Goaltenders Need Protection From Their Teammates

 April 14, 2011: Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) looking to make a save as defenseman Mike Weber (6) is dealing with Philadelphia Flyers right wing Andreas Nodl (15) during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quaterfinals between the Buffalo Sabers and the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Sabers beat the Flyers, 1-0.

Kerry Fraser had a big piece on TSN about how Brendan Shanahan blew it by not suspending Milan Lucic for his hit on goalie Ryan Miller. Fraser says that without a Lucic suspension, it’s going to be open season on goalies:

Players (and more importantly goalies) would know that the League still considers them endangered and will continue to protect them from full blown body checks. It now appears that hunting season is now open. The license only takes “two minutes” to fill out and can be completed from the penalty box.

Apparently NHL GMs agree to some extent and have vowed to remind their players to protect goaltenders outside of the crease.

The thing is, how common is the scenario that got Miller hurt? How often are goaltenders hurt coming out to play the puck? How often do goalies come out that far to play the puck? You hardly even see goalies playing the puck behind the net anymore.

The Lucic hit was bad and he probably should have let up sooner, but it’s not a recurring NHL problem.

If the NHL is serious about protecting goalies, it needs to look at what teams are doing to their own goaltenders.

How many times have you seen a defenseman shove an opponent into the defenseman’s own goaltender? There’s no statistic tracking this, but it sure happened last night when Islander Blake Comeau (a forward) shoved Ranger Michael Sauer into Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov writhed around in pain for a minute or two but was able to finish the game.

But who’s protecting Nabokov? Where is the outcry? Is an injury somehow less damaging when it’s inflicted by a teammate?

Players will move heaven and earth to protect their own goalie. If an opponent takes any kind of liberty with him, most teams will take exception and defend their goaltender’s honor. Most players don’t even have to think twice about it.

But put an opponent between a player and his goaltender and that need to protect the goalie evaporates. Instead, the player will be overtaken by an almost pathological desire to shove the opponent into the goaltender.

On the one hand, you can understand how players are trying to intimidate each other. Shoves after the whistle are a fairly standard part of the NHL culture. But an awful lot of NHL players don’t seem to understand that when they push an opponent around the crease, there’s a reasonably strong chance the opponent is going to knock into a goaltender.

The complicated thing about this issue is that it involves a player hurting his own goalie. The NHL goalkeeper interference rule discusses the issue, but doesn’t assign a penalty to it:

If an attacking player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending player so as to cause him to come into contact with the goalkeeper, such contact will not be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.

Basically, if an attacker knocks into a goalie in the crease, it can be called as a penalty. But if a defender knocks an opponent into his own goalie, nothing is called. And that exception leaves goalies vulnerable to injury, since without a penalty, there’s apparently nothing stopping players from knocking attackers into the defending goalie.

No coach is going to clamor for a penalty against his own team. No goaltender is going to complain about the behavior of his own team. And opponents don’t care if they’re getting knocked into an opposing goalie. They’re not necessarily looking to keep an opposing goalie safe.

Everyone wants to keep goaltenders safe. It’s admirable. But let’s not pretend that goalies are dropping due to injuries from playing the puck out at the circles. Goaltenders are in way more danger playing behind teammates who are constantly shoving attackers into them. If the NHL really wants to keep goaltenders safe, that’s where they want to start.