Malcolm Subban thriving under Prior, new approach in Vegas
Nearly halfway through the 2017-18 NHL season, it’s fair to say that the Vegas Golden Knights, who currently sit atop the Western Conference standings, have far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectations. Among the many storylines, which the Knights’ Twitter account will be happy to share, Vegas’ ability to win games while Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined for several weeks with a concussion might be the most surprising.
The Golden Knights used Oskar Dansk, Maxime Lagace, Malcolm Subban, and even 19-year old Dylan Ferguson in the crease during Fleury’s absence. The success of this young group of goalies has brought a good deal of attention to the unique philosophy of Vegas goaltending coach Dave Prior.
When young goalies make the jump to the NHL, there are several adjustments they have to make on the ice. They need to adjust to the size and speed throughout every NHL roster. They need to account for shot angles and release speeds that they may not have seen through the development levels. And they have to learn how to face a level of player that they haven’t yet encountered, the mature superstar.
“It’s a lot different playing in the National Hockey League working on it,” Subban told InGoal Magazine about adjusting his game. “Because if you don’t do it right, you know. In the AHL, you can sometimes get away with it.”
Subban’s opportunity in Vegas also gave him the additional challenge of adapting to the goaltending system of his new organization.
When Vegas claimed Subban off waivers from Boston on October 3, few would have expected his results thus far this season (10-2 record in 12 starts, 0.922 save percentage as of Jan 3) based on his brief NHL experience with the Bruins. He was, however, considered to be an excellent fit for Prior’s goaltending preferences.
Prior believes that aggressive positioning is essential to success at the NHL level. He wants his goalies to maintain their depth at the edge of the crease as much as possible, and to follow the play in front of them without retreating.
There are a few specific requirements for goalies who play with this approach, so as not to be exposed by high speed, precise puck movement, or the physical grind of a full NHL schedule.
This style of goaltending will often have goalies extended to their physical limits, both in games and in practice, so they need to be in peak condition with excellent core strength and flexibility. They also need to read plays extremely well, as their recovery from a misread is more demanding than it is for a goalie who plays deeper within the crease. And, lastly, they need to be efficient in their basic crease movements, as well as their transitions into and out of various save techniques.
“It’s tough,” Subban told InGoal. “Dave… likes you holding your ground, he likes you to be on your feet as much as possible and not to back in and give up the crease unless you absolutely need to, and be in the shooter’s face.”
Subban, though, seems to have embraced Prior’s philosophy.
“I’ve been learning to play out and challenge a little more … One of the biggest things is challenging always takes away the first option, the shot, and then [you] worry about the backdoor later. I think I have the ability to make some of those saves on the backdoor, so I am trying not to sell myself short on the first option.
“If I have that ability,” he added, “why sit back?”
Often in goaltending discussions, the concepts of “aggressive” and “efficient” are used as a code for opposing styles of play, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the more aggressive a goalie is in depth and approach, the more efficient his or her movements need to be. The math is simple. The further a goalie is from the center of the net, the more distance he or she has to travel to get from one angle to another. As opposed to goalies who establish themselves “on angle” deeper in the crease then push out to challenge on that line, a goalie who moves along the edge of the crease needs to arrive already in the proper position in order to be “square” to a shooter.
The more efficient a goalie is in his or her movements, the faster they’ll be able to cover the larger distance, and the sooner they’ll be in optimal position to make a save and control the rebound.
Subban’s relief appearance against the San Jose Sharks on Friday November 24 provided an excellent opportunity to review some of the challenges facing Subban as he adapts to Vegas’ goaltending system, and what he might be working on with Prior now that Fleury has returned to action.
When Logan Couture (39) deposited this forehand into the back of an open net early in the third period, it appeared that the Sharks might be on their way to handing the Golden Knights a rare home loss:
Subban had just replaced Maxime Lagace to begin the third period. A little over two minutes in, a Vegas turnover along the right defensive boards creates a loose puck that the Sharks Tomas Hertl (48) takes possession of at the center blue line. He drives the middle of the ice, as Donskoi (27) moves to the slot from the low boards to his left, and Couture (39) fills the lane higher to Hertl’s left as well.
Defenseman Brent Burns (88) aggressively joins the play to Hertl’s right, ensuring the Sharks an effective 4-on-2 opportunity, and Hertl feeds him the puck in the high circle. Burns then makes a cross-ice pass to Couture, who has an easy chance into an open net.
Fortunately for Subban and the Golden Knights, Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant challenged the ruling on the ice, claiming that the Sharks’ Joonas Donskoi (27) had interfered with Subban.
Donskoi initially establishes position in front of the crease.
Once Burns makes his pass, Donskoi moves to provide a screen for Couture’s shot. His path takes him into the Vegas crease, where his left heel clips the toe of Subban’s right goal skate. Subban’s foot is slightly displaced back, and he also appears to reach out with his blocker hand to fend off the Sharks’ forward.
Although at first glance it appears that the reach of Subban’s right arm might be slightly dramatic, the movement isn’t excessive, and Donskoi’s contact within the crease clearly affected Subban’s ability to defend the net. After replay review, the call on the ice was overturned, and Couture’s goal was disallowed. Vegas would go on to win in overtime, 5-4.
When we reviewed the interference call that disallowed Auston Matthews’ goal against Arizona, we referenced Mike Babcock’s assertion that Matthews would have scored regardless of the contact with the Coyotes’ Antti Raanta.
In Matthews’ case, it was a questionable assertion. Here, however, there is little doubt that Couture would have scored even without the effect of Donskoi’s contact with Subban.
As the play develops, Subban is at the top center of his crease, heels on the crease line. For the somewhat chaotic scene in front of him, this is a fairly aggressive depth, on target with Coach Prior’s preferences.
Burns receives the pass from Hertl, and glides into the face off circle with the puck on his forehand, in shooting position, as Subban moves to his left.
Subban, in fact, is already in trouble from the time Hertl makes his initial pass to Burns. Instead of rotating his upper body toward Burns and adjusting his position with short shuffles, he makes a large, aggressive push to his left. It begins with a release of his left skate, accomplished with a slight lean of his upper body over his right skate, away from Burns.
What follows is a dramatic repositioning of his left skate, along with a slight rise of his upper body as it moves along with his left leg. He has oriented his shoulders in anticipation of a shot from Burns at about the face off dot.
Burns, though, has slowed his advance. He is not only slightly higher in the offensive zone than where Subban appears to have anticipated he would be, putting Subban slightly “off angle,” but if Burns were to shoot here, Subban is still moving his body and settling into his stance, and would not be able to properly react. In other words, Subban is “behind the play.”
In fact, Burns has already closed his stick blade in preparation for his cross-ice pass to Couture. By the time Subban completes his push and lowers his shoulders to reestablish his stance, Burns has sent the puck back across the ice.
When Couture has the puck on his stick and is releasing his shot, Subban is only just counterloading his upper body and engaging his left inside edge to push across.
There is simply no way that Subban can cover the distance from his position outside the left crease to the right post in time to make any attempt to stop this shot, which enters the net just inside the right post.
Granted, Donskoi’s contact does affect Subban’s efficiency in the move he’s trying to make, and Subban’s upper body effort to fend off Donskoi forces him into a continued forward motion that diminishes his balance and takes him further away from the play.
However, attributing this entirely to Donskoi’s contact fails to address the inherent inefficiency in Subban’s initial movement.
When the puck is already halfway to its cross-ice target, Subban is still in the process of dropping into a butterfly toward Burns. Only his eyes and his head have rotated toward the puck.
In order to have any chance to defend against Couture’s shot at the far post, Subban would have to be pivoting to his right and loading his left inside edge at this point, before Donskoi makes contact with his right skate.
Luckily for Subban and Vegas, this is irrelevant to the interpretation of the goalie interference rules. On the other hand, it’s quite relevant as it applies to Subban’s development.
Subban has already shown that he has the speed, power, and psychological resiliency that are required of an NHL goaltender playing the style preferred by Coach Prior and the organization, and his performance thus far has been a welcome revelation for the Golden Knights.
His next step will be to harness those attributes into a more efficient movement structure. If he can do that, Malcolm Subban will be one of the brightest lights on the Vegas Strip for years to come.