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NHL Analysis: Showcasing Smith’s Olympic Style Edge

NHL Analysis: Showcasing Smith’s Olympic Style Edge

The announcement of Mike Smith to Team Canada for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics came as little surprise to most observers. And if you’re a goalie enthusiast and student of the position like all of us at InGoal Magazineyou are already aware how Smith’s playing style influenced the decision to name him alongside Roberto Luongo and Carey Price as one of Canada’s goaltenders.

In short: Smith’s style is categorized as conservative within the blue paint and full of athletic ability and quickness. As Allen York recently told InGoal after making a short-notice adjustment to big ice for the Spengler Cup, that should translate well to an international rink.

This NHL Analysis showcases what exactly helped Smith become a Canadian Olympian.

When little more than six minutes of action underway, a turnover by the Phoenix Coyotes in the offensive zone led to a quick transition breakout by Dallas Stars forwards Erik Cole (72), Cody Eakin (20), and Rich Peverley (17). It was a 3-on-2 rush to start, but just after the Stars forwards crossed the blueline, one quick pass by Cole to Eakin turned the situation into a partial 2-on-1. The puck moves from the left side (Cole), to Eakin in the middle, and finally to Peverley on the right side, attacking with speed:

Smith gif

Smith followed the play accordingly, but unlike other more “aggressive” goaltenders, did not appear to travel to such great length to make the save – and it was a very good glove save at that.

I should point out one thing up front: playing this way is very, very difficult. Not only that, it is difficult to teach. In my experience, there needs to be a combination of size, a great deal of patience, and an elite level of reaction speed/reflexes to consistently play this way.

First, for context, there’s a theoretical approach worth understanding as it relates to angles and depth.

When goalies first start learning the position, they are often taught the most basic approach: gain depth, establish angle, and then get ready for the shot. Now, this may not be how every goalie coach and/or goalie learned the position, but it’s a bit like the conversation about what comes first: the chicken or the egg, but with pads and a cool mask.

Generally speaking, this approach holds true for most situations in a goalie’s career. If there is no immediate far side threat, having good depth reduces the amount of net a shooter has to look at. The more space you take a away from the puck, the less obvious room is has to find in the four corners, resulting in those ‘seeing eye’ shots that find room between the pesky six- and seven-holes.

Inevitably, there will come a time when the play, and puck, will move too fast. Meaning, depending on the situation (usually an odd man rush or on the penalty kill), if a goaltender establishes depth first and foremost, it might be in fact a little too much, making it more difficult for the goalie to recover with enough time to establish a set position before a shot is taken. As a result, goalies have to adapt, and typically you start seeing them play more like this: establish angle, get ready for the shot, and gain depth if there’s time. Again, this is all based on the situation, but for those that I just outlined (rush or PK), you start to see more and more goalies take a conservative approach. Luongo is another example of a goaltender who recently adopted a more conservative approach to managing depth.

Let’s take a look at how Smith’s approach works in this particular situation.

In Smith’s case, and others like him that are comfortable playing in the blue paint, less means more. This is especially true for goaltenders who have great size because they shouldn’t have to move as much to cover their angle and take away space in the net. Depending on who you ask, there are usually six or seven zones, and goaltenders will adjust their positioning depending on where the puck is within each zone:

Eli Rassi Rink Zone Markings

What’s most obvious about the goaltenders who play a more conservative style is how little North-South there is to their game. Rather, they make calculated and systematic adjustments with their skating movements to keep them in good position.

Now, let’s look at how things started for Smith. Here he is when the puck is moved from his left to Eakin in the middle of the ice:

Mike Smith Save Analysis 1
If you compare this screen shot with the photo showing the zones, you see Smith is on his way to where he wants to be: in the middle of his net. His depth moving from his left to his right didn’t necessarily change, but his lateral positioning did.

Now, look at where Smith ends up when the pass is made to Peverley on the right side and just before the shot is taken. His depth remains largely unchanged, but now his positioning has shifted to be more square on the far side and in that particular zone.

Mike Smith Save Analysis 2
Perhaps the most beneficial element to being conservative with his initial depth is that it allows Smith to move across once the pass is made on his skates. This is important because the key to having success while playing deeper in your net is staying patient and knowing that you can and will get there on your feet if your initial depth is properly managed. Imagine if a goalie playing deeper in their net was constantly dropping in their butterfly without active hands – there would be a lot of room for shooters to find mesh.

During this sequence, it’s important to pay close attention to Smith’s final position before the shot is released: his posture remains upright, slightly angled forward to establish and maintain balance, his hands are in front of his body, and his feet are completely set before the shot is taken. He cleanly catches the puck, too.

Smith gif
It’s not easy, but when done right, this is a very effective way to play the position. You have to possess a very unique combination of skill sets. When considering the transition most goalies will face moving from North American ice to the international size, some will have more of an adjustment to make than others.

For Mike Smith and his playing style, what has established him as a top-tier NHL talent, also helped his chances during the selection process.

The entire sequence can be seen here on the highlights:

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Eli Rassi is currently the goaltending coach with the Carleton Place Jr. “A” Canadians in the Central Canada Hockey League. He is also an instructor and consultant with Complete Goaltending Development (CGD).  CGD offers on-ice group, semi-private and private training programs, and consulting services for minor hockey associations, for goaltenders at all levels in Ottawa at its training facility in the city’s West end, the Complete Hockey Development Centre. For more information, please visit or

For more information on how to submit an NHL Analysis, please contact InGoal Magazine: [email protected]

About The Author

Elias Rassi

~ Eli Rassi is currently the goaltending coach with the Carleton Place Jr. “A” Canadians in the Central Canada Hockey League. He is also an instructor and consultant with Complete Goaltending Development (CGD). CGD offers on-ice group, semi-private and private training programs, and consulting services for minor hockey associations, for goaltenders at all levels in Ottawa at its training facility in the city’s West end, the Complete Hockey Development Centre. For more information, please visit or


  1. Bruce

    What a genius approach! Get a huge goalie and make him play deep in the net. WOW! And goalie coaches actually get paid to teach this? Lazy in my honest opinion. When the NHL makes the nets larger, we’ll all know why and have goalies like Luongo and Smith to thank.

  2. Shawn

    I wouldn’t say lazy, just a goalie playing to his strengths. He reads the play, uses his patience and size to make shorter more efficient movements, this enables him to get there quicker and get set for the shot as explained. Tougher for a smaller goalie I would imagine! He would have to be extremely patient and stay on his feet as long as possible.If the play was a 1 on 0 I’m sure you would see him out of the blue for the inevitable shot! The way he played this odd man rush, would work great for that back door pass and one timer! Great article

  3. Dave Wells

    Thank you for the analysis but I must disagree with a basic premise posted in the main body.

    I’ve been a goalie for many years and taught as a goalie coach for 15+ years and I have never heard of establishing ‘depth before angle’. To be honest, it’s a fundamentally flawed approach which is why I’m calling attention to it.

    Depth without proper angle is simply useless. You can be five feet outside the blue paint ‘playing big’, but if your angle is off the shooter will still score. For this reason I have always taught angle first, grab depth when it makes sense and is appropriate. In the vast majority of situations a simple skull to the top of the crease (heals out) will be attainable and is appropriate.

    I agree with the fundamental premise of this analysis that a big goalie can (typically) play deeper than a smaller goalie since they occupy more space. Having said that, if the shooter in the video had made a quality shot (crossbar down) instead of an average shot mid net high into Smiths glove, this analysis would be lamenting how Smith was too deep and should have been out an extra foot or so to challenge and take away the top of the net.

    The vast majority of goalies I train are young kids and this style of play (deep in the net) is the bain of my existence. A small goalie trying to play like this just gets eaten up and spit out. Shooters today, with the advances in stick technology and shooting technique, are so good at going bar down that it’s almost suicide to try and play like Smith, unless you are 6’4″ or taller with great physical reaction time and a solid understanding of the position.

    Sadly, the vast majority of goalies do not have the ability to comprehend why Smith plays like that, they have a hero worship approach and try to mimic his playing style with ill effect.

    • Eli Rassi

      Hey Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. I just want to be clear: it’s a very general statement about what is heard most often during minor hockey league practices. Think of a coach or goalie coach instructing a goalie to challenge. At least in my experience, I haven’t heard them say ‘find your angle, then challenge’. Mind you, this is likely coming from the same group who thinks goalie skates don’t need to be sharp and that they mostly serve as shooting targets during drills.

      That’s why I made a point to say this is not how every goalie learns the position or how every coach teaches it.

      To be honest, most experienced coaches take your approach, establish angle first, and then follow up what whatever depth you need.

      You’re right about the general misunderstanding of playing this way. Above all else, it’s the main reason why I wrote up this analysis. It’s very difficult and not something that many can do consistently, both in terms of success and applying each skill rigorously.

    • Ted Wilson

      Well said, Dave. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. joe Feeney

    There has been so many over blown thoughts on how the “Butterfly” and over playing “deep” in the crease are the “best” or “Only” way to play the position. As I began coaching goalies, having played a classic stand up style, and having young goalies with their standard being like Tony Esposito, not Bernie Parent, I realized it is about stopping the puck and using what you can, not about a style.

    In this case, Smith was conservative in the middle, but not as he hit the left side of his crease, since he was in a stand up position and only needed to be just in front of his post to cover the angle well and be in position to make any save. The save is more or less from the old stand up style, though the video does not show from the best angle. I think it shows how stand up covers more net and even a shot toward the crossbar would appear to need to be perfect from the shooters perspective.

  5. jimmy

    A big guy playing to his strengths for sure. I know some of this may sound regurgitated but the reason for staying deep is to have a short push to get set for the shot.

    I feel a guy around 6 feet to 6’2 could even play this situation with their heels at the top of the blue and still push across and get set.

    I also coach younger goalies. It amazes me how often once a younger goalie loads up to push across, they always want to slide. Get there set on your feet. Advantage goalie!!