Please, Please, Please, Don’t Call Me Athletic

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There are people who will shoehorn a term into a sentence to make them seem like an expert, but the term they splice in is such an overused cliché that all you can think is, What an idiot. I know I don’t have the normal, nine-to-five desk job, but I’m convinced that every industry has its own ubiquitous saying that spreads like an infection and quickly loses its meaning. These buzzwords become so pervasive in the office and workplace, that, eventually, no one questions their meaning anymore. Company X promises to “disrupt the Y industry.” Marketers distinguish themselves with a “holistic” approach to your campaign. And my personal, cringeworthy, favorite: “synergy.”

In the hockey world, my gears grind when I hear the term “athletic” goalie. What makes one goalie athletic and the other unathletic? Doing the splits? Stacking the pads? Windmilling a glove save? Are those really the top qualities you want the goalie of your team to have? They wouldn’t be for me.

In a time of internet experts and hot-take media, we are left with a complete void where nuance used to reside. Sometimes, a lack of nuance is harmless, like saying, “I could eat burritos at every meal.” (Really? At every meal?) Other times unalterable, definite opinions can have drastically negative ripple effects. (Has anyone been watching the U.S. election coverage?)

So with this in mind, I’d like to try to calm the waters surrounding modern goaltending.

This won’t be an article written only for goalies, chock-full of reverse-vertical-horizontal (RVH) and backside-recovery references. Goaltending doesn’t have to be complicated. Analytics are good thing for hockey. Advanced stats are becoming mainstream and accepted, and I view that as a positive change, but I also need to see a goalie in action to fully evaluate his or her skill. At the end of the day though, the only question that needs to be answered is, Did the puck stay out of the net? How the puck stays out of the net is less relevant than many people think. I’ve been fortunate to play in the NHL for the past four years, for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Los Angeles Kings, the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens, and I currently hold the NHL record for saves in a shutout. I know a few things about this position.

In a two-part series for The Players’ Tribune, I’m going to focus on the physical and the mental aspects of the position that are bastardized repeatedly online and on-air. My hope is that, after reading it, young goalies, parents of goalies and goalie coaches will join me in a collective eye roll whenever a goaltending snake-oil salesman proclaims that all saves should be judged compared to one “highlight reel” save. Highlights? I’d rather have a goalie on my team who’s never on a highlight reel because she’s always in position. But highlight save or not, at the end of the day, the only question that needs to be answered by yourself, your son, your daughter or a player on your team is: Did the puck stay out of the net?

As a general rule, the easiest way to stop a shot is to get your chest, the biggest area of your body, in front of it. Unfortunately, the most difficult part of playing the position is what you have to do before the shot is taken — which is to get your body into position to stop the shot with your chest. Getting into a position that simultaneously has the best angle and depth to block a shot requires all-out effort and precise movements. Whether a goalie chooses to T-push, shuffle or cartwheel (I wouldn’t recommend cartwheeling) is inconsequential so long as her push gets her to where she needs to be in order to stop the shot. Put simply, the true test of a goalie’s skill isn’t blocking a shot — it’s getting in position to block a shot.

So, if you agree with me that the most difficult part of stopping the puck isn’t the act of letting the puck hit you, but rather getting your body into position before the shot is taken, I suggest that your practices and summer training should first focus on developing an ability to skate well.

The better you can skate, the easier it will be to get from one position in your crease to another. Think about it. The farthest a cross-ice pass can go is 85 feet (the width of the rink). If you are playing goal with your heels at the top of the crease, following that pass requires you to push about seven or eight feet across the blue paint. The harder your push across, the more likely it is that you’ll be set for a shot. And that’s assuming you’re making the longest push you’ll ever have to in a game. Most pushes are much shorter and quicker. Furthermore, the quicker you can stop at the end of your push ends up adding a split second to your set-up time, which will allow you to be fully prepared when the puck is on an opponent’s stick in a scoring area. The litmus test for a quality goalie is how often she gets into proper position to make a save.

Watching games and recaps on TV can be extremely aggravating. I know I’m not alone in this because countless goalie partners I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the crease with have griped about the same things over breakfast at the rink. Announcers tend to blow up saves that should be routine and gloss over difficult saves because the goalie has made them look routine. Now don’t get me wrong — or do, doesn’t matter to me either way (😉 @wyshynski) — this isn’t an attack on announcers. The technical aspects of the position have grown exponentially since many of the old guard, both goalies and skaters, last played. When I see a desperation save on TV, it’s usually because a goalie has either put himself in a bad position with his skating, or gotten himself out of a tough spot with his skating. Poor skating decisions or execution can leave a goalie in a bad spot and good skating decisions or execution can help him recover from bad positioning. Young goalies — and even old goalies — need to hear that. Rarely do I hear announcers preaching the importance of skating for a goaltender like they do about athleticism, battle and “the ability to make a timely save.” (Not to mention how useless those terms are. How the hell do we teach somebody to make “timely saves” or “fight off pucks?”) Watch the videos below to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

So as not to embarrass anyone, here’s an example of some questionable footwork by yours truly that made the save more difficult than it had to be:

Conversely, here’s Braden Holtby doing everything well, but because of a series of well-executed passes by the Devils, he is behind the play. He nevertheless gets his body in front of the puck because of his outstanding skating skills:

Good skating ability allows a goalie who is caught out of position to get as much of his or her body in the way as possible when the time comes to hit the panic button. And believe me, every goalie hits the panic button. It’s all a matter of being prepared for those moments. Being able to skate well makes your job easier. For the times when you have either put yourself in a bad position — or a great play by your opponent has put you in a bad position — good skating gives you the best shot (bad pun, I know) at getting net coverage.

My good buddy, James Reimer, is a prime example of skating ability making a difficult save look routine. He plays this with ease — a deflected point-shot where the rebound is headed into the slot before getting pulled back for a shot:

This is from another camera angle:

James makes an initial save and feels like he has the puck in his equipment — a minor mental error — but his skating gets his body back on angle quickly to make the second save. This significantly harder than he makes it look:

Another claim I hear all the time (one that is revealing about the knowledge level of the speaker) is the need for a “big” goalie. When you understand how to play the position, you know that being big or small isn’t the be-all and end-all that determines whether a goalie will be successful or not. Size makes relatively little difference if both goalies are set in their proper positions. Hockey is such a dynamic game that skating ability is the great equalizer between goalies big and small, (and players too, for that matter). A small goalie who can gain an extra 12 inches of depth to be closer to the shooter will look as big — if not bigger — than a bigger goalie who is deep in her net. The thing that really matters is whether the goalie is set and waiting for the shot (stop me if I sound like a broken record); if you’re set and waiting, the play, shot, pass or deke won’t matter. Those are all manageable because you’re balanced on your edges, which allows you to move and react to whatever the skater shows you. A goalie being in position and waiting for the shot almost always leads to them winning the battle with the shooter.

As you can now assume, the work required to make a save is done before the shooter even knows he’s going to shoot the puck. So the next “highlight reel save” (or even routine save) you see on TV, take a look at how the goalie has gotten himself into the spot he’s in. I can assure you that the save is a consequence of his skating. Keep that in mind when judging whether or not a save is as impressive as the announcer is telling you it is. And for any announcers out there, no need to give me a shout-out the next time you point out that a goalie made a tough save look easy with his skating.

So you’ve pushed hard, stopped harder, got set for the shot and made your save. Life is good. This is the end of the article, right? Grab your bottle and toast yourself. My personal favorite is a Deaner classic, “More cheers, more beers, that’s it, that’s all.”

Well, shit. You forgot about the rebound.

Our job is never over. Every save leads to another opportunity for the opposition to reattack. Everything I talked about in the first half of this article — about getting into position and being set — should give you the body control to both make your save and be ready for the next shot attempt. All that skating you did to stop the shot is meant to help you move after the shot too. If you can make only one save before you give up a rebound and a goal, you’ll be watching from the bench soon.

I can assure you that the save is a consequence of his skating. Keep that in mind when judging whether or not a save is as impressive as the announcer is telling you it is.

For most goalies, dealing with multiple shots and scoring chances is a three-step framework. The first step is to be in control for the first shot and to make the save; the second step is to recover and get into the best position possible to make the second save; the third step is to hit the panic button for any saves that need to be made after that.

I think Carey Price is the only goalie I’ve seen who plays with a different framework. His seems to be: Stay in control for the first, second, third and fourth shots, and maybe hit the panic button on the fifth. Because of this, I feel confident in saying he is head and shoulders the best goaltending talent in the world today. Feel free to argue with me (@ben_scrivens). You’ll be hard pressed to sway me when I have videos like this on my side:

Here’s another example:

Body control certainly comes from leg and core strength, but it also has a huge mental component, as well. You have to trust yourself and your skating enough to be confident that you won’t need to do the splits on shot number 2. It’s a delicate balance that comes with experience. It’s difficult to teach because everyone’s balance is different. A willingness to go through the trial and error — when you’re pushing yourself to stay out of Panic City for as many shots as possible — is a must-have attitude for any goalie in practice. How many shots can you stay upright for before the air-raid sirens start going off in your head? You will get scored on (and coaches, understand that goalies are going to give some up some goals in drills), but that’s the error part of the equation. You’ll start surprising yourself with the saves you make when you think you have no chance to get there under control. Trust the process. Push yourself in practice to expand your comfort zone — in games it’ll look like you’ve barely broken a sweat. Here are some examples of body control resulting in sequences of saves:

Sergei Bobrovsky makes three saves in three seconds on shots coming from the left boards, center-ice, and the right circle, respectively. That’s the picture of control, a thing of beauty:

Carey Price makes three saves in four seconds, also from three different angles, and freezes the puck for a whistle. To me, these sequences are infinitely more impressive than an open shot to the glove that gets the windmill treatment:

Playing hockey should be fun, first and foremost. If it isn’t, honestly, don’t worry. Hang up the skates and find something else that you are passionate about.

If hockey and goaltending are your passions, get out there and have fun with them. There’s no right or wrong way to play this great position. Sure, there are techniques that are helpful and concepts that are must-knows (angles, depth, etc.). None of them require a Ph.D. to understand. Realistically, any 14-year-old goalie playing today would have no problem explaining how to play angles and track a puck.

In my mind, the greatest goaltender of the modern era is Dominic Hasek. Hasek was unorthodox in the way he played the game. But unorthodox doesn’t mean wrong. He was the greatest at knowing that a body part in front of the puck was all that was needed. It didn’t matter what body part he used. His head, his toe, the back of his glove — they all helped him answer yes to the most important question: “Did the puck stay out of the net?”

After all, that’s the only thing we should care about, right?

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This is Part I of a two-part series in which Ben will discuss the nuances and misconceptions associated with being a goaltender. Stay tuned for Part II, in which Ben will hone in on the mental aspect of the position.

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