The New Aesthetics of Goaltending, Vol 1
Volume 1: Roy’s Illusions of Grandeur
The most common complaints about contemporary goaltending have nothing to do with its effectiveness.
Yes, the NHL would like to see more goals, and to that end, smaller equipment, but these are symptoms of a greater perceived malady: today’s goalies are not athletic.
Fans and pundits alike accuse today’s goalies of filling space rather than making saves. They call them robots, programmed and trained out of any personal style or individual creativity, applications instead of artists. As a result, every goalie seems to look the same, rendering the very idea of “style” meaningless.
Goaltending, they will tell you, has sold its soul.
The position demands more physicality and creativity than ever before. The problem is that while goaltending has evolved, the narrative lenses that colour our viewing have not. Looking back more closely, we can see that what we venerated was actually a generation of goalies going out of their way to make scoring easier.
The evidence for goaltending’s plummeting excitement is rooted in the death of several dramatic save selections, and even I won’t argue that many species of save have gone extinct. The sprawling poke check, already endangered when Dominik Hasek used it to destroy Marion Gaborik, is now all but forgotten:
The skate save. The toe (pointing up!) save. The kick save. The two-pad slide or stack.
All of these gorgeous goaltending weapons, once considered essential ordinance, are now stowed so deeply in a goaltender’s arsenal we only see them in the most awkward or desperate circumstances. When a modern NHL goalie deploys a two-pad slide, for example, broadcasters universally jump onto their desks and shout “Holy smokes, a vintage Tim Thomas pad stack!” more excited than the Crocodile Hunter spotting a mosaic-tailed rat (now, sadly, extinct).
Undeniably, the position has changed radically since the glorious 80s, the era of greatest goaltending drama: no other decade has seen goaltenders stand so far out of their nets and sprawl so far across the ice to make saves. A sense of intrepid, audacious majesty accompanies the most immobile player standing absurdly far from his post. He is all-in, forcing immediate victory or certain failure.
Watch where Patrick Roy stands to make this save:
The excitement of the showdown between shooter and goaltender is on full display. Roy stands well out of his net, sending a clear challenge to the shooter, daring him to beat him. When the shot comes, Roy is completely prepared, and launches a patented windmill glove save out of a deep split, opening the glove quickly and shutting it again at the windmill’s apex. This is a taunt, the arrogant flare of an artist revelling in his portrait of schadenfreude. The camera zooms in on the last man standing as he gathers in his victory, while the shooter, now entirely vestigial, is eliminated from view and consideration.
There is something amazing about this scene, almost miraculous. With 24 square feet to protect, Roy manages to press his glove perfectly into the precise few inches the puck actually travels through. He executes a split to move himself into range, then swings his arm rapidly upward to snag the puck, all in the millisecond it takes for the quick shot to reach him. It looks so incredible, in part, because it seems that Roy has controlled this sequence from the outset, where his highly aggressive depth dares the shooter while at the same time covering more net. This is a master course in psychological manipulation and sheer athleticism.
Or, at least, that’s the narrative we found so compelling in the 80s, and continue to pine for and venerate today. In truth, this stroke of undeniable beauty arose despite, not because of, Roy’s unparalleled swagger. If we rewind and play back the tape of actual and possible outcomes, it becomes clear that Roy’s robbery was far from the masterpiece we’ve been describing.
First, let’s consider the opening situation. The shooter is being checked so closely by the defender coming from the middle that he has little time to get a shot off. A stronger option might have been to skate the puck outside, in which case, Roy’s advanced positioning would leave the net entirely exposed. We can also see, by the end of the clip, that there was a Rangers player coming down the middle as a passing option. Should Roy have had such trust in his defenceman that he was willing to completely abandon all pretence of covering this possibility? Roy takes away every inch of visible net, but for a pressured shot from a medium-danger location. He marginally increases his odds of making one relatively easy save by giving up entirely on two other possible shots. The potential risk far outweighs the minor reward.
Second, take a closer look at the impressive split Roy does. Because he is so far out, in order to follow the shooter, he has to shuffle like mad to follow him and stay on angle.
When the shot is released, Roy is moving quickly to his blocker side. His left leg doesn’t really jet out toward the puck: it does its best to keep him from sliding out of the way! Most of the split is actually his right, blocker-side leg sliding away from the puck because of his momentum.
The split we imagined as an integral part of moving him into the path of the puck turns out to be an artifact of Roy’s excessive depth. It look stunning, but achieves nothing.
Third, watch Roy’s glove hand. The puck enters when the glove is at its lowest point. Most of the dramatic movement is just that: drama. This is the case with most windmill saves, but no one exaggerated and enjoyed the illusion as much as Roy. Honestly, I think this trademark of his is superb, and I have no complaints about it. Well, except maybe that one time….
Fourth, and finally, the most troubling question of all: was this even a shot on goal? The release point of the shot, and the point where it (actually) enters Roy’s glove, reveals a trajectory that seems to be leading the puck well wide of the net. Was this beautiful save actually a save at all?
My purpose here isn’t to pick apart a beloved icon of goaltending excellence.
This save (or, properly, “save”), in its time, in those playoffs, under those circumstances, was a moving, glorious moment. My point is to show that much of what we laud as beautiful goaltending art, especially in other eras, is also very clever illusion.
We praise the creativity, athleticism, and beauty of goaltenders from previous generations while denigrating their modern counterparts. The truth is, today’s goaltenders are stronger, faster, more precise and far more capable than their forebears. Modern goalies would not have to gain anything to play the game like it was 1986: they would simply have to embrace the false wisdom that created the appearance of incredible feats, and those spectators who know the difference would have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it.
My aesthetic sense is jarred when goaltenders hamstring themselves before having to make a beautiful stop. There is abundant opportunity for spellbinding saves without contriving them with inelegant play.
The New Aesthetics of Goaltending series explores the evolution of the position, using historical examples to highlight the subtler grace of the modern game. It’s Art Appreciation for hockey fans.