Hockey IQ- A Very Undervalued Goaltending Asset
When you talk to those in the goalie world, be it goalies, fans, writers, coaches, you will hear many different answers as to what the most important asset is a goalie needs to excel at the elite level. Skating, puck tracking, athleticism, size, post integration, rebound control, save selection, patience, physical fitness…all things you will hear stressed by different people (although by no means an exhaustive list), but one asset that many will overlook is hockey IQ. As goalies move up in levels, I believe hockey IQ becomes a bigger and more crucial piece of the pie.
What is hockey IQ? For me, hockey IQ is the ability for the goaltender to think the game through, and understand what each scenario they face means with respect to how they should play it. Two pictures below show Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues, utilizing good hockey IQ by reading off The Blues’ defensive structure, and gaining depth after a pass is made to a player who most likely has to shoot the puck.
I would like to start with reading the rush, which I believe is an area many don’t place enough value on when evaluating a goalie’s play…even at the NHL level. Teams are set up to defend different rushes in different ways, which means goalies should play them accordingly in order to have the greatest chance of success. If a goalie doesn’t make the effort to identify the rush and see what’s coming at them, they won’t be making adjustments that would allow them to have the greatest chance of success. Goalies shouldn’t play 2 on 2 rushes the same as 2 on 1 rushes, or 2 on 1 rushes the same as 3 on 2 rushes, and the only way to start the process properly is to identify what is coming at you.
As the puck is leaving the other team’s end, a goalie is given time and opportunity to see what type of rush it appears they are facing. Knowledge of how your team defends each type of rush will allow a goalie to play that rush accordingly. For example, if a team is breaking out and it leads to a 2 on 1, and the goalie knows their team’s defense is taught to take away the pass and give the goalie the shooter, the goalie shouldn’t play the scenario deep in an attempt to protect against the pass. Doing this will result in a greater chance of a goal being caused by the puck carrier shooting, which is exactly what the defenseman is trying to force! The goalie should use assertive positioning to make sure that shooter can’t score, but also be aware that a breakdown can occur, and be prepared to protect the net in the event a pass is made and connects. This is clearly shown in the video below with Kari Lehtonen. He reads off his D, challenges the shooter, and reacts accordingly when the play breaks down. Doing this allowed Lehtonen to be as sure as possible a shot from the wing wouldn’t beat him, but also that it took a special pass and finish to beat him.
Similarly, if the team is taught to attack the puck carrier, which will force a pass to the middle (with hopes of a back-checker making it back in time to hinder that player’s ability to get a clean shot off), it would be equally foolish for the goalie to establish assertive positioning on the original puck carrier as it would make for a larger push to the middle to establish position on the player in the middle…who is most likely to get the puck based on how the defense is taught to play the scenario. Now, I have to say that I much prefer the first scenario, as I believe it is the “right” way to tactically defend a 2 on 1, but as a goalie, we need to be smart enough to read off what our team is taught to do, and play it in a way that gives us the best chance at success…regardless of what our home goalie coach teaches. We must adjust to how our team is playing the scenario. Our home goalie coach rarely sees the games, and may not have full information to go on.
It is the same for other type of rushes…goalies need to learn how their team defends them, and play it accordingly. As a rule of thumb, it is good to use more assertive positioning on even rushes (1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, etc.), play deeper on extreme odd man rushes (3 on 1, 4 on 2, 2 on 0, etc.), and understand the stock odd man rushes (2 on 1 and 3 on 2). This video shows Mrazek in a playoff game versus Tampa. The play is a 3 on 1, and he locks in on the puck carrier completely, which results in any pass creating a tap in for Tampa…which happens.
If a goalie understands their own team’s tactics and tendencies, as well as the other team on the offensive side of the puck, they should be able to fairly easily predict each scenario provided their team doesn’t break down. The next video shows Brian Elliott playing a fairly stock 3 on 2 rush. As you can see, Elliott is out, recognizes that a pass to the middle is very unlikely due to the play of his D, uses assertive positioning, and is rewarded with an easy save.
Even if their team breaks down, a goalie with a high hockey IQ can predict how the play is likely to go from that point, and react accordingly. This allows the goalie to stay in the play longer, as they are aware of what can/should happen next, and can react to it. This doesn’t mean the goalie cheats…it just means they are aware of the options, and now how to defend them. The Lehtonen video is a good example of this, as is the next one, which has Dallas on a 3 on 2 with Hemsky as the puck carrier. Hemsky makes a nice play and breaks down the D, which results in Elliott needing to adjust his plan accordingly, which he does nicely. A goalie who just focuses on the puck and nothing but the puck, ends up chasing, and is out of the play much quicker, as is shown in the Mrazek example.
The same can be said for D-zone coverage and penalty kill, and all areas of the game. It is critical that goalies understand their team’s systems, pre-scout other teams so the tendencies and tactics are understood beforehand, and know who the top threats are on each team. This video shows Elliott playing a one timer by Patrick Sharp on the PP. Elliott knows where Sharp is, knows he is right handed, and knows Dallas is trying to set up this one timer. This doesn’t mean Elliott leaves early, or cheats, but it does mean he knows what is likely to come, and is very prepared for it.
A goalie with the highest hockey IQ can tell you which hand each player is on their own team, and every other team in their league. They can tell you which forechecks each team will run, as it helps them with their puck-handling, as well as directing their D. They know what type of power play a team will run well before the game, as well as which penalty kill their own team will use, and where the likely breakdowns will occur as a result of that pairing. My good friend and colleague, Eli Rassi, often talks about the goalie’s play before the shot, and stresses the importance of head checks, and he is bang on. A goalie must not only know the tendencies of the other team, but be aware of what is going on at all times so they can react accordingly.
If you compare a goalie like Carey Price to a goalie like Ondrej Pavelec, the biggest difference between the two has nothing to do with their physical play, and everything to do with their mental play. One reads the play better, and therefore chases way less, which leads to greater chance of success, while the other doesn’t read the play as well, which leads to bad reads, guessing, chasing more, all of which lead to a greater chance of getting scored on, no matter how big a goalie is, how well they track the puck, how great their butterfly is, etc.
How can we improve hockey IQ? For me, the very first thing that needs to happen more often is young goalies need to watch hockey. I don’t think enough young goaltenders watch enough hockey to be able to learn the patterns, and be able to identify them quickly when they are faced with them. I also think goalies need to pay attention to all parts of their coach’s teachings, and video sessions. This will allow the goalie to learn their own team’s systems, as well as those of the other teams they will face. Too often I see goalies isolate themselves from the team process, and miss out on valuable information that can help them have an easier time in net.
If you want to keep your game simple, which every goalie coach I have spoken with stresses, having a high hockey IQ is a huge asset and will help you break down the play as it is coming at you, rather than after it happens.