Goalies 101: Athleticism Isn’t What You Think It Is
There are a number of terms used by the goaltending community that are understood differently by different parts of the hockey community. The differences in usage and meaning can lead to confusion and can make it harder for discussions about goaltending to bear fruit. In some ways, goalies and non goalies are often talking a different language. In an attempt to clarify some of these concepts, InGoal is bringing you Goalies 101, a series that aims to explore how goalies talk about goaltending. You can find the complete series here.
One of the phrases almost guaranteed to set a goaltending coach’s teeth on edge is “athletic goalie” or “athletic save.” It’s almost always used in a vague way to refer to saves in which the goaltender has to reach or dive for the puck. It’s seen as a positive attribute, a sign that the goalie is working hard to make the most difficult saves. The more the goalie sprawls, the tougher the chances he or she is thought to have faced
The corollary, unfortunately, is a belief that quieter, more controlled saves require less athleticism – just stand there and the puck will hit you – and that the chances were less dangerous to begin with. This isn’t necessarily the case, however. Good technique can sometimes make difficult saves look easy and bad technique can often make easy saves look difficult.
In essence, even experienced hockey observers are often judging the difficulty of the chance by the goalie’s reactions rather than judging the goalie’s performance by the difficulty of the chance. The result is overlooking the true athleticism goaltenders require to do their job well. And if you don’t acknowledge it, you can’t evaluate it.
One goalie coach, CT Crease’s Dan Stewart, defined goaltender athleticism as “a combination of speed, power, balance, eye/hand coordination, control of body and each of its parts, and the ability to combine these things while playing the position. Being a great skater takes athleticism, as does the ability to sprawl across the net to make a save in desperation.”
Take Carey Price, a great technical goalie who is often in the right place at the right time to make a save. Price is also a great athlete. He is quick, controlled, and doesn’t often find himself in a position to need the more extreme lunges and reaches that are so visible to the whole arena. But he can and will dive and sprawl when it becomes necessary, as it does for every goaltender at some point.
In this sequence, for instance, Price tries to rim the puck around the glass to his defenseman for a zone exit. Derek Brassard stops it instead and Price must get ready. It looks like a simple play, largely because Price is so calm and measured, arriving at his first position already set and on his feet. One chance leads to another close in and Price responds to each without losing balance or mobility.
You’ve probably seen a sequence like that one a thousand times without thinking about the athleticism required to maintain that kind of stillness within motion. This kind of precision takes excellent balance, core strength, and skating skill. Athleticism allows goaltenders to react to rapid changes in direction while maintaining body control and presenting few holes. By the end of the sequence, Price is all the way across the crease following the puck as it moves out of immediate danger, in control the whole way.
The things that goaltenders work on every day are things designed to lead to sustainably good performance. True athleticism in modern goaltending is about core strength and body control: moving around the crease as powerfully and efficiently as possible in a way that maximizes coverage through positioning without inhibiting the ability to still react with the limbs.
This misunderstanding of what goaltender work really looks like inhibits goaltender evaluation. This happens at all levels of hockey, even at the NHL level. An anecdote related to InGoal shows how this can happen. When one NHL goaltender coach remarked in a scouting meeting that he believed Winnipeg Jets prospect Eric Comrie to be on a different level than his peers, the unanimous response was “we thought you liked athletic goaltenders.” As this goalie coach explained to the scouts, just because he’s not flying all over the place doesn’t mean he’s not athletic. It just means he plays so well positionally he doesn’t have to go to extremes.
We’ve heard this a lot about Comrie from the non-goalie scouts and observers. It has happened enough that it’s hard not to wonder if that assessment factors into some of the low rankings he has received from those that base their lists on conversations with general scouts, compared to how high InGoal has ranked Comrie (4th in InGoal’s Top 50). Being in position is a positive attribute, not a negative one.
In essence, instead of understanding what goes into making a series of saves while maintaining body control, observers are looking for the biggest motions. As Dan Stewart noted
These extreme examples are very easy to pick up on for most watching the game, and are often seen as great saves. The question that needs to be asked is, “Did the goalie read the play to a level that is acceptable for the league they are in?” If the play was relatively readable, and the goalie could be more controlled getting from point A to B, the answer is no and the goalie put themselves in the situation needlessly. If the play was tough to read or the goalie couldn’t be reasonably expected to get from point A to B in a controlled fashion, then the answer is yes and the goalie did what they needed to do for the scenario they were presented.
Sometimes, you need to be desperate and just get something in front of the puck. It is inevitable that a goaltender will need this ability — at the NHL level, more than once a game.
But it is also important to be able to keep those chances from appearing as much as possible. Instead of judging a goalie predominantly by how active they are when dangerous chances develop, we should judge them by how often they are able to prevent or reduce chances through good technique. How frequently does a goaltender’s work reduce the options for shooters? How well do they read the play and close off the net, giving shooters nowhere to go?
In talking about athleticism, observers too often fail to distinguish between what is in the goalie’s control and what isn’t. This leads not only to poor evaluation of goaltenders — and the missed opportunities that can cost a franchise — but also to poor evaluation of team performance. Diving, sprawling saves are not in an of themselves a sign that the goalie performed well under tough conditions or that they battled more to stay in the play. It’s important to evaluate goaltender performance in light of their ability to use other aspects of athleticism: precision, balance, and good, old fashioned hockey IQ.