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The NHL Goalie Scam

Goaltenders have stolen the game. Can the NHL steal it back?


Updated May 29, 2004
In the spring of 2004, every morning brings news of yet another goalie making a case as this year’s Stanley Cup MVP. Their gaudy save percentages and shutout streaks dominate postgame reports. Any burst of scoring – say, three or four goals by a team - is celebrated as a spectacular breakthrough.

It's all in keeping with 2003-04 trends. This is the year Calgary’s Miikaa Kirprusoff put up the lowest goals-against average of the modern era, breaking a record that was barely 12 months old. This is the year a mediocre goaltender on a poor team (Brian Boucher of the Phoenix Coyotes) racked up five straight shutouts. The scoring race was won with 94 points, the lowest full-season total since 1968. Nobody came within a sniff of 50 goals.

In today’s NHL, all-time records for goaltending and defense, along with low-level marks for scoring, are begging to be broken. Ken Hitchcock, the Philadelphia coach, recently said that if the Flyers score twice, he expects to win the game. Not a radical notion these days.

It’s time to get pickier about what we call “great” goaltending. After all, greatness is defined as “considerably above average.” If half the guys in the playoffs are stifling superstars and single-handedly preserving one-goal leads, what’s so great about that? If I change the channel or wait for the late game I can see another guy do the same thing.

So let’s stop giving goalies so much credit. We might have reached the point where a good goaltender is like a good place-kicker in football. You need one. He can win games for you. But he's just a kicker. There are plenty to go around and the decent ones are simple machines, focused on a specialized but not very interesting task.

Somebody turned back 40 shots last night, including a couple of breakaways? Well, what do you think they pay him for? He can roam the ice with impunity, stickhandling and shooting and drawing a penalty if an opposing player should brush by. His leg pads could seat six; his catching and blocking gloves look like dinosaur claws; from the waist up he resembles a fat opera singer. As an added bonus, the NHL is especially touchy about goaltender interference at playoff time. 40 saves is the least we should expect.

All the special treatment has cultivated a prickly generation of puck stoppers. Goaltenders are the new divas of pro sport, sensitive to every slight, always on the lookout for fresh grievances, always on the verge of a tantrum. It would be more tolerable if they were fun to watch. But how often do you feel the urge to throw your hands in the air and cry, "How in the world did he stop that?" Most of today’s saves could just as easily be made by an old mattress: the guy simply faces the shooter and swallows the puck in the endless depths of his considerable girth.

To their credit, NHL general managers recognize how goalies have hijacked the game, and have proposed a few ideas that might give hockey back to the other 10 guys on the ice. The most controversial is the recent proposal to restrict goaltender puck handling. You can imagine how that went over with the masked cabal: How dare anyone mess with our God-given rights? A few brainwashed media types backed them up, arguing that the league should not restrict a legitimate "skill." I have a friend named Wally who used to open beers with his teeth. That was a skill, too.

So enough about how great and spectacular and marvellous the goalies are. These guys are the over-hyped plumbers of the hockey world. It’s time for the NHL to strip them down to size, tie them to their crossbars and find out who can step up to make the next big stop in a 6-6 game.

A Goalie Responds: Look man, this article you wrote about goaltenders today, was obviously by someone who has never played the game. Especially not between the pipes. Before you start knocking on today's goalies, why don't you put on some of those pads yourself, get in the net, and try to stop one shot.

Goaltending is one of the most difficult positions in pro sports today. Don't even try to compare a goalie with a place kicker. A place kicker is out there to do one thing, kick a ball. A 4 year old can kick a damn ball. Let me quote your article: "Somebody turned back 40 shots last night, including a couple of breakaways? Well, what do you think they pay him for?" That would be like saying "Wayne Gretzky has jus scored a at trick, but that's what we pay him to do."

If your going knock a goalie, you better broaden your view on hockey. Not just anyone is going be able to stop a hundred mile an hour puck. I'd like to see you do it.

Jake Lanes,
goaltender, Grand Forks Stallions,
Grand Forks, North Dakota

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