James Reimer keeps flinching and he doesn’t like it.
Several times in practice already this season, the Florida Panthers goaltender has braced for a shot up high because he is wearing smaller, more formfitting chest and arm protectors required by the NHL.
“I’ve never flinched in my life,” Reimer said. “I consider myself a tough guy. I’m from the country. I can take a few bruises here and there. But at what point? At what point is one guy going to let one loose and a guy’s going to break his arm?”
Those are some of the questions goalies around the league are asking, and some of them have the bruises to show for it after equipment changes agreed to by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. Goalie pads and pants have already been tweaked with the overall aim of boosting scoring while rewarding athletic ability in the crease.
The league is trying to address concerns. The hope is to make goalies feel safe in chest protectors that are roughly an inch smaller and tighter to the body than past models.
“I think the guys that have tried multiple units, they’ve found something that has pleased them and they go out there and do their job,” said NHL vice president of hockey operations Kay Whitmore, the former goalie who’s in charge of this department at the league office. “I deal with each one of those guys on a daily basis and trying to make them understand what they need and what we can get them, and get them out there and feeling comfortable. It’s been working.”
Whitmore fielded complaints through training camp, but last week said the number has dwindled. Some goalies eased their concerns by adding some more padding or switching to another chest protector, while others are still dealing with the change.
Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott complained of bruises early in the season in an interview with the Courier-Post, and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets last week told the Columbus Dispatch he fears getting hit by pucks and called the equipment change “terrible.” Coming off winning the Stanley Cup with Washington, Braden Holtby is less concerned about bruising and more worried about a significant injury.
“Sooner or later someone’s going to get hurt pretty bad,” Holtby said after feeling the sting of a few shots at a morning skate. “You can deal with bumps and bruises and stuff. It’s when you hope someone doesn’t get a broken bone or some sort out of it. If they keep making things like that, they’re going to have to start monitoring the stick technology because guys shoot so hard right now we’ll have no choice but to be bigger.”
Whitmore is the man in the middle of it all trying to satisfy the 31 general managers who recommended the change while also working with the Players’ Association, goaltenders and manufacturers to make things right. That’s a continuing process, though the NHL is confident goalies are not in danger because of the rule change.
“I’m not throwing these guys out there in harm’s way where they can’t even play,” said Whitmore, who played 155 games over 15 years during his professional career. “It’s going to continue to evolve as we go, but not from the standpoint where we’re worried on a nightly basis about what’s going to happen to a guy.”
Remembering previous changes to smaller pads and pants, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist noticed the difference right away with his new chest protector. When it didn’t feel right, he talked to Whitmore and made the necessary adjustments to be compliant and comfortable.
“It was tight and hard to move and you got exposed in a couple areas where you had to talk to Kay and make sure it was OK to cover your shoulders,” Lundqvist said. “I just made some adjustments just make sure it was exactly the way I wanted and the league wanted it, so it’s all good now.”
Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury added an extra undershirt to provide some more padding, and Holtby is working in a new chest protector after wearing a CCM model since junior hockey. Reimer, who got his new chest protector mid-summer and wanted to make changes, said he ordered a new one weeks ago but won’t be able to receive it until the end of the month because companies are backed up with orders.
“What am I supposed to do, play the first month with a chest protector that’s not as protective?” Reimer said. “It’s unfortunate that the whole situation is like this.”
The goal was to level the playing field where goalies weren’t wearing oversized chest protectors just to get a competitive advantage. Reimer wants the NHL to allow goalies to go back to last year when he felt they were protected, but Whitmore is putting the onus on companies to adapt and make better products.
“We’re not changing it now,” Whitmore said. “We’ve thought long and hard about the shape we wanted guys to look like.”
In his first season as Rangers coach, David Quinn hasn’t been afraid to send a message to underperforming players of all ages by scratching them. Defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Neal Pionk and Adam McQuaid and forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Pavel Buchnevich have already gotten the healthy-scratch treatment. Shattenkirk had two assists and a shootout goal in his second game back, Pionk responded to his benching with a three-point night and the message seems to be getting through to a young, rebuilding bunch.
“Guys have done a good job coming back from it,” Quinn said. “This is all about making them the best player they can possibly be. We all need to be held accountable, and sometimes you need a little bit of a wakeup call. These guys have handled it well.”
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette bet his players that if the Predators swept the Flames and Oilers on their swing through Alberta, he’d wear a full bull mask for his postgame interview. Laviolette made good on that promise Saturday night after backup Juuse Saros shut out Edmonton 3-0 to help Nashville improve to 7-1-0.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets visit Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night in a matchup of Canada’s best bets to win the Stanley Cup.