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NHL goalies making adjustments to new controversial chest protector

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NHL goalies making adjustments to new controversial chest protector

SAN JOSE -- Over the course of a 12-year career as an NHL goalie, Sharks goaltending coach Johan Hedberg said he only changed his chest protector twice. 

“The one when I retired, there was nothing left,” Hedberg said in a phone interview with NBC Sports California. “[It was] like a wet sweater pretty much.”

Were he still playing, Hedberg would wear his third this season. Goalies around the league are wearing new, streamlined chest protectors under an updated rule from the NHL and the NHLPA in an effort to increase scoring and enforce uniform standards among netminders. The chest protector is the latest piece of goalie equipment to be regulated, following the shrinking of the leg pads and pants. 

Specifically, the chest and arm pads “must be anatomically proportional and size-specific” based on the goalies’ bodies. The result is more form-fitting, with slimmed down arms and strict regulations for padding around the shoulders and collarbone.

“Everybody’s got the same, level playing field,” Hedberg said. “I see no [downside] on shrinking some of the stuff, and just making it smarter where you do have the protection, but you’re not covering anything but your body.”

Early in the season, some goalies have questioned whether or not there is still enough protection, specifically in the arms and shoulders. 

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky told the Columbus Dispatch last month he had bruised arms and elbows for the first time in his career, and called the changes “terrible.” Goalies Braden Holtby, Brian Elliott, and James Reimer, among others, have also shared safety concerns.

Greg Balloch, a writer for the goalie-centric publication InGoal Magazine, saw this coming to some degree. This summer, he watched AHL goalie Ken Appleby in the new chest protector take a routine shot from an NHL player in a drill, only to cut it short. He said he understands why the goalies worry, since they face so many shots in practice. 

“You want to be protected,” Balloch said in a phone interview. "You're playing in the best hockey league in the world and these guys seem to find spots that normal shooters don't. And you know if you're not well protected, then it can be dangerous.”

Sharks goaltender Martin Jones said last week he hasn’t had any problems adjusting to the new equipment, while backup Aaron Dell said he’s “only had a couple of issues.”

“I have kind of noticed on the outer shoulders I get a couple more stingers and things like that,” Dell said last week at the Sharks’ practice facility. “For the most part, it’s not too different.”

Dell said he’s used to the changes now, but he only started practicing with his new chest protector “a week or two” before training camp. Joonas Korpisalo, who is Bobrovsky’s backup, told NBC Sports California last week that his came in days before his first preseason game. 

That’s perhaps because the approval process is far more involved. The league now scans all the chest protectors for compliance with a 3D scanner, NHL goaltending supervisor Kay Whitmore told InGoal this summer. 

The season is barely a month old, but goal-scoring is up. Teams are averaging 3.10 goals per game, an increase of 0.13 over last season. Whether that holds, or is driven at all by the rule changes, is unclear. 

Despite it all, goalies are adjusting. Korpisalo said the manufacturer of his chest protector was very responsive to his initial feedback, as was the case with his peers. 

“I think there’s a lot of guys who have the same problems,” Korpisalo said last week when the Blue Jackets were in the Bay Area. “Even before Sergei said that, we knew there [were] a lot of goalies who agree. … A lot of goalies, it helped to change manufacturers, find [the right chest protector]. For me, it worked.”

It remains to be seen if the controversy surrounding the chest protectors will persist. Hedberg thought a lot of the shortcomings, particularly in the shoulders, can “easily be fixed” without making the pads bigger.

Despite the public backlash, many goalies are in favor of the idea behind the rule, if not the execution.  Dissatisfaction with the new rules is driven by safety concerns, not about their save percentages and goals against averages, according to Balloch.

“They want the talent to rise to the surface,” Balloch said. “They don't want somebody succeeding just because of the gear. … They trust in their ability and the fact that they’ll be able to adapt.”

Dylan Gambrell's improved play aiding Sharks' quest for four-line game

Dylan Gambrell's improved play aiding Sharks' quest for four-line game

SAN JOSE - One of the biggest criticisms of the Sharks at this early point in the season has been that its younger players hadn't stepped up yet.

That changed on Sunday evening in San Jose's 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames. 

Sure, San Jose's young stars Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc all found the net in the victory. But when Hertl and captain Logan Couture addressed the media postgame, independent of each other, both pointed to newcomer Dylan Gambrell's emergence over the last few games as a key factor in the Sharks' recent success.

Gambrell's positive production as fourth-line center is giving San Jose more offensive depth. While the Sharks' forward attack is still a work in progress, the 23-year-old forward is evolving into the pivotal player the team needs.

"He's been given an opportunity and these last two games he's really shown what he's been capable of," Couture said. "When we have that line playing well and the other three rolling over, we're a tough team to beat."

Head coach Peter DeBoer agreed with the assessment of his captain.

"For him, that's all about competing," DeBoer said of Gambrell. "Sticking his nose in there and competing. His skill and speed will take over and he's starting to do that here regularly."

There was a spotlight on Gambrell heading into training camp after he signed a two-year contract following a season in which he bounced between the AHL and NHL. But the University of Denver product didn't readily establish his game when he was plugged into the top six through the preseason and, like the majority of the Sharks, struggled out of the gate in the first few games of the regular season. 

After penciling back onto the fourth line, Gambrell's game visibly changed. 

"I think he saw that he was close to being sent back. That's the reality of it," DeBoer admitted. "He wasn't as effective (in training camp) as he is now. And maybe that's on us. Maybe we asked him to do too much. We played him on the wing on the top two lines and maybe it was too much for him."

Back at the center position on that fourth line, however, the speedy forward has been on an upward trend. He's been more effective in the faceoff circle and more aggressive on the puck, which gives San Jose depth down the middle that they, frankly, have been missing since last season.

"He had a little tough start but now he's playing a really hard game and this is what we need," Hertl said. "Good on faceoffs, strong on the puck."

Continuing that higher level of compete can make the Sharks' quest to establish a four-line game a bit smoother. As San Jose has encountered through the first six games of the season, the Western Conference is stacked with teams that can get production out of any line they roll out onto the ice. While the Sharks' offense is still in the process of getting healthy -- Marcus Sorensen is still sidelined -- the team needs to get its four-line game in place if they're going to completing recover from their rough start to the season.

[RELATED: Sharks fans give Marleau standing ovation]

"In this league, you need four lines," Hertl summarized. "It's not about just one line. Every night you need four lines plus your goalie."

If Gambrell can continue this upward trend, the Sharks have a better chance of achieving that goal.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's 3-1 win over Flames

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's 3-1 win over Flames

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- Good play doesn't always carry over from one game to another. But after finishing strong and getting their first win of the season Thursday night, the Sharks hoped to build on that performance three days later when the Calgary Flames came to town.

Team Teal did just that, jumping out to an early lead and never giving it up, as they extinguished the Flames 3-1, tallying their second straight win of the season.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday's game at SAP Center.

Captain clutch

When Logan Couture's teammates described him during the preseason as a captain who would "lead by example," they really weren't kidding. No. 39 was one of the best players on the ice Sunday night -- not because he scored big goals but because he set them up and let his speed set the tone for the rest of the team.

San Jose's offense got two big jolts in the first 40 minutes, and both times it was from a goal that Couture set up. The second was most impressive, as he snagged the puck from Calgary forward Mikael Backland on a Sharks penalty kill and maneuvered up the ice to set up Tomas Hertl for San Jose's first short-handed goal of the season.

Jones stood tall

When San Jose's defense got a little loosey-goosey in the second period, goalie Martin Jones kept the Sharks in the game. Not only did Jones keep the Flames off the board during the first seven minutes of the opening period, but he also stopped a few breakaway attempts that could've erased San Jose's lead.

Needless, to say, Jones had his best outing of the season by far. With San Jose's defense still ironing out some kinks and cleaning up its 60-minute game, it was exactly the kind of confident performance this team needed.

The power of playing with the lead

It's pretty incredible how much momentum a team can get just from taking an early lead. Once Timo Meier found the back of the net and gave the Sharks their first first-period lead of the season, they had all the momentum in their favor for the rest of the frame.

The Sharks just need to make sure they don't let their defense regularly take its foot off the gas, as it did during Sunday's game. They might have had the benefit of getting a good performance out of Jones and playing against a tired Flames team, but that kind of play won't cut it against tougher teams. 

[RELATED: Sharks fans give Marleau standing ovation]

Getting into turnover trouble could doom them this coming week when the Eastern Conference-leading Carolina Hurricanes come to town.