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Goaltender Size Is Not As Important Anymore

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.

Miika Kiprusoff Calgary Flames Mask

Miikka Kiprusoff had a lengthy and successful NHL career despite being shorter than the league average goaltender height of six-foot-two.

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.

LeagueAverage Goaltender Height (Inches)
Ontario Hockey League73.77
Western Hockey League73.26
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League72.73
Seven of the top ten ranked North American goaltenders for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft are listed by NHL Central Scouting as six-foot-two or shorter. For the European goaltenders? It’s nine of the first ten. It’s clear that young goaltenders in all countries, not just Finland, are being taught about the importance of puck tracking.

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.”

Lerg

Jeff Lerg of the Toledo Walleye (ECHL) is making an interesting case for the return of the five-foot-six goaltender, but he’s likely just a one-of-a-kind talent.

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.

About The Author

Greg Balloch

Greg Balloch is a Vancouver-based writer for InGoal Magazine, broadcaster for Sportsnet 650, and goaltending coach. His career began in Hamilton, Ontario as the voice of the Junior ‘A’ Hamilton Red Wings, before moving to Vancouver to cover the Canucks on the radio. A lifelong goaltender, he has been teaching the position for over a decade. He is currently an instructor for Pro4 Sports, and is the goaltending consultant for the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles.

5 Comments

  1. Steve MckiChan

    Stephen McKichan Of course athletic smaller goalies can make it but the article was slightly misleading. Mitch Korn will still tell you they go for bigger EVERY time when other factors are equal. The first question I get from D1 coaches I speak to weekly is “how tall is he”… Other issues are that there are some myths. People assume larger goalies are less athletic which is patently and scientifically documented as false. People are asssuming that larger goalie somehow miraculously aren’t tracking pucks exactly as well as smaller goalies. False. They all use the same coaches. The bigger holes argurment is spurious becasue the percentage of goals scored through the goalie is at all time lows because goalies have been better trained to deny access with newer techniques. This year draft wise could also be a statically anamoly and until the NHL average drops from 6′ 2” then this article is highly speculative. Remember that for each team’s draft of 7 rounds only one kid actually makes the NHL. So until we actually see a plethora of smurfs in the NHL the premise is premature. I never dissuade smaller goalies from reaching their goals. I just make sure they understand their journey will be more difficult. And on final point that may help you understand WHY they choose bigger goalies when all else is equal. First you need to understand that goalies still have to have pucks hit them the majority of the time by making reactionary reads to the situation and then setting up a block. Ie/ point shot through a screen. In this common situation, size REALLY matters as reactions, puck tracking etc are not available. The overall surface area of a taller goalie covers more net than a smaller goalie and by definition over a season a bigger goalie will have more “accidental” saves that just hit them and go wide. Whereas the smaller goalie gets a piece of the same puck that goes in. It is just reasonable to understand. So smurfs keep plugging away and understand you will have to be clearly better than the bigger kid.

    Reply
  2. Yuri NaTIng

    Hey what’s with this Steven guy? Steven, Did you not read the article? It says most of the top draft picks are right at the 6’2″ average or an inch or two below. I don’t see where you get off calling someone 6’1″ a smurf. Jeff Lerg is 5’6″ and plays in the echl which is probably much further than you ever made it in your career(by the fact that you have to point out your “weekly” phone calls). Take it from a 6’1″ “smurf”: I’m sure you’re just trying (and failing) to be funny but all your comment is all over the place with head-up-assery. In fact your comment does nothing but further reinforce my thought that clearly you caught your spouse practicing “stick handling” with a “smurf”

    -Yuri

    Reply
    • James

      Just tried talking my son (a young goalie) through this article and its interesting debate. Then I got to Yuri’s rude reply and had to shut ‘er down. Yuri, Dale Carnegie would be a good read for you. Highly recommended

      Reply
  3. PaPA

    James, the rude and COMPLETELY ignorant post was in fact made by Steve. Calling vertically challenged goalie prospects Smurfs, MORE than one time, is a beyond disgusting, unprofessional and arrogant at best.

    Im with Yuri on this one, and Steve calling this upcoming draft class an “anomaly” based on so many goalies sub 6-1″ just feeds his pure ignorance and arrogance.

    Wow

    Reply

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