When Mike Smith was named to Canada’s team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it seemed the only thing keeping him from a Chris Kunitz level of scrutiny was the belief that only two of the three goalies selected are likely to see any action.
Smith’s selection was widely questioned amid a season of struggles, with some wondering if his breakout campaign with the Phoenix Coyotes two years ago was the exception rather than the rule in an up-and-down career that looked close to being over a year earlier with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But choosing Smith wasn’t just about how he was playing. It was more about how he plays.
With the Sochi Olympics being contested on the larger international ice surface, some believe the style that a goaltender plays may affect their ability to adjust to the different angles, reads and timing on short notice.
Goalies that play aggressively outside the top of the crease will have more distance to recover if they are off, while goalies that play further back inside the blue ice can correct mistakes with shorter, quicker movements and adjustments. Goalies that like to have a little backwards flow in their game, starting beyond the blue ice and retreating with the play, are more likely to be thrown off by the different rhythm and timing that comes with a bigger ice sheet than a goaltender that is used to waiting for the play to come to them.
“On the big ice surface I do think playing deeper helps,” said Phoenix Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke, who played 158 games for Canada’s national team, including the World Junior Championships, World Championships and two Olympic over a 20-year professional career. “But that doesn’t mean a guy who is aggressive can’t play on big ice.”
No, Burke and recently retired New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron both made it clear depth should not be the sole consideration in Olympic selection. But Burke and Biron, who both adopted more conservative positioning late in their careers under current Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire, do believe the adjustment to big ice will be easier for goaltenders that play deeper in their crease.
“For the sake of argument I have to say yes, you have to consider a positional goalie, a deeper goalie as opposed to a guy who is out more and challenging, absolutely,” said Biron, who now works as an analyst for both TSN and the MSG Network. “But does it always make it 100 per cent perfect? No, it never does.”
Few things in goaltending are 100 per cent, but that didn’t keep Biron from picking Smith as his No.1 early this season.
“The guy I had on my list as No.1 was Mike Smith and that was the reason, because of his deeper style of play,” he said. “I look at some goalies who performed well at World Junior on big ice or at Olympics on big ice, and vice versa, some of the goalies that did not perform well on the big ice, that’s where the theory comes from.”
Biron’s former New York teammate, Henrik Lundqvist, won gold at the 2006 Torino Olympics, the last time a Winter Games was played on big ice, and plays as deep as any goalie in the world, working out from his goal line rather than retreating towards it. And while it was clearly a small sample size, Smith’s .944 save percentage at last year’s World Championships in Finland and Sweden helped both his cause and the notion that his style translated easily and quickly to playing on the larger ice surface.
Fellow Canadian Olympian Roberto Luongo inadvertently supported the premise when asked about his own adjustments to bigger ice.
“The ice dimensions are different which leads to the angles being little bit different and it’s going to be important the first couple of days in practice to make sure you get that down,” Luongo, who played on the big ice in 2006 and at four World Championships, said when rosters were announced. “The good thing is I don’t play as aggressive as I used to be, so it shouldn’t be as much of an adjustment, if any at all.”
For Biron, the less-is-more theory also comes from personal experience – most of it bad – starting at the 1997 World Junior Championships.
“I played really well in Canada getting ready in training camp and when I went over there I had one exhibition game and I absolutely was terrible,” Biron said. “I got pulled middle of the second period because I could not get comfortable with my angles.”
It didn’t get any easier almost 15 years later, when the Rangers opened the 2011-12 season with two weeks in Europe.
Biron gave up nine goals in his first exhibition start.
“I felt like I had a soccer net behind me,” he said. “I couldn’t tell if I was dead on angle or not. So I can definitely say it is an adjustment.”
Burke believes it is less complicated for goalies that don’t wander as far from their posts, and play out beyond their crease.
“The further out you are, the more space you have to recover and the more ground you have to cover,” said Burke, who works with Hockey Canada and was consulted by Steve Yzerman, Canada’s executive director for the Sochi Games, about goaltending. “So playing deep just gives you the advantage of being able to get across laterally quicker.”
The adjustment, Burke said, is recognizing most of the extra space on a larger international rink is on the outside and behind the net.
“You have to remember the big ice doesn’t really change where the quality scoring chances are coming from,” he said. “The extra ice means there are a lot of things that happen on the outside of the rink and in the corners that don’t happen in any NHL game.”
Part of the adjustment is using the extra time to read the play, rather than worrying too much about plays along the wall that aren’t a scoring threat like they might be in the NHL.
“You know eventually it has to come to you anyways, it still has to get to a scoring position, and that’s the key,” Burke said. “You want to be in position and the only way you get in trouble on the bigger ice is if you are overcommitting to things that aren’t dangerous.”
Even the crease can throw you off in that regard, Biron said.
Unlike an NHL crease, which cuts back straight to the goalie line from just outside each post, the semi-circle on an international crease continues in an arc back to the goal line on both sides.
“So when we are standing on the left for a faceoff at the left dot in the NHL, you don’t see any blue paint next to you,” Biron said. “When I practiced in buildings that didn’t have that NHL-size crease I used to be thrown off because if I was on my angle I could still see blue next to me and it made me feel like I had to move over to my left a little bit more because of that. But if you play deep in your crease, those markers are different. You just touch the posts and feel like you only have to move a few inches left or right and you are on your angle.”
The patience Burke talked about on plays that take longer to develop is something goalies that already play deeper are already used to, whereas more aggressive goalies often like to have a little more backwards flow in their game as the play approaches. It could make for a bigger adjustment as that timing is altered on bigger ice.
“If you play a bit deeper you can just sit back in your net and the margin of error is bigger,” Biron said.
Despite all that, Burke stressed several times that the quality of Olympic goalies “are not going to get fooled by an extra 15 feet on the ice.” He also said looking at Canada’s trio of Carey Price, who has backed up slightly under Stephane Waite but still plays with the toes of his skates outside the blue ice, Roberto Luongo retreating to more of a ¾ depth in recent years, and Smith as a perfect balance of three positional depths is “over thinking” things. But it’s clear he believes Smith doesn’t face a big adjustment on the plane ride to Russia.
“The way (Smith) plays it’s not really an adjustment when he gets to big ice,” Burke said. “But Carey has a lot of experience and I think his adjustments will come on his own just because he’s a good player and I think he can read the play and he understands.”
Style of play certainly didn’t seem to factor into the U.S. Olympic decisions. While there were similar questions asked about the selection of Jimmy Howard amid his own season of struggles, the discussions revealed in a pair of excellent behind-the-scenes accounts of the American selection process by embedded reporters Kevin Allen of USA Today and Scott Burnside of ESPN.com both focussed more on past achievements on a big stage than their playing style on the bigger ice.
All three U.S. goalies – Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick are the other two – are considered more aggressive, while failed candidates Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop play a more contained, controlled game predominantly within their crease. But Miller is more aggressive in terms of mentality, challenging in one-on-one situations and not being afraid to mix in a poke check, and not necessarily in terms of his initial positioning, and Howard has backed off since Nicklas Lidstrom retired. Quick is by far the most aggressive positionally.
“He might be the one that would struggle with it most,” Biron said despite picking Quick as his No.1. “If he can adjust well, he will be good, but if he starts getting lost out there, it could be swimming in a big pool.”