Nikolai Khabibulin’s hand out: a lesson in blocking versus reacting
With the game getting more dynamic, and shooters getting more space to pick corners more often, expect to hear a lot more talk about goaltenders in the NHL looking to “re-activate” their hands this season.
Surely some of it comes from watching the success of active-handed goalies like Tim Thomas and Pekka Rinne, who despite being one of the biggest in the league, also has some of the most active mitts, often catching pucks on both sides of his body. Perhaps goalies are returning to their roots, to a time before the drop-and-block routine dominated the game at most levels, when coaches actually taught forward hands, something many still do over in Europe. Maybe the continued success of those same European stoppers is also playing a significant role in the reversal of the sealed blocking routine.
For many it starts with initial glove positioning, with some stoppers trying to free up their glove side by getting it out in front of their bodies, and off their hip, a position commonly associated with more of a “blocking” save selection. The list of goaltenders making this adjustment includes Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, though the Canucks’ standout, who long tucked his glove arm tightly against his left hip, has been asked not to talk about the adjustments.
Similarly on the other side, some are altering their blocker position, again “activating” that hand by not locking the elbow in so tight, but also freeing up the stick to control shots along the ice and help close a 5-hole that has been opened up by cuts to the thigh-rise length and kneepad width over the past few years. It’s a subtle but significant change from a pure “blocking” mentality, where the blocker is turned over at the side and the stick isn’t necessarily kept between the legs.
Ironically given his move towards a more active glove this season, Luongo’s more passive blocker side has long been an issue for observers in Vancouver. That’s because by opening up the blocker and turning the inside of it towards the shooter to obtain a better seal on that side, he also takes the stick away from the 5-hole when he drops into this type of blocking save, and with kneepad coverage shrinking annually, it has led to pucks between the wickets.
While the save selection is situational – Luongo too has been keeping the blocker square to shooters and the stick along the ice more often whenever he has time to react to a shot – there remain times when his old “blocking” habits, which he learned growing up a Francois Allaire student in his native Montreal, comes back to bite him in the 5-hole.
The benefits of Khabibulin’s blocker position, with the face of it outwards, include maintaining stick presence in the 5-hole, even it sometimes creates double coverage there. But there are other benefits evident as you watch him turn away shot after shot up in a warm up, not only steering pucks into the corner with the face of his blocker, but also more free to lift the elbow up for higher shots on in-tight chances because it isn’t automatically tucking into his side as he drops.
“He’s got good skills and he likes using his hands,” Oilers’ goalie coach Frederic Chabot said Khabibulin, indicating a more active hand position compensates for any slowing with age. “And I’m not going to take that away from him.”
Why would he want to, you may ask?
Don’t forget the mantra of the butterfly blocker that dominated play through the lockout: Nothing through you.
For all the good things that Khabibulin’s hand positioning adds on the blocker side, one is a hole under the arm, near the elbow.
Whereas the “blocking” technique of Loungo creates a natural, tight seal along that side of the body, the “elbows out” approach favoured by many European goalies and used to a more subtle degree by Khabibulin requires pulling the arm back in and squeezing tight to create that seal, often necessitating the type of double coverage Khabibulin has with the blocker in the picture on the left, as well as a hole below the blocker on that side.
As Chabot said after a puck squeezed under Khabibulin’s blocker-side arm during a late pre-season game, you can’t close everything:
“What happened is he did a really good job to beat the screen and by time he saw the puck he just couldn’t squeeze it hard enough,” Chabot said after that game. “I wouldn’t blame him at all. You can’t cover everything.”
No you can’t. More and more, though, NHL goalies are choosing to the possibility of holes in their “blocking” game to free up their hands for the high shots that are being exposed when they enter that old drop-and-block mindset.