NHL: Change of Net-Base Size May Have Unintended Consequences
The game of hockey, as the cliché goes, is a game of inches. A shot can result in a clang off the post and go into the corner, or it can result in a clang off the post and go in the net. A pass that is an inch too far ahead, or too far behind, and the player receiving it will have difficulty taking the pass, miss it completely, or maybe the pass clangs against the back of the net on a breakout.
One small, yet perhaps very important, rule change that was adopted into the NHL in the offseason was the size of the net. More precisely, it’s the size of the base of the net that has changed. In this graphic provided by the good people at Blue Jackets Extra, we can see the difference at the base in how far the net protrudes behind the goal line.
It doesn’t seem like a lot, but the new dimensions of the base of the net provide a little bit more room behind the goal line than the old ones. Not only that, the actual posts themselves are a bit smaller in circumference, which would likely take away many “dead puck post shots”, where a puck hits the post and then just kind of bounces down. The new post dimensions would be conducive to more Two True Outcome scenarios, either in or out.
The intention of the size change is to allow more wraparounds. Current Blue Jackets Forward Nick Foligno says in this interview with Rob Mixer that “[the new nets will] make for faster plays around the net, which will be pretty exciting. That’s going to make for more offense if you can master it.”
The quote from Foligno is pretty telling of what the intended consequence is of these new nets: To facilitate offense from behind the net in the offensive zone. There’s a reason that the area behind the net was referred to as Wayne Gretzky’s “Office”; with all the attention focused on the player behind the net, there is less attention paid to those sneaking in from the corners and from the blue line. This little clip is a perfect example of how Gretzky used the net as protection while waiting for his players to get open.
What is more telling about that same interview is a quote later on from goaltender Curtis McElhinney when he doesn’t mention wrap-arounds or jam passes, rather he says “[the major difference] is just the little extra space behind the net, especially on those quick little passes.” Not only are those “quick little passes” helpful when trying to get the puck to a teammate to jam home a goal, they’re helpful when trying to get the puck to a teammate and trying to get out of the zone.
How a team gets the puck out of their zone is very important to how they transition from defense to offense. There was a great playoff tracking project put together by Corey Sznajder of Shutdown Line, a Carolina Hurricanes analytics blog. In his words, “The ability to exit the defensive zone cleanly is something that’s often discussed in hockey… Corsi and Fenwick all deal with a team’s ability to keep the puck in the offensive zone, but it’s always tough to tell which ones are driving the bus.” In short, it’s not important to just figure out who’s driving the offense once they get into the opponent’s zone, but also figuring out who was the catalyst for that entire chain of events, and how they did it.
At the :32 second mark of this video from the Stanley Cup Finals last year, Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya retrieves a puck that has been dumped in by Boston. Oduya is a left-handed shot, meaning he will have a hard time breaking out to his right without tipping off forecheckers because of the angle created by the net. The Boston forward recognizes this, and cheats to the right side, forcing Oduya to the left. This plays right into the forecheck of the Boston Bruins, as it eventually forces a dump-in. The Bruins retrieve the dump-in and break out of their zone with relative ease.
So has there been any discernible difference to start the season? Well…
- First 44 games of the 2013-2014 season: 5.62 goals for/game.
- First 50 games of the 2012-2013 season: 7.34 goals for/game.
- First 46 games of the 2011-2012 season: 5.40 goals for/game.
- First 47 games of the 2010-2011 season: 5.46 goals for/game.
Last year was a special case. Most players were playing professional hockey somewhere, be it the AHL, ECHL or overseas in Europe. If you take half a season away from professional athletes, I would say it’s safe to assume they’re eager to get back to make their living. That would account for the spike in scoring last year. Other than that, yes there has been a small increase in scoring in the early parts of full seasons prior to the lockout. It is not possible to tell if it’s a direct result of the new net change rules, in one way or another, but it almost certainly has had some sort of impact. The data just isn’t available to tell us definitively right now.
The NHL finally got a rule change right. Put aside the ridiculous “Jersey Tuck” rule where players will first be warned for having their jersey tucked in, and then will be penalized if they fail to comply. Put aside the automatic penalty for “Delay of Game” when a player shoots the puck over the glass, even when you bat a puck out of the air (something Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith was called for a couple of nights ago when batting a rebound out of the air). This is ridiculous penalty that was encapsulated perfectly in this video.