Unmasking goalies' pains: What's behind ouch factor?

Through Nov. 26, 2008, no less than 17 NHL netminders had suffered injuries ranging from day to day, to indefinite. If goaltenders are considered to be better protected nowadays, why are they dropping more quickly than the Canadian dollar?

Style of play, rule and equipment changes may be behind toll of injuries: experts

Like many NHL goaltenders, Chris Mason of the St. Louis Blues has been forced to deal with plenty of traffic in his crease this season. ((Christian Petersen/Getty Images))

A curious David Marcoux strapped on Miikka Kiprusoff's pads prior to the National Hockey League's latest round of changes to goalie equipment.

He then found the nearest phone to inform NHL goaltending supervisor Kay Whitmore of the potential injury risks, should the league and NHL Players' Association tweak the knee protectors at its meeting in Toronto last June.

It was Marcoux's belief that changing the width of the knee-strap pads and inner-knee risers from 5.5 inches each would increase the chance of injury. In the end, both parties agreed to keep the status quo entering this season.

"When goalies go down on their knees, the angle of the pads is much better than it used to be because of those cushioned protectors, so it puts less stress on the ankles, knees and hips," said Marcoux, one of several people who spoke to CBCSports.ca about the growing list of injuries to netminders this season for its three-part series examining the rise in injuries at the position.

Part 1 looked at the overuse of netminders and how coaches feel pressure to play their starter often in a salary cap world.

Through the first seven weeks of the 82-game schedule, no less than 17 goalies had suffered injuries ranging from day to day, to indefinite.

So, if netminders are considered by many to be better protected nowadays, why are they dropping more quickly than the Canadian dollar?

Goaltender Kevin Weekes of the New Jersey Devils said the style of play coming out of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout that stressed speed and less obstruction is a factor, a point shared by former NHL goalie Glenn Healy, Ottawa Senators goalie coach Eli Wilson and Marcoux.

Others, like former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender coach Steve McKichan, believe it's a combination of rule and equipment changes.

For instance, one rule change introduced this season has teams facing off in the offensive zone to start a power play.

"You could be facing seven to 10 power plays a game and a few 5-on-3s. You're pretty much under siege killing penalties," Weekes said.

The introduction of shootouts post-lockout also has forced goaltenders to make more explosive saves and extend themselves, said McKichan, who believes such a manoeuvre led to San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov suffering a lower-body injury on Nov. 8 and missing seven games.

Injuries spoil hot starts

Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin was having a sensational start to the season with a 2.46 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in his first 13 appearances until he was felled in a Nov. 26 game during a goalmouth scramble against the Sharks in San Jose.

The fact defencemen can no longer hold players up inside the blue-line means clear sailing to the net for goal-starved players, who regularly top 200 pounds in today's NHL.

"The lane to the net is fast, easy and free," said Healy, who played 437 games in the NHL before retiring after the 2000-01 campaign. "That's where you're going to score your goals, so there's a lot of net crashing that didn't happen, say, four years ago."

John Davidson, the St. Louis Blues' president of hockey operations, doesn't buy the charging-the-net argument, saying the NHL has done a solid job limiting the amount of traffic and body contact around the net.

"It was way worse in the late 1970s; there's not even a comparison," said Davidson, who tended goal for St. Louis and the New York Rangers in that era.

But back then, Healy countered, defencemen could manipulate where a player went just with their stick.

"If your stick goes horizontal [in today's game], then you're going to go to the penalty box," he said. "There's no question that without [the use] of the stick, it's a factor [in contributing to goalie injuries]."

Pads, blockers, trappers shrink

Wilson said net crashing is on the rise. He pointed to a recent game involving the Montreal Canadiens that included three goalie interference penalties.

Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff is playing this season with smaller pads, and blocker and trapper. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

To better handle traffic in front of the net, Senators goalies Alex Auld and Martin Gerber practise screens and guys jamming at the net to help them get in the best position possible.

"No. 1, you have to protect the net from the puck," Wilson said. "Once you do that, you almost can't protect yourself if you're doing your job."

Auld's and Gerber's job this season involves stopping pucks with pads that are 11 inches wide (down from 12), along with a smaller blocker and catching glove.

Whitmore told NHL.com recently that goalie equipment will continue to be downsized in the coming years, a sore spot with Weekes.

"For every inch you take away on goalie pads, that's another inch of rotation on your hips, knees and ankles," said Weekes, who broke into the NHL in 1997 with the Florida Panthers. "When you do the butterfly (goalie on his knees and pads spread out), that's an extra inch of torque and range of motion.

"As a pitcher if you're used to throwing the baseball at a certain angle and suddenly you have to throw it another five, 10 degrees, or two inches outside of that, the results would be pretty devastating on your arm. It's no different for us."

Broken hands on the horizon?

Wilson has heard a rumour that gloves and blockers might be smaller in the future, "so instead of having star goalies go down with a groin injury, you're going to have guys with broken hands."

However, McKichan said, there is very little evidence to link broken hands and fingers with smaller blockers and gloves, or trappers.

"The [current] size of the glove is probably better for youth players," he said, "because you have to be precise instead of blocking the puck with your trapper. You're actually catching it and it prevents rebounds and becomes a more effective style of play."

Added Davidson: "The players today shoot the puck so hard it's more of being an intelligent goaltender, reading plays and blocking as much of the net as you can, and these [NHL goalies] are really good at it."

In 1986, there were 23 goalies in the NHL who were five-foot-10 and shorter, according to Wilson. The number has dwindled to four this season: Detroit's Chris Osgood, St. Louis' Manny Legace, Toronto's Vesa Toskala and Vancouver's Curtis Sanford.

"Of course the equipment was smaller [years ago] and at that time there were only two goalies over 200 pounds," he said. "They're bigger men now and they need bigger equipment."

Part 3 will look at the popular butterfly style of goaltending that some hockey observers are attributing to a rise in hip and groin injuries.