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Bigger Goalies, Bigger Goals? Solving the Mystery Behind Declining Goal Production

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John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

So Mike Babcock, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs made a comment the other night about increasing the size of the goals in the NHL to reign in a new era of big goal games. At first glance, to me at least, it seems like a foolish task. Why increase the size of the nets? It's been a standard size for so long, why change it now? Sure the NHL has messed around with the dimensions of the rink, line placement, even the shape and depth of the net, but the opening of the net?

For the most part however, the NHL goal has gone largely unchanged. We've always had the same 72" x 48" opening to fit a puck just 3" in diameter. Babcock is stating that today's NHL goalies are so much bigger than they were in 1980, and that goals are just not as easy to come by these days. Perhaps he's just blowing some hot air because the Leafs have scored just 26 goals in 12 games. That's good enough for 27th in the NHL as it stands right now. Does Babs have a valid point though?

In first considering this, I was a bit skeptical. In the 1980-1981 NHL season, there were just 21 teams in the NHL, and they played just 80 games in a regular season. So, of course there are more goals being scored in the NHL these days, right? How could their be more goals in the early 80's than today? With less teams and less games, logic stands to reason that more goals are being scored today than at any time in the NHL's history.

Lets break down the numbers to get a clear view of just what we are talking about. Now to do this I'm going to compare the 1980-81 season to the 2014-15 season, the last full 82 game season. I don't want to assume goals over the course of this season, so we will run last season up against the 1980-81 season and see how the numbers stack up.

2014-2015 NHL Goal Totals - 30 Teams - 82 Games
Total Games Eastern Conf. Western Conf. Total Goals Avg Goals/Game
2460 3534 3185 6719 2.73

These aren't terrible numbers by any stretch. Last season there were just 5 teams in the league that scored less than 200 goals on the season. The most inept team was of course the Buffalo Sabres who scored just 161 goals on the season. On the top of the list would be the Tampa Bay Lightning with 262 goals, just 1 more goal than the Dallas Stars mustered up last season. With all the competition, 262 goals over 82 regular season games is a pretty impressive number. That means the Lightning were scoring on average just over 3 goals per game.

1980-1981 NHL Goal Totals - 21 Teams - 80 Games
Total Games Campbell Conf. Whales Conf. Total Goals Avg Goals/Game
1680 3372 3085 6457 3.84

With less teams, and less games, it's pretty easy to understand that the 1980-81 season totals would fall short of the 2014-15 season. What's a little telling however is just how little behind the league was back then, with 9 less teams and 780 less games across the board. This translates to over 1 goal more, per game in 1980-81 over the 2014-15 season. Further more, if you want to play the assumption game, adding those additional 9 teams into 1980-81 with 2 extra games per team, and using the average goals per game of the year,  the 1980-81 season would pull in an astounding 9446 goals.

In the 1980-81 season, the New York Islanders led the league in total goals with 355. That's 93 more goals than the Lightning pocketed last season with the benefit of 2 extra games on the season. Even the most inept of the league in 1980-81, the Winnipeg Jets scored 246 goals, just 16 shy of last seasons league leading Lightning squad. The goal production coming out of the NHL has been in decline for quite some time folks. Over a scale as large as this, that is evident as the sun on a cloudless day.

So, Babcock is not wrong in stating that there were more goals being scored in 1980 over the NHL we know and love today. His pointing towards the goalies size should definitely be taken into consideration. In 1980-81 for example, the Minnesota North Stars goalies Don Beaupre and Gilles Meloche were both just 5'10" and weighed in at 178 lbs and 185 lbs respectively. Fast forward to today, Minnesota Wild netminders Devan Dubnyk is 6'6" weighing 210 lbs, and Darcy Kuemper is 6'5" and tips the scales at 207 lbs. They're bigger, their equipment is bigger, their training is better, and simply put there is just more skill between the pipes today than there was back then.

So, what is the solution? A better question may be, is there even a problem? It's not like any team today is enjoying an unfair advantage over the others. Goalies across the league are bigger and better than they used to be. Yet if to the average hockey fan, more goals = more excitement and more interest in the game, it could be financially beneficial to the NHL to widen the pipes or raise the crossbar, or even both.

Personally, I'm not ready for a move this drastic. There are certainly other options one could consider. Last season, the league did modify the goalies pad sizes. It didn't seem to work. In 2013-14 there were 6751 goals scored in the regular season. The league as a whole actually scored 32 less goals last season over the previous season with bigger pads. You really cannot reduce the size of goalie pads too much if player safety is a concern of yours, so lets just throw that option out with the bathwater.

Another option might be to tighten up the jerseys. Pucks do tend to get caught up in a player's sweater. Perhaps if they were more form-fitting, you would see less pucks getting hung up in a jersey and more in the back of the net. A side benefit of this would also be, form fitting jerseys tend to show off holding penalties more than a sweater that is already loose and flowing in the breeze. More penalties = more goals. Or that's the theory anyway. An idea like that however could be considered just throwing crap against a wall and seeing what sticks. It's not like its often the case that goals are prevented by a loose jersey. It happens, but how often does it really happen?

At the very least, we are still years away from any major modifications being made to the dimensions of the goal opening. So,  no immediate help is coming your way Babs, nor for the goal-starved Anaheim Ducks (just 17 goals in 12 games guys? Really?). Such an idea would need to be tested, perhaps in the AHL first before they could make their way to the big leagues. When it's all said an done, if you're a fan of goals, you'd probably be a fan of increasing the size of the NHL goals. As it stands today though, I'm not ready to sign off on the idea. If there are going to be any modifications made to the goals, or how the goalie plays, my first vote will always go towards removing the goalie restriction on playing the puck outside of the trapezoid. You want to see a few extra goals being scored across the league? Try watching Dubs play the puck in the corners.