Major League Baseball is likely at the tail end of a scandalous era in which numbers were artificially inflated, records broken, and the players generally appeared superhuman. The era was defined by steroids, and it produced an era of tarnished reputations. Yet, the steroids era resulted in wild popularity and business success for the MLB. The National Hockey League is also suffering from an epidemic of super sized athletes and juiced-up statistics. However, in hockey, the problem is not anything illegal; but nor is it good for business. In hockey, it's the pads that are juiced.
During the NHL's All-Star break in late January, future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur was getting ready to unveil a new set of leg pads. Brodeur, who turns 40 in May, started the season slow as he left his 2nd game of the season after just one period with a shoulder injury. He would miss the rest of the October as backup Johan Hedberg took over the starting job while Brodeur healed. Brodeur only started 54 games the previous season as injuries, and age, slowed his play. Hedberg, meanwhile, finished that 2010-2011 season with a better Goals-Against Average and Save Percentage than Brodeur. Once Brodeur returned from injury this season, he played well enough to merit receiving the vast majority of starts for his New Jersey Devils. In January, however, his numbers took a nosedive. Between January 2nd and All-Star Weekend, Brodeur's stat line read: 9 starts, 3 wins, a GAA of 3.86, and a .868 SV%. When the All-Star break came along, Brodeur must have felt he needed to do something. He certainly wasn't getting any younger.
The NHL Rulebook dictates that a goalie's leg pads cannot exceed 11" in width. Brodeur's pads already measured the maximum distance at the bottom, so he increased the width at the top. From 9 ½" to "about 10 ¼ to 10 ½", the new pads are wider where they protect the knee and lower thigh area. Brodeur's new model also measures 37" now - one inch longer than his old ones. "For me, I think it protects a little more the five hole," said Brodeur. "When I go down on the butterfly there's a little more pad there then I used to have. I always played with my pads wider at the bottom and tapered at the top like goalies did in the 1990s. Now I'm more in line with what other goalies wear around the league. I just wanted to see if I was able to play with something a little bigger and cover a little more net. It feels pretty good", said Brodeur.
Brodeur's statistics with the new pads are staggering, and in stark contrast to the month prior to the equipment change. With the bigger pads, Brodeur has: 13 starts, 8 wins, a GAA of 2.12, a .906 SV%, and 1 shutout. With results like that, it's not surprising that pads like these are the norm around the NHL. To be fair, bigger pads will not turn a beer league goalie into a Vezina-quality goaltender. And, once again, there is nothing illegal about the pads Brodeur and NHL goalies are wearing. But they should be.
Offensive statistics have continued to decline every single year since the great lockout of 2004-05, when Commissioner Gary Bettman announced sweeping rule changes to increase offense and break the defensive stranglehold teams like Brodeur's Devils had on the league for more than a decade. Offense did increase after the changes, but has dropped just as steadily as goalies save percentages have risen. Once again, the numbers are clear: Goals scored per game have gone from 3.08 in the first post-lockout season to 2.74 this season; while goalies save percentages have increased from .901 to .914.
If offense and goal scoring was the savior of the league, which was in desperate need of one, then defense and goaltending were the enemy. The former are disappearing and the latter have returned with a vengeance. Coincidentally, another labor battle looms over the game this coming summer as it did in 2004-2005. Once the financials get worked out, the owners, GM's, players, and competition committee need to make only one rule change that is long overdue: reduce the size of goalie equipment. If not, the fans who were won back after the lockout will turn off the game as they did the last time defense and goaltenders reigned supreme.