Head Trajectory Part Of Dubnyk Bounce Back
Author’s note: A shorter version of this story ran at NHL.com this week and there was a level of frustration expressed by some about the lack of fine details and explanations. It’s understandable, but please also understand this was not an instructional article. It was informational after Dubnyk revealed ties between a change he made and a new method of puck tracking we were already aware of after other goalies had success with it. There is also an element of intellectual property that is not ours to give away, just as NHL team executives are quoted in articles about using advanced statistics, but never specifically how. It will come out in time here at InGoal Magazine. In the meantime, the core essentials are presented here in this story.
Stephen Valiquette was having dinner with Devan Dubnyk just before the start of the season, but the focus wasn’t on the food. In fact, Valiquette was no longer even sitting at the table.
The former NHL goalie was down on his knees in a full butterfly with a dry erase board in his hands, trying to demonstrate to Dubnyk a new puck-tracking philosophy called Head Trajectory.
“Got on my knees and spent half the night down on the carpet at the restaurant,” Valiquette said with a laugh of that late-summer night at Andy O’Brien’s star-laden NHL fitness camp in Vail, Colorado.
When it comes to Head Trajectory, however, Valiquette doesn’t joke around.
Valiquette learned it from its developer, Lyle Mast, who founded OR (Optimum Reaction) Sports, and consults with goalies and coaches at all levels, including as the goalie coach of the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League. And Valiquette thinks that Head Trajectory, which in its most basic form is about how to specifically move your head rather than your eyes to track down on a puck, is a game changer for goaltending.
“I believe head trajectory and the mechanics of how we track with our head to allow our body to move the way we need it to move as a goalie is as revolutionary as my first experience transitioning from skate saves to butterfly,” Valiquette said. “Actually this is bigger.”
As an early adopter of the butterfly who was once fired from a goalie school for teaching it, Valiquette knows better than most how bold that statement is. But talking to Dubnyk about Head Trajectory and the role it has played in him turning around his career and saving the Minnesota Wild’s season, you sensed a similar excitement.
Dubnyk was also quick to point out the role Arizona Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke played in his turnaround after finishing last year out of the NHL and taking a 75-percent pay cut to sign in the desert as a free agent. In addition to helping him manage his depth better by using his ability to beat all lateral passes on his skates as a guideline, Dubnyk said Burke played a crucial role in rebuilding his confidence.
“The reason Burkie is such a great coach is he never told me at any time where to play,” Dubnyk said. “It was never ‘I want you here.’ All we talked about from the start of the year was he wanted me to beat the pass on my feet and be set. All the time: Beat it and be set. … Right from the get go he just put so much confidence in me. There’s no words, it’s not like he pumps your tires every day, it’s just the unspoken, you know he’s got your back, you know he believes in you and you know he’ll go to bat for you. It lets you go out there and relax and play.”
Dubnyk also talked about his annual summer visit to work with Eli Wilson and spent a week at the NET 360 goalie mentor camp in Kelowna, which included coaches like David Marcoux, now with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Sean Murray, to work with strength and conditioning coach Adam Francilla, who he plans to keep training with in the summers. And Dubnyk went out of way to stress the key role that former Edmonton Oilers goalie coach Frederic Chabot played in his development before being fired midway through this season.
“Everything I have as a base to my game technically has basically been Freddy,” Dubnyk said. “From the time that I came into the League, if you look at me then to now, it’s so much different. Everything that I have is from Freddy and working with him for five years.”
If there was one thing that changed this summer, however, it was after meeting Valiquette in Vail.
“It’s all to do with your head. It’s like closing on pucks,” said Dubnyk, who is 11-2-1 with a .936 save percentage since being traded to the Wild. “You discover you have to move a whole lot less than you used to feel you need to. It’s such small movements forward and just closing off the angle of the puck and when you start to realize that and you realize how big you are when you put yourself in the right position – and that’s a big part of it – you start to feel comfortable and then you can be patient on your feet. You can sit there and let plays happen in front of you and not be going down early, and everything kind of comes with it once you realize how big you are.”
Dubnyk is just scratching the surface of Head Trajectory but he understands saves are just one part of it.
The concept of how to move your head to stay on the puck applies to every part of goaltending, from how a goalie moves around the ice following the play, to how they recover and move after a save.
Despite only being introduced to it for a week in the summer, Dubnyk can already feel the difference in his pre- and post-save movements when he does it correctly and when he reverts to old habits. Asked about pulling his head off the puck on rebound goal after a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, Dubnyk not only immediately recognized what he did wrong in his recovery, but that it actually started with lifting his head off the initial shot.
“I have a pretty good grasp of it,” Dubnyk said. “He showed me video in Vail of times I did it and he’s like ‘you do this stuff without knowing it.’ I’m getting a better grasp of when I do it and when I don’t.”
Dubnyk plans to follow through with Mast this summer.
He’s not alone. Dustin Schwartz, who was hired by the Oilers mid season, has been a big part of OR Sports since the beginning and on the ground floor developing Head Trajectory. Mast has also worked on its development since 2008 with Los Angeles Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford, who uses a core portion of it with the Kings goaltenders.
Jonathan Quick used a baseball analogy when describing Head Trajectory.
“I played baseball growing up and when you are playing the infield, fielding ground balls and you pick up a little on a ground ball that’s when it goes between your legs,” he said. “Sometimes you get crazy hops and stuff and it’s almost like when you are not afraid to take one in the face or jaw, when you are down on it, you are on it. You might take it up high but you are still there to pick it up after.”
Like other goalies, Quick did it before learning it. But learning it allowed him to realize when he wasn’t “on it.”
“When you are doing it well you don’t really notice it. When you are not doing it you don’t really notice it. But when you are playing well and seeing the puck well it’s because you are doing it,” Quick said. “It’s a weird theory to wrap your head around it, but absolutely it makes sense. It almost seems too simple when it’s put into words, like ‘it can’t be just that, it has to be more.’ You almost don’t believe it but it really is that simple.”
Valiquette echoed those sentiments. He discovered it while scouting for the New York Islanders, when a lot of the junior goalies he liked kept leading back to Mast and OR Sports. Valiquette had already recognized the importance of tracking and how the head moves by playing with Henrik Lundqvist, who does a lot of it naturally. But it wasn’t until spending a week on the ice with Mast in Tri City that he understood its depth.
“It brought everything I’d ever learned about goaltending and took it up 10 levels,” Valiquette said. “It’s how you look at the puck. You have to look at the puck with your head and not just your eyes.”
“…it’s the biggest game changer we are going to see in goaltending, maybe ever. Maybe this is bigger than the butterfly. It will revolutionize and evolve goaltending.”
The beauty of Head Trajectory is its simplicity. It’s really is just how you move your head to stay down on pucks while tracking plays and shots, rather than looking left or right or up over the shoulder and pulling off the puck. As simple as it sounds, the applications, like the 13 years of research that went into it, are more comprehensive.
“It’s the way we move our head to track the puck all the time,” said Valiquette, “And really it’s a foundation that touches all parts of how we play the position. It’s that valuable. Working with goalies on this, if they can understand it and apply it, it’s the biggest game changer we are going to see in goaltending, maybe ever. Maybe this is bigger than the butterfly. It will revolutionize and evolve goaltending.”
Another bold statement, but for Valiquette Head Trajectory changed how he saw his 14-year career.
“It gave me closure on my career. I now know why I was bad when I was bad and why I was good when I was good.”
Turns out that difference was all about how he moved his head.
Like Valiquette, Lundqvist, Dubnyk and so many others that reach the top level, it is something almost all NHL goalies already do when they are playing well. But not many recognize that the way they move their head is a trigger to that good play, and because of that they can’t always fix things right away when they struggle.
“100 percent,” Valiquette said. “After my first week learning it, I was like (expletive), if I only knew I had to look at it better. That’s it. In the easiest form it’s like your body does exactly what you need it to do if you have your head positioned properly. That’s it. Period.”
Valiquette knows there will be some doubters. He went through the same thing with the butterfly two decades ago. As a 17-year-old he was still teaching skate saves at a goalie school in Toronto in the early 1990s when good friend and fellow former NHL goalie Zac Bierk convinced him a trip to Montreal to learn the butterfly from Montreal Canadiens goaltending coach Francois Allaire. After three days staying with Allaire, Valiquette returned to Toronto and began teaching some of the butterfly technique he had learned.
“I got fired,” he said. “It wasn’t ready to be accepted yet.”
Valiquette and Mast know there will some who think they already teach Head Trajectory. There are definitely elements of proper head tracking already at play as part of all good technical coaching, but like Valiquette and Dubnyk and other NHL goalies that have struggled to recognize how the way they move their head affects all other elements of their game, Head Trajectory runs a lot deeper than that. Working with Mast for even an hour and the evidence became irrefutable: How a goalie moves his head to track the puck supersedes the other elements.
“Quality sight and the ability to move can compensate for poor technical,” Mast said, “But good technical can not compensate for poor sight and the inability to move. Assessing and enhancing these abilities are a direct function of how the goalie tracks the puck and tendency he has to do it properly and improperly.”