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Goalies 101: Talking About The Butterfly

Goalies 101: Talking About The Butterfly

There are a number of terms used by the goaltending communty 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.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere iwas known for his use of thr narrow butterfly.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere was known for his use of the narrow butterfly.

One of the most commonly misused terms is, ironically, one of the most basic of terms: the butterfly. The butterfly is and has always been a tactic – a save selection used to defend against certain kinds of shots and to put a goaltender into a position where a save can be made.

It is not a “style” or a description of a goaltender and hasn’t been in at least a decade. It is a tool that everyone – everyone – uses.

For a time the butterfly was so new that its use constituted a style of goaltending. When it first started to become popular in the 1980s, contrasting those who used the butterfly and those who used traditional standup techniques made perfect sense. Thirty years ago, calling a goaltender a butterfly goaltender meant that they embraced not only the move but the “set and block” philosophy that accompanied its first uses. In those early years it made sense to differentiate between players who hit the ice and those who did not.

Quickly, however, the butterfly proved its effectiveness.

Dominik Hasek, for all his unorthodoxy, used the butterfly save regularly.

Dominik Hasek, for all his unorthodoxy, used the butterfly position regularly.

It allowed the goaltender to cover the parts of the net that saw the most shots – along the ice and in the center of the net. It helped goaltenders to put the biggest part of their body, their torso, in front of the puck rather than waving a hand or foot at them. And so it was adopted by more and more goaltenders and filtered down into youth hockey.

There was even an intermediate style, designated a “hybrid,” that combined elements of both the stand up and the butterfly style. Hybrid goalies maintained a bit more mobility than early butterfly mechanics allowed while taking advantage of the benefits of the new technique and equipment. Think Dominik Hasek: using the butterfly as one of many tools but rejecting the set and block mentality that arrived with it.

But that, too, evolved over time. Variations of the butterfly appeared. In today’s game you will see the wide butterfly, the narrow butterfly, the full butterfly, a half butterfly, and even a butterfly lean used on the post.

Today the butterfly is the core of every goaltender’s game. No one at any competitive level rejects the butterfly. Everything about the modern goalie’s game is predicated on the butterfly save, from making it easier to get into or out of it to timing it to compensating for its shortcomings.

It no longer makes sense to talk about a goaltender as a butterfly goaltender or the butterfly as a goaltending style because everyone without exception plays a game built around the butterfly save.

So when someone describes a goalie as a butterfly goaltender, they are telling you precisely nothing. It is as informative as saying that they wear skates and have a glove and a blocker. When someone describes a modern goaltender saying that they “don’t play the butterfly,” they are overlooking the vast majority of what that goaltender does every game.

Pekka Rinne's wide stance is purpose built for dropping quickly into a butterfly where his glove hand is at its most dangerous. (InGoal photo by Kevin Woodley)

Pekka Rinne’s wide stance is purpose built for dropping quickly into a butterfly where his glove hand is at its most dangerous. (InGoal photo by Kevin Woodley)

Sometimes the phrase “this player is a butterfly goalie” is used to imply a more conservative positional approach or one that involves an emphasis on blocking rather than reacting. In other words, get in position, get set, go down, and keep openings to a minimum. Or the implication may be that the goaltender in question doesn’t stay on their skates as long as others or that they are tighter in the arms and shoulders or that they tend to play mostly in the blue of the crease. By conflating all of those concepts with the use of the butterfly, this requires that readers and listeners guess at what is intended.

Some players do indeed move into their butterfly noticeably later, such as Pekka Rinne. The butterfly is still at the core of their game. Stance, gloves, sticks, pads, skates, protective gear. Even post integration techniques like the Reverse-VH are designed to allow for movement into and out of the butterfly.

In discussing goaltender tactics, in evaluating and scouting, in writing about and talking about goaltenders, it is time to retire the concept of the “butterfly style.” This no longer has relevance to what makes one goaltender different from his or her peers. It simply does not convey any relevant information about a particular player. Instead, we should recognize that techniques have evolved and spread to the extent that there may no longer be “styles” of goaltending at all.

Tim Thomas worked to improve his butterfly mechanics late in his career, then won two Vezina Trophies.

Tim Thomas worked to improve his butterfly mechanics late in his career, then won two Vezina Trophies.

A style is a cluster of traits shared by certain goaltenders. These clusters are gone.

The tools and traits that used to make up distinct schools of goaltending have spread though the community, blurring the lines that allow for such categorization. Goalies learn skills and techniques that are useful in specific situations. They put new tools in their toolbox, tools that they bring out in the appropriate circumstances.

Everyone has borrowed everyone else’s tools, copied them, integrated them, and sometimes even rejected them. What we see now are tendencies towards the use of favorite tools and towards indiosyncratic ways of integrating the different parts into a whole.

This integration is what now differentiates one goaltender’s look from another. It is what makes some goaltenders more successful than others.

So let’s look at the butterfly for what it really is: a technique central to modern goaltending rather than a meaningful description of a goaltender.

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.


  1. Keith

    With the smaller gear coming The Hybrid goaltender will make come back .
    Tim Thomas was the last of the Hybrid goaltenders when he won those Vezinas

    • Clare Austin

      The hybrid is gone because the other pole on the continuum is gone. The end of the stand up goalie ended the hybrid. There isn’t anything for the butterfly game to mix with and become hybrid. Smaller gear won’t change that. Everything will still center around the butterfly because the butterfly works. Some guys might stay on their skates longer; some will play at a higher depth. They will all still have the butterfly at the core of their game.

      Personally, I think smaller gear will put an even higher premium on being in position, set, and minimizing holes. And on reducing rebounds. And on shot blocking and defensive systems. So all that reaching and grabbing will be reduced. Not increased.

      • Todd Bengert

        Totally agree, Clare.

        The next “wave” of shrinking the gear will do nothing to increase scoring (just like the other 31 rule changes to shrink gear in the past 17 years). There may be a slight tic for the first couple of months, especially since the NHL won’t get the new gear to the goalies until late August next year. But once the goalies get used to them, their tactics will change but the overall technique will not. And in the end, goals per game will fall 2-5% by the end of 2017.

    • aidan

      uhh what about tuukka

  2. Phil Hanbidge

    What many people fail to understand is that it was never the SIZE of the gear that made the most difference … it’s the capabilities of the gear!

    The pad rise may be higher (to better block the 5-hole) but it’s the pad’s ability to rotate on the leg that truly revolutionized goalie form. Previously, pads were secured firmly to the toe and heel of the skate and strapped tightly to the leg. There was no “landing gear” to support the knee. The “butterfly” position required the earliest practitioners to twist their legs in a most unnatural manner, since knees don’t bend sideways.

    In this photo of Mike Palmateer circa 1978, you can see the twist in his pad. With the pad beneath the knee it has to be almost face down (horizontal), with the bottom part of the pad torqueing towards the vertical. There’s no way to open up the butterfly with so much twisting strain being exerted on the knee.×338.jpg

    By comparison, today’s pads provide a landing pad to raise and cushion the knee, and the entire pad rotates freely on the leg. The pad is barely secured at the heel, and the toe of the skate has considerable latitude to move independently from the pad. The result is that the pad can provide a vertical surface that seals tightly to the ice, without the need for the lower leg to be contorted. The goalie can spread his feet as widely as his groin allows … almost to 180°.

    The other major change from the olden days, is more protection through the head, body and arms. The issue was never the size of the gear, but rather its ability to protect the goalie from the ever-increasing velocity of today’s shots, as well as the quickness with which they’re released. Goalies can now expose themselves to shots without fear, thus allowing them to block shots bodily instead of having to use their hands to protect heads, arms and shoulders. I remember the arm pads of the 1970s … they were constructed of little more than quilted cotton, and offered about the same protection as a winter coat! Stingers to the shoulders often resulted in the entire arm going numb for several minutes. Similarly the fibreglass masks of that era prevented fractures and massive cuts, but they certainly failed to cushion the blow the way the current helmets and cages do.
    Terry Sawchuk shows oldstyle arm pads

    Goalies themselves are typically 6″ taller than in past eras so yes, they fill the net. But let’s hear no more talk of reducing the size of their gear.

  3. Lostinleafland

    Well written; the days of the ‘butterfly’ goalie are seemingly gone. The ‘drop+block’ goalies are thinnng out also. To hail Tim Thomas as the last goaltender to play hybrid is utterly rediculous. Tukka Rask is a better all around tendy, and not even a year later that was proven.

    Quick has *2* rings since, is still relevant, and will continue to be for years. Crawford also has proven he can adapt, and brought home *2* rings while having his gear reduced. Thomas was simply lucky enough to be on the right team at the right time…

  4. Doug

    It would seem to me that with the coming equipment changes, the butterfly will become even more important as netminders will have to focus even more so on playing percentages low, and putting themselves in a position to actually react to shots at the glove level or above. The core of the butterfly, eliminating the bottom 3rd to 2/3rds of the net will become even more vital, as goalies will take up less net with their torso, and will have to focus on eliminating chances with actual hand-eye reactions, instead of simply “blocking”. This will become even more important close to the crease, as the effectiveness of the blocking butterfly is somewhat mitigated by smaller chest protectors and such.

  5. Scot

    As a half assed men’s league goalie I would like to point out something that I think everyone is missing. As goalies we don’t wish to wear big bulky equipment, it hinders our movements. We wear it for protection. With NHL players shooting the puck at upwards of 95 MPH we need it. Shrinking chest protectors in my humble opinion is only going to lead to more injuries. Maybe we should go back to wooden sticks to eliminate this possibility? Just saying.

  6. JH

    Awesome article, and as a former pro and current 10 year coach, about time. I get tired of people talking about the butterfly and not knowing what it really is, a save selection that, when used properly, is done with timing

  7. JH

    Should also add that there are many technical elements that need to be mastered in order (beyond proper timing in relation to the shot that the goalie is attempting to save) that need to be mastered when executing a butterfly in order to utilize the movement properly. Poor goalies have no success using the butterfly as in addition to having no concept of timing, they also lack the balance/co-ordination to pull it off.

    A proper butterfly is no different than hitting a baseball; the swing has to be timed properly and the hitter has to have proper balance and co-ordination to get the bat where he wants it to go and to have the power to do something effective when the bat gets there.

    Unfortunately, most clueless coaches blame the butterfly maneuver itself when a goalie drops before the puck is off the shooter’s blade (no timing) and hit the ice like they’ve been shot by Rambo (lack of fundamentals ).

    A proper butterfly is more than just simply smashing the knees down as the puck makes it’s way to the net. If it was that easy, top nhl goalies wouldn’t make $5 million +