TORONTO — We are not yet at the edge of the cliff, but it’s clear some influential people at the NHL are tip-toeing closer. A few are even peering over the side.
It was certainly noteworthy when Colin Campbell emerged from a routine meeting of NHL general managers on Tuesday and mused about a scenario where the league might consider changing the four-by-six configuration of nets that has been used, well, forever.
“Maybe we have to look at bigger nets,” said Campbell.
Maybe. Nothing definitive, no screaming headline, but an acknowledgement that the idea can’t be ruled out entirely.
There continues to be a push to scale back the size of goaltending equipment and if that doesn’t produce more scoring, Campbell thinks an examination of the net is the next logical step.
The NHL has been down this road before and resisted the urge. Everyone is mindful that a fundamental change to the sport can’t be made on impulse, or without great consideration.
“I’ve got about four different sized nets in my barn (from the past),” said Campbell, the NHL’s senior vice-president and director of hockey operations. “They’re still there. I looked at them the other day. There’s weird shapes, there’s all kinds of shapes. We’ve used them in different games, in a Marlies game once.
“Maybe we have to go there, but before we do that I think you have to make every attempt you can to do what you can with the large goalie equipment.”
Campbell believes that he has the support of the NHL Players’ Association to legislate changes. One idea floating around is requiring goalies to wear smaller sweaters, which would force them to keep their protective equipment small enough to fit under it.
That could be in place for next season.
The fundamental question being asked during Tuesday’s discussion on scoring was whether GMs even have an issue with where things are at.
There are currently an average of 5.32 goals per game, which is down slightly from the 5.5 scored through this date a year ago. The lowest mark in the NHL’s expansion era was 5.14 in 2003-04 — a season that sparked sweeping changes to the way the game is played during the lockout that followed it.
In recent days, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock advocated for larger nets while legendary coach Scotty Bowman proposed shrinking the offensive zone. Bowman believes that would force teams to cover the points more aggressively and reduce the number of players simply trying to block shots.
That is an issue the GMs are sensitive to.
“We used to check the points more vigorously, now it’s a collapse in the middle and blocking shots and getting shots through,” said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon. “That’s the new way of playing hockey.”
However, Tallon believes the game is still “entertaining.” His Nashville Predators colleague, David Poile, would prefer to see more goals.
“When you talk about scoring, where do you want to start?” said Poile. “Do you want to start with the goaltending equipment, do you want to start with all the congestion in front of the net, all the shot-blocking? How about taking out the trapezoid?
“We can go on and on and on.”
They’re going to have to.
This is a discussion that will be revisited during the three-day GMs meeting in March — a gathering that often results in rule change recommendations.
It also comes at a time when the league has implemented a coach’s challenge which takes away goals scored on a play where goaltender interference has taken place or a player went offside. The GMs reviewed that process Tuesday and seem generally satisfied with how it is working.
Eventually, they’ll likely have to grapple with the question of whether to respond to the increasing size of goaltenders by making the nets they protect bigger.
“It’s getting pretty tough to put the puck in the net these days with the size of the goaltenders,” said Campbell. “Look, it’s one thing to have large equipment. It’s another to be 6-foot-6. We can’t legislate against that.
“Goaltenders will be big, it doesn’t mean you have to make nets bigger.”
Yes, but they might.
He acknowledged as much himself.
“It’s easy to do — you can’t tell (it’s bigger with the eye),” said Campbell. “But it’s not easy to do because you’ve got to make the decision that this is going to work and satisfy your goal-scoring or your lead change problem. …
“What if you do that and it doesn’t work?”
One of many questions still to ponder before taking a giant leap into the unknown.