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Goalies 101: Aggressiveness and Disruption

Goalies 101: Aggressiveness and Disruption

There are a number of terms used by the goaltending community that are understood differently by different parts of the hockey community. The differences in usage and meaning can lead to confusion and can make it harder for discussions about goaltending to bear fruit. In some ways, goalies and non goalies are often talking a different language. In an attempt to clarify some of these concepts, InGoal is bringing you Goalies 101, a series that aims to explore how goalies talk about goaltending. You can read the complete series here.

The term “aggressive” is an interesting one. Even among goalie people, it’s not always clearly defined and different people apply it differently.

In an age of increasing concern about efficiency, aggressiveness seems to be in some disfavor among goalie people. Once aggression was considered a mark of confidence and control. It’s now often seen as a risk if not an outright error. Thus our perceptions of what is “too aggressive” have changed and what was considered moderate ten years ago is now often called aggressive.

What is “aggressiveness”?

Usually, it’s a reference to depth, by which we mean the goaltender’s distance from the goal line.  The further a goalie is from the net, the higher they are said to be. Aggressive depth is usually but not always considered to be outside of the crease; conservative depth is close to the net; and moderate depth is in between. This video from USA Hockey, though a bit oversimplified, is a good starting place.

Note that this is about depth not at the moment a shot is released, but as play in the defensive zone develops into a threat. In essence, it’s about how far out you go to meet the play. Additionally, aggressiveness looks different and has different levels of risks at the sides of the crease than it does in the middle as shown in this video.

Aggressiveness is Situational

As noted in the Goalies 101 on Cutting Down the Angle, proper depth helps to reduce the amount of net visible to shooters. How far out you should go depends on where the play is when a shooting threat develops. It’s more appropriate to take on higher depth for a shot from the top of the faceoff circles than from the bottom, for instance. Or, if pass options are removed, challenging more aggressively can be useful.

Marc-Andre Fleury’s aggressive initial depth creates a dangerous situation on a rebound.

But the greater the distance from the goal, the greater the distance you have to cover to move with the play, both back towards the net and laterally. A goaltender must be aware of the options available to the puck carrier. At the NHL level, for instance, shooters can often pick apart excess depth and simply pass or carry the puck around the goalie to shoot at open space.

Exactly what depth to take on any given type of play is also a matter of personal judgment and preference. Players make depth choices based on a number of factors, and some will consistently take more depth than others and some will consistently take less.

Carey Price is the NHL’s poster boy for moderate, efficient depth.

The Shift Towards Efficiency

Over the past seven or eight years, however, we have seen a trend, especially in the NHL, of prioritizing efficiency over depth due to the gambles inherent in challenging aggressively, as Antti Raanta told InGoal Magazine contributor Cat Silverman in 2016.

“I’d say that the biggest difference is when I look down at the toe of my skate, I now see blue in front of it. A few inches of blue crease are in front of my skate now, [New York Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire] told me that pulling in that little bit just gives me more control,” Raanta said. “If someone tries to go back door and score it’s much easier to get back and protect your net if you’re inside your crease more.”

Aggressiveness in general is often taken by head coaches as a sign of a goalie being in control of the space around them. However, maintaining a more moderate depth can be a choice that allows for greater body control, preventing or reducing openings from developing. In fact, some goalies coaches (Roland Melanson when he was in Vancouver, for instance) insist on goaltenders staying inside the crease with, as Raanta said, blue in front of their skate.

The reasoning is that goalies who play at an aggressive depth risk getting stranded. For one thing, the bigger the movement required to cover space, the bigger the holes that open up. But for another, there are limits to how far and how fast a goaltender can move, especially from the butterfly position. As shooters get more talented and creative, they are able to create more options. A moderate to conservative depth can help a goaltender react more quickly to these new options.

Additionally, the wear and tear on the body from those exaggerated movements adds up over time. Many goaltenders have found it necessary to adjust to their body’s aging by learning to reduce excess movements.

How does aggressiveness work?

On plays moving in from the blue line a goalie who is being aggressive will come out above the crease to cut down on the shooter’s angle. Then they flow backwards with the play, managing the distance between themselves and the shooters to keep the net covered before committing to a save selection.


Such choices require a strong sense of timing, which is why players who rely on this are often called rhythm goalies (another term that is used differently by goalies than others). It’s a out, back, and in pattern that can be mapped on the ice. Knowing just the right moment to commit requires the goalie to have a very good sense of how the play is developing and when the shot will come. Done well, it can drastically reduce the shooter’s options and allow the goaltender to present the biggest possible target throughout the play.

When that timing is off, however, the goalie will either commit too soon, allowing the play to move around them, or they will get off their angle and open holes through the body.

Disruption: A Different Kind of Aggressiveness

Curtis McElhinney of the Toronto Maple Leafs uses poke checks to break up an attempt to score.

Curtis McElhinney breaks up an attempted wraparound with two poke checks.

There is another kind of aggressiveness unrelated to depth that goaltenders are beginning to discuss more, which might be better termed “disruptive.” Disruptive aggressiveness is concerned with attacking the play, but in this case by breaking up a pass or shot directly with the stick or glove.

In other words, disruptive goalies are extremely aggressive about using their limbs: poke and sweep checks with the stick, active glove usage, or even getting a pad or skate in a passing or shooting lane.

How much risk to take is, again, a matter of personal judgment and situational awareness. Being successful at aggressive choices requires not just exceptional mobility but strong awareness of what’s happening on the ice. And the failure to execute this properly can be just as much a mistake as any other in goaltending.

Henrik Lundqvist attempts a sweep check against Nathan MacKinnon in the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.

Henrik Lundqvist, for example, is well-known for his deep play in net and is far from aggressive in the depth sense. Yet he is one of the more aggressive goalies in the league when it comes to disruption. It doesn’t always work, as you can see, but the King is very comfortable using his stick to break up plays before they become shots.

Whether the term is meant to refer to depth or disruption, aggressiveness has its strengths and its drawbacks. In this it’s not unlike any other tool in the goaltender’s toolbox. The use of an aggressive maneuver is governed by a number of considerations, especially the specific situation a goalie sees developing on the ice. But every netminder must find their own comfort level with these moves. While there are some rules of thumb, the personal judgement and preference involved will always take precedence.

About The Author

Clare Austin

Clare Austin is a reluctant "stats nerd" living in Nashville, where she has never worn a cowboy hat or boots.