Goaltender Size Is Not As Important Anymore
A major shift is occurring in the world of goaltending, and if you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed the trend. It’s not as drastic as the influx of taller goaltenders to the NHL in the 2000s, but the “smaller” goaltender is making a bit of a comeback – and the latest group of top prospects is proof.
The average height of NHL goaltenders sits at a shade over six-foot-two. It rose steadily alongside increased usage of the butterfly in the 1990s, and into the 2000s. Naturally, if a goaltender is taller, they will cover more space at the top of the net while in the butterfly position. Many smaller goaltenders struggled to adjust during the shift away from the stand-up style, and the careers of those that could not adapt ended abruptly.
This way of thinking has trickled down over the years. Instead of “the kid that can’t skate” being shoved into the crease like in the early days of the sport, the “tall kid” as the goaltender has since become the cliche. Scouts began looking for taller goaltenders at the request of their team’s goalie coach. Mitch Korn once famously told InGoal in a previous “Ask a Pro” article, “We’re looking for the most-skilled, biggest guy we can find.”
If you would ask Korn the same question today, he would likely admit that the emphasis has now been placed on the first part of his answer: Skill.
In the last decade or so, major advancements have been made in the understanding and development of puck tracking ability for goaltenders. Finnish goaltenders, your typical trendsetters, were some of the first ones to take advantage of this knowledge. While the rest of the world trained massively large goaltenders to simply block, the Finns were teaching goalies of all sizes about true athleticism, and the importance of active hands.
While they still had their share of bigger-than-average goaltenders, they were simultaneously churning out smaller, exceptionally skilled goaltenders that would go on to have lengthy NHL careers. Think of goaltenders like Miikka Kiprusoff (623 GP), Niklas Backstrom (409 GP), Vesa Toskala (266 GP), and Antero Niittymaki (234 GP). In an era that was seemingly obsessed with goaltender size, those 6-foot-2-or-shorter goalies were consistently stealing games from their larger counterparts.
Having active hands is crucial to any smaller goaltender’s success. The main reason (but not the only reason) that it’s especially important to a smaller goaltender is because it helps cut pucks off before they have the ability to rise. Connor Hellebuyck recently talked about the theory of projectioning in an interview. It’s important for a larger goaltender like him, but it’s everything for smaller goaltenders.
Understanding how to read shots from the puck’s eye view is crucial. Understanding how to close on shots instead of pulling away is almost just as important. The margin for error is greater for smaller goaltenders, so using the square footage of their body appropriately is key.
One advantage that smaller goaltenders do have is the fact that if they open up on a shot, the space that is created by reaching is a lot smaller than a six-foot-five goaltender. That’s where the old adage of “get the bigger goalie moving” comes into play. If you can get a bigger goaltender to open up, the spaces in the five-hole and underneath each arm become very visible.
With all of this information in mind, it’s clear that there is a sort of “money height” for goaltenders that scouts are starting to notice. They are no longer looking for the magical six-foot-eight behemoth, because they realize that if they don’t possess necessary puck tracking skills, they will never cut it at the professional level. Good shooters will open them up, and that’s where being a large goaltender is actually a disadvantage.
|League||Average Goaltender Height (Inches)|
|Ontario Hockey League||73.77|
|Western Hockey League||73.26|
|Quebec Major Junior Hockey League||72.73|
Now the results are starting to show.
Zach Sawchenko of the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors is the third-ranked North American goaltending prospect for the 2016 draft, and he stands at an even six-feet tall. When asked about the modern development of puck tracking helping smaller goaltenders like himself, he wholeheartedly agreed.
“I think we’re at the point now where size doesn’t matter as much as it did 5-10 years ago. With [tools like] Head Trajectory, you don’t have to be that big. You can be five-foot-ten, and if you track properly, you can compete with goalies that are six-foot-five.”
Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips held the same opinion in another recent interview, where he claimed that eye-training tools such as CogniSense and Dynavision give him an edge over larger goaltenders. Hart is six-foot-one, and is the top-ranked North American goaltender heading into this year’s draft.
When asked, Winnipeg Jets top prospect and current Manitoba Moose goaltender Eric Comrie had a slightly different take.
“I don’t think it’s a shift from bigger goaltenders to smaller goaltenders, we’re just starting to see goalies that track the best make it. They have better natural ability of skating, tracking down on pucks, seeing the puck better. It’s a combination of that stuff that gets you to the next level.”
Comrie, a former 59th overall pick in 2013, is also under the league average height, standing at six-foot-one. He feels that efficient tracking is the key to being a successful goaltender. In his opinion, goalies now have a new understanding of how to properly track the puck. This helps goaltenders of all sizes. It has evened the playing field, so to speak. Talent – not size – is what sets this new wave of goaltenders apart.
“Efficient tracking helps the smaller goaltender because staying down on pucks helps their ability to stay patient. When you are staying down on a puck when you’re moving across, you really understand how much time you have, and you can hold your edges a lot longer. You also realize how little you actually have to move to make that save.”
When blocking-style goaltending was at its peak, smaller goaltenders had a hard time playing that way, and were slowly phased out. Now with proper reading and reaction training, smaller goalies are excelling to a point where they can now be more efficient, and stop more pucks than larger goalies.
Even though Jeff Lerg is making a strong case in the ECHL, don’t expect to see the return of the five-foot-six Darren Pang days of goaltending.
What you can expect from the next crop of top prospect goaltenders is less blocking-style monster-sized goalies, and more highly-efficient puck trackers. Those come in all sizes.