalie equipment limitations.
While some of the changes worked (red line removal, original round of goalie equipment changes) and some have not (trapezoid, cutting the crease down), they ignore a well established assumption: players with room score more goals. Every four years we watch, enthralled at the Olympics. The action is high-tempo, end-to-end, creative hockey. It’s the best players in the world with room to maneuver and wider passing lanes. Smaller, skilled players like Mats Zuccarello thrive and put on displays of tremendous puck handling and passing abilities. And goal scoring isn’t the only thing a bigger sheet would remedy…
The biggest thorn in the league’s side the past few years has been the frightening rate in which players are being sidelined with concussions. There have been equipment advances, tighter restrictions and harsher penalties enforced to keep players safe. The problem is that hockey players are bigger, stronger and faster than they have ever been. These guys aren’t 5’10”, 180 lbs anymore. As of 2010, the average NHL player was 6’1”, 205 lbs. With players like Zdeno Chara and Dion Phaneuf running around, it’s surprising there aren’t more concussions. Is it possible the modern game has simply outgrown the 200×85 sheet we all know and love?
Back to my Mats Zuccarello example, his performance in his breakout season for Modo in the SEL also demonstrates the skill that can be displayed when quarters aren’t so tight that obstruction type penalties are that frequent. It’s much harder to pin a player in the corner of an olympic sheet than an NHL sheet. More room is less congestion, less scrumming in the corners and more passing and creativity. Now, the speed that is achieved at the NHL level is helped by the smaller rinks and board battles are an inherent part of the game, but wouldn’t a bigger rink help with the clutch ‘n grab problem better than calling phantom hooking penalties?
All in all, I don’t really like the idea of the NHL switching rink size, but then again, I think the game is absolutely phenomenal the way it is. (Maybe take out the trapezoid and implement some type of hybrid icing, but the point stands). I think the league should continue to educate and be adaptive to concussions and other issues of player safety, while forging ahead with efforts to market the game. I’m fine however, with the frequency of goal scoring and (at least from a team building perspective) the focus on goaltending and defense to build championship sides.
What I do believe, though, is that if the league is truly concerned about these issues, they need to at least consider and discuss this possibility. They might test it out and realize it won’t help. But until they do, it seems like a pretty logical option that no one is willing to take the time to examine.
What do you guys think? Is this a viable solution? Any pros or cons you think I missed? Sound off in the comments below.