Big talk, small change for goalies

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Stare very hard or you'll miss him.

Not to be cynical before the changes are even officially announced, but word has leaked out that this summer's big crackdown on oversized netminder equipment has pretty much been reduced to a minor change on the "wings" that protect the inside of the goalie's knees and a reshaping of the clavicle protector, the device that often makes a sitting goalie appear as if he's lost his head.

Hardly a "ta-da!"

"The changes are subtle," says Jim Rutherford, the Carolina Hurricanes' general manager and member of the goalie equipment committee proposing the new changes. "You probably won't even notice them."

And there lies the problem. For reasons that are difficult to ascertain, the league that introduced massive, largely good and well thought-out rules changes coming out of the 2004-05 lockout continues to drag its collective skates on the single largest issue vexing the game today.

The issue of oversized goaltender equipment has been on the league's must-change list for almost a decade, but despite countless threats of a crackdown and repeated reports of progress in terms of shrinking the gear down from the Michelin Man's travel wardrobe to something akin to basic protection, significant alterations simply haven't made been made.

The changes, such as they are, will be announced shortly -- by a committee made up primarily of former and current goaltenders, oddly enough, including several who are totally opposed to change.

Virtually everyone acknowledges that goalie equipment has evolved to a point of creating a human wall. Almost everyone acknowledges that many in the netminding fraternity have learned to, for lack of a better word, cheat on the way certain pieces of equipment are used. There is a special concern regarding the misuse of the so-called wings -- pads designed as landing cushions for the inside of the knee, but are more often set up to stick out from the main leg pads and further close the five hole. There's also been a longstanding complaint regarding the size of shoulder pads and clavicle protectors that, when a goalie goes into his athletic stance, force pads up and out in a way that blocks the upper area of the net to the point where some goalies' heads almost vanish.

To that end, the committee that includes Rutherford, New York Islanders GM Garth Snow (former goalie), Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough and Dallas Stars co-GM Brett Hull as well as current netminders Rick DiPietro of the Isles, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, plus forwards Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators and Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames, met recently in Toronto. It agreed to proposals that would secure the wings more tightly and trim down the contours of shoulder pads, clavicle protectors and outer arm flaps that so blatantly push the fabric of sweaters to ridiculous proportions.

But when it came to seriously shrinking the equipment, especially the length and width of the goalie's pads, blocker and catching glove (now called a trapper because of its lobster-cage-like size) nothing happened.

"There were protection issues and I recognize that," Rutherford says. "I played the position and when I played, the equipment was a lot smaller. I'm not saying we need to go back to that, but I would argue that there is still some work to be done.

"I was a small man, but even when you looked down the ice at, say, Ken Dryden (the former Montreal goalie came out of college in the 1970s as one of the largest netminders in the game), you could still see places where there was room to shoot. I don't think we've achieved that yet."

In truth, they're not even close.

Goalie pads will still be some 12 inches wide, and while there is some consideration being given to chopping down length based on the physical dimensions of the individual goalie's legs, they will still allow netminders to spread their legs in a butterfly and effectively lay a barrier across virtually the entire width of the crease. Given that the majority of goals scored in the NHL are via shots along the ice, the goalies, in essence, are surrendering next to nothing in terms of open space.

I'm no advocate of putting goaltenders in situations where they are not well protected against injury, but this is ridiculous.

Goaltenders and their equipment have so dominated the game in recent years that you almost never see goals scored off the wing by skaters flying down the ice ala Guy Lafleur. Combine that equipment with improved athletic ability, full-time goalie coaches, and the tactics of defense-minded coaches who are quite content to drop five skaters below the circles to form a shield, and it's little wonder scoring hasn't been significantly on the uptick.

It did climb a bit that first season after the lockout, but it wasn't substantial growth, and after players and coaches adjusted to the new rules and the league allowed defensemen more latitude with physical contact, scoring is the No.1 problem in the game again. The changes to be introduced this season will not change that. And one has to ask why.

The NHL talked mightily about a crackdown toward the end of last season and even normally cautious GMs cried out for change at their last meeting. But after a spring of bluster and a summer of discussion, including the threat of introducing larger nets, there has been some fine-tuning but nothing of consequence regarding real change. This despite the fact the leauge knows it has a scoring problem and the committee meeting was deemed so important that even Commissioner Gary Bettman attended.

Protection is the most oft-stated reason for the overall lack of change. That's valid, but only to a point. There is new equipment on the market that is so good that serious goalie injuries, once the bane of the game, are virtually non-existent. Slimming down the equipment without threatening the health and well- being of the players is known to be a doable deed.

What seems to be the obstruction here is that no one has or is willing to exert the necessary authority to make change happen. The goalies have power on the ice, with the players' association, and with a strong, powerful voice in the media. (Make a list of hockey analyists, especially at the network level, and see how many are from the brotherhood of masked men). Until that power is corralled, reduced and brought back into line with the other elements of the game, real change won't happen.