New Aesthetics of Goaltending, Vol 2: Revolution in Mobility
The New Aesthetics of Goaltending series explores the evolution of the position, using historical examples to highlight the subtler grace of the modern game. It’s Art Appreciation for hockey fans. You can find Volume 1 here.
Volume 2: A Revolution in Mobility
A beautiful save can burn itself into your memory and stay there for the rest of your life.
I remember half-sitting in my basement, enthralled by Patrick Roy and Bob Mason. Never mind that it was a regular season game. Never mind the score. Both goalies seemed to be feeding on each other’s energy, trading blows, one-upping and out-doing the other’s best save every time. The Old Forum hummed with high-tension current; a goaltending duel is a series of gasping inbreaths with no time to exhale, a doomed sense that makes you question the very idea of “goals.”
Then, this electric arc shocked us all:
I was standing, jumping, mouth open and cheering before I even realized I was off the couch. There was no more tension. I was ecstatic, the savvy Forum audience was beyond itself, and even Dick Irvin could barely contain his joy. This was no mere save. Its value had nothing to do with such base concerns as winning or standings points. It felt, in that moment, like those things were simply the occasion for this incredible feat. I could barely focus on the rest of the game. I wrote a poem.
This is precisely the kind of save – desperate, creative, athletic – that many fans and media hope will return with more frequency when goaltending equipment is reduced in size. This is the kind of save people point to and exclaim, “See! THAT’S goaltending! THAT’S what we’ll see when the flopping blocking Michelin Men are chased from the league!”
I hate to do this. I’m going to show you why, no matter what, we will never see goalies return to the style that made this save possible.
No one will ever convince me that this save isn’t a work of art. It’s breathtaking. I am not arguing that it wasn’t astounding, or that Roy should have done something differently. What I will be showing here are the era-specific goaltending conditions and assumptions that made this save possible.
First, as we did in Volume 1, we have to consider Roy’s depth. He’s out just past the top of the crease, challengingly aggressively. This enables him to block more of the net without moving, and gets him closer to the point of any potential deflection, meaning the puck is likelier to deflect into him if it’s tipped. The tradeoff (and every goaltending decision is a tradeoff) is that, if the puck moves laterally on a pass or rebound, he will have much farther to go to regain his angle line (an imaginary line from the puck to the centre of the net). The 80s and 90s prioritized aggressive depth, but since then, maintaining angle has gradually become paramount. As Clare Austin illustrates here, the slight advantage gained from very aggressive depth is outweighed by the difficulties maintaining angle it creates. When Roy kicks the rebound hard to his right, the primary weakness of his depth selection is revealed, leaving him with a long way to go in a hurry.
Next, watch Roy’s feet as he makes the save, and immediately after. He begins with a kick save, almost (but not quite) a half butterfly, left knee on the ice, right pad extended to block the shot. Next, he brings his extended right leg back underneath himself, planting his blade for a recovery to his feet (step 1), uses his planted right foot to twist his body toward the new shooter, rising off his left knee (step 2), then uses the same right foot to pull himself into his blocker-side diving lunge (step 3) that results in the save.
Martin Brodeur, a more modern goaltender who nonetheless embodied an older era’s style, plays a similar situation only slightly differently:
Before we go further, take a moment to appreciate the cinematic perfection of this sequence. The initial clash of bodies at the point of the first save. The hesitation, a heartbeat pause as the puck slips out of reach, the goalie’s dread rising as it slides to the open shooter, two heads turning together as they realize the danger. Suddenly the shooter’s panic sets in as he tries to pull the puck from his feet onto his forehand to shoot, and now everyone is racing, goaltender and defenceman stretching in a surreal ballet of legs and arms just as the shooter finds his grip and sends the puck toward the open goal. The puck barely evades the defender’s courageous splits, his upturned toe and outstretched arms a perfect parody of another generation’s goalie. A clear white path is all the puck can see until, from nowhere, a human hand emerges from the dance to pluck it from the air.
And he holds on.
Like Roy, Brodeur is out to challenge aggressively. Again, pay close attention to Brodeur’s feet after his save. He pulls his extended right leg back under him (step 1), plants his outside left foot (step 2), then rotates his upper body left to push away/push off from the Rangers attacker (step 3), before recovering half to his feet and discarding his stick (step 4), finally diving right to cover whatever net he could as quickly as possible (step 5). The sequence ends in an incredible save, but Brodeur’s mix of older tendencies with new technique meant that he was able to cover only a very small part of the net as the shot was released. He covered exactly the part he had to, but dozens of shots to other openings would have scored.
I asked you to pay close attention to their feet because the way Roy, especially, moves to recover from his save was typical for his time, but very different from today’s goaltenders. Try this exercise. Kneel down, giving yourself some space. Now, get up quickly in order to run straight to your right. Which foot did you plant on the ground first in order to get up? Odds are, it was the right one, the foot on the side you planned to move toward, as this is the most biomechanically natural. Until the 2000s, this is how most goaltenders got back to their feet, and even more importantly, all goaltenders had to recover to their feet in order to become mobile again. Once you went down, you could flail limbs at the puck, but you couldn’t centre yourself in front of it again until you stood back up and pushed or shuffled over.
In the very early 2000s, however, this traditional limitation was removed through new rotating leg pad technology. If the NHL had known then what it knows now, these pads would have been banned before they ever saw game action. Consider the pads of the three goaltenders doing the butterfly below:
From left to right, we have John Vanbiesbrouck (1) representing the 90s, Martin Brodeur (2) representing a hybrid between the 90s and 2000s, and Carey Price (3) representing the present day. Photo 1 features traditional pads: the goaltender’s legs are strapped in firmly, forcing the pad to bend and twist in order to follow (and protect) the contours of the leg. The resulting butterfly is narrow, and the goalie is immobile.
Photo 2 features a more modern pad specially designed to fit and act more like a traditional pad. Notice more of the pad face is turned out toward the shooter, creating more blocking area, and more of the blade of each skate is close to contacting the ice for a quicker recovery.
Finally, photo 3 shows a modern pad. Notice that the entire face of the pad is presented to the shooter, and both pads are essentially flat and straight, sealing the ice across an impressive distance. Human legs and hips cannot do this, of course: the pad does not follow the contours of the leg. Instead, it is strapped on loosely, and rotates as the goaltender goes down. Normally, this would mean that the goalie’s bare knees are smashing into the ice, but modern pads are equipped with extensions often called “landing gear” that rest on the inside of the knee when the goalie stands, rotating to the front of the knee when the goalie goes down. Price’s visible left skate shows another advantage: modern pads free a goalie’s skates to re-engage the ice far more quickly from any down position.
Aside from impressive low coverage, the main advantage of the modern pad is that goaltenders can slide powerfully in them without recovering to their feet. Marc-Andre Fleury’s 2009 Cup-winning save near the end of the deciding game is a great example:
After the rebound speeds laterally into the low slot, watch Fleury’s feet. Instead of trying to stand up and then move over to his angle line, and instead of half standing in order to dive across head first, Fleury stays on his knees. He raises his back (trailing, left) knee in order to plant that foot (step 1). This unnatural motion allows him to launch a strong push so that he can slide across the net on his right pad (step 2). In this way (called a butterfly slide), he is able to get on his angle line far more quickly, with his entire body centred on the shot. By the time Lidstrom reaches the puck, Fleury is covering the middle of the net with his chest, not just a glove or a stick. This save is still gorgeous, but because it employs a far more efficient and effective technique than Roy had access to, it lacks that obvious drama. Brodeur began his recovery similarly to Fleury, also on his back or trailing foot, but because of the pads and style he preferred, he had no choice but to stand in order to regain mobility and cover the gaping net.
For those who believe that efficient, controlled down movement can never be a thing of beauty, I present Andrei Vasilevskiy:
Vasilevskiy, facing a similar shot/rebound sequence, begins at a far less aggressive depth than Roy or Brodeur, typical of the modern game. As a result, when the rebound comes out quickly across the front of the net, Vasilevskiy doesn’t have nearly as far to go. Instead of recovering to his feet, he executes a liquid-smooth butterfly push immediately after his initial save. He is so efficient that he arrives on his angle line before the shooter even has the puck, meaning he can plant his outside (right) skate and recover to his feet to face the shot. He is able to follow the shooter easily to his blocker side, and receives the puck into his body, leaving no rebound.
Had there been one, however, Vasilevskiy would have been in a far, far better position to stop it than any of the other three goaltenders discussed above. Why? Because the affordances of the modern game and his superb technical ability give him a chance to make the third or fourth save in a sequence; that’s something goaltenders from previous generations (excepting the inimitable Dominik Hasek) simply couldn’t be expected to accomplish. Advances in theory, style, and equipment have made previously difficult saves routine, and impossible saves possible.
Is the ruthless, elegant efficiency of contemporary goaltending more beautiful than older styles? That’s a matter of personal preference. However, anyone arguing that today’s goaltenders simply drop and block with big bodies isn’t paying any attention to how the position has evolved.
~ Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild and James Reimer of the Florida Panthers show off how well their new Bauer 1S OD1N pads slide during the NET360 Goalie Camp in Kelowna this summer; with mobility and efficiency like this, who needs the old-school headfirst dive?