What’s Wrong With (Critiques of) Big Ben Bishop?
There has been a lot of notice taken of Ben Bishop lately. As one of four starting goalies in the NHL still active, his play has come under a lot of scrutiny – some of it fair, some of it less than fair.
Much of the criticism begins and ends with some variation of the word “shaky,” although that usually remains undefined. Some of this criticism unfortunately misattributes whatever struggles Bishop has had the past two weeks to his mental state. And some of it shows a lack of understanding of modern goaltending techniques.
The result is analysis that critiques Bishop for something he’s actually quite good at while overlooking the areas that tend to create problems for him.
In particular commentators have mistaken Bishop’s frequent use of the Reverse Vertical-Horizontal technique on the post as evidence he is mentally or technically shaky. It stems from an ignorance of what the Reverse is, what it looks like, and why it is used. From Dave Lozo at the Bleacher Report:
Just about any time a left-handed skater had the puck along the left-wing boards near the goal line, Bishop was down on a knee hugging the post for dear life. If anyone shot the puck from the near-impossible angle, he was lunging into the post as if he was trying to head-butt the spot where the post and crossbar meet.
This is actually a description of nothing other than the Reverse-VH, and not the only one that has missed the mark in the Eastern Conference Final. Commentators from both national networks have talked about Bishop being down on his knees too early when he is in fact using the Reverse on a dead-angle play the same way he has all season. Far from being evidence of Bishop’s mental weakness under playoff pressure, it’s proof that many observers still do not recognize a move that is a fundamental, if sometimes overused, part of the modern goalie’s toolbox.
In 2012, InGoal published an in-depth breakdown of the position with help from Dallas Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. The Reverse, it was noted:
covers off both angles as well as the traditional VH, working effectively on wraps and jam plays as well as sharp-angle shots on low-high pass outs from behind the net. But it is less of a “locked-in” blocking position, allows the goalie to stay more active and reactive, makes it easier to find loose pucks along the ice down low after making a save, and is a lot easier to transition out of than VH.
Bishop’s use of the Reverse is not evidence of a dip in performance or fatigue or loss of confidence. The technique is so much a part of his repertoire that his reliance on it was noted in multiple places prior to this series.
The reverse is a valuable tool when used properly and executed well, just like every other save selection. By and large, Bishop does well with it, although he is not perfect. He can go into the move too early and stay in it too long. He can leave holes above his post-side pad, a function of using his skates on the post, which leaves a big gap and forces him to lean hard to get a good post seal.
Still, Bishop’s use of the reverse has not in and of itself been a major concern for the goaltender. His big frame blocks off a lot of net, even when he goes paddle-down. The move plays to his strengths, especially size, while helping him avoid some of his weaker areas, especially skating.
The real concerns about Bishop’s game lie not in “hugging the post for dear life” but in poor tracking that affects his basic mobility, rebound control, and ability to recover across the crease.
As noted in the NHL.com playoff goaltending breakdown earlier this month, at times Bishop “drops and reaches with his glove and legs rather than shifting or pushing his body into the puck, leaving him stranded when that aggressive positioning creates extra recovery distance not even his long limbs can erase.” In these situations his weight and momentum work against him and he ends up attempting to reach for the puck with his feet and hands.
Again, however, this is not a new development for Bishop.
It is a tendency that has plagued him for more than a year. This tracking issue has shown itself in Bishop’s generally mediocre numbers for the 2014-15 season. In the regular season Bishop had a .916 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average, compared to the .924 and 2.23 that earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination in 2013-14.
Bishop’s particular tendency towards losing visual attachment, combined with his tendency to shift off the puck instead of into it are of far greater concern for his game than his use of the Reverse.