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As the pendulum swings, goaltending is trying to become an art again
Goalie coaches changed the game, but it also created the era of the robotic goaltender.
When the Florida Panthers established their “Goaltending Excellence Department” in 2020 they hired François Allaire as a goalie consultant to the department that Roberto Luongo runs.
Allaire should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder (so should Mitch Korn). He was hired as the Montreal Canadiens first goalie coach in the 1980s and his work with Patrick Roy and an entire generation of Quebecois goalies normalized the role on an NHL staff.
And in the more than three decades since the Canadiens initially hired Allaire, the position has become one of the most specialized positions in sports. Quarterbacks in football, pitchers in baseball, goalies in hockey — entire industries have been built on coaching these positions.
The rise of the NHL goalie coach, and the trickle down to junior hockey then then youth levels, correlates with the rise and fall of NHL save percentage.
When Allaire was hired during the 1985-86 season, league average save percentage was .874. As more teams started adding goalie coaches in the early 1990s, league average save percentage climbed above .900 for the first time during the 1994-95 season.
In the 2000s and 2010s goaltending reached a golden age, average save percentages were consistently in the .910s.
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But over the past five seasons average save percentages have started to dip again. This season dropping to .904, the worst average showing across the NHL since the 2005-06 season (which happened to be the first year after the lockout and new offensive-minded rules were introduced).
There are several reasons for this, the game — as the NHL loves to tell us at every media opportunity — is better than ever. Players are more skilled, “The Michigan” is a perfect example, in the mid-90s it was remarkable when Mike Legg pulled it off, now any peewee with decent hands has the ability to pickup a puck lacrosse-style.
Goalie coaches, and goalie training, are also partially to blame.
As goaltending coaches became normalized, goaltending training also became normalized. The small-station coaching was copied by individual skills coaches for skaters, adding to the skills boon, while goalies also became more robotic and overly taught.
Goaltending evolved from an art to a science, goalies copied what was successful for others, and in totality the entire position became more predictable.
For USA Hockey, one of the biggest internal motives right now is finding a way to turn that science back into an art. To fight back against the curve with American goalies, before we have a public crisis — like the one in Canada, where import goalies are being shunned in the CHL.
USA Hockey’s Manager of Goaltending Steve Thompson, who ran USA Hockey’s national camp last month in Plymouth, Michigan, discussed the evolution with me last month.
Thompson pointed out how from a technique perspective, the average goaltender has never been more talented. Once a player decides they are going to commit to the dark art they get a teacher right away, they are drilled and programmed on how to stop the puck.
“But it goes too far,” Thompson said. “We’ve created a position of tacticians, not problem solvers.”
Thompson pointed out how often a goalie will look sharp in practice, a goalie coach is with them, correcting them, guiding them. But once the game starts, and the goalie coach is no longer in the goalie’s ear, they crumble having to solve the game themselves.
The RVH, or the integrated post-lean, is a perfect example of this.
When Jonathan Quick popularized the RVH, winning a pair of Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, it came from a point of innovation and necessity. Quick recalled to me that he had been killed down low in the playoffs by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and the RVH was born because of the twins.
It worked well for Quick, everyone started copying it, and now the RVH is standard goalie practice.
But everyone took the wrong lesson. While the RVH is a tool, and should be in a goalie’s bag, the real lesson of the technique is how it was born. With a goalie and a coach diagnosing a problem rather than forcing a solution.
“It was something that I needed as part of my game, we worked on it, we tried some things that worked and some things that didn’t,” Quick said. “It was one of those things where we had to find a way to improve.”
Thompson said he looks at the current and next generation of goalies that will make it in the NHL as problem solvers, ones that can take technique as a base, but build something more on top of that.
It’s why at USA Hockey’s goalie camp, the there was a focus on less structure to the drills. Less stopping and re-starting, and more allowing goalies to make mistakes and figure it out themselves.
“It’s about creating a problem and having the goalie solve it, not about giving them the question and answer at the same time,” Thompson said. “We need to go about more as goalie coach industry of presenting problems and not answers to our goalies.”
Earlier this week in a story over at EP Rinkside, Alex Lyon had a similar line of thinking.
“I think from my perspective it’s here’s the end goal to stop every puck, and there is just a bunch of routes to get there,” Lyon said.
Lyon, who is 6-foot-1, also discussed how a smaller goalie has to adapt, how they have to play the game differently than a 6-foot-5 behemoth in the crease.
It’s something that Trey Augustine, one of the top goalie prospects for the 2023 NHL Draft, made note of. Augustine is also 6-foot-1, his partner on the USNTDP this year was Carsen Musser, a 6-foot-4 prospect also eligible for the draft in June.
“I’m not big, I have to play different than (Carsen), which is ok,” Augustine said. “I think part of finding that difference in my game, it’s one of the reasons I was able to adjust coming up and finding my spots.”
Jake Oettinger, one of the goalies Augustine looks up to, told me his game had to evolve from a science to an art when he reached the NHL. He heavily credits Anton Khudobin who acted a sherpa for him in this process, Khudobin played and thought outside the box — he helped Oettinger break out of his own mental box as their paths collided in Dallas.
“You look at what Dobby did, how he played the game, he was his own person,” Oettinger said. “I think sometimes you need someone like that in your career as a goalie partner who can show you some other ways to think about things.”
In the end, goaltending is part of a game, but it’s also a lost art that is slowly being re-rescued. Technique, or science, are important, but as the game evolves so do the goalies.
“We need to get back to goalies being hockey players and not just specifically trained goalies,” Thompson said. “Goaltending is about solving the problem of keeping the puck out of the net, and too often I think we go in with goalies thinking they know the answer before ever looking at the question.”