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Nikolai Khabibulin’s hand out: a lesson in blocking versus reacting

Nikolai Khabibulin’s hand out: a lesson in blocking versus reacting

Edmonton Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has always had great hands, but as he ages he is activating them more. (InGoal file photo)

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.

Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo

Roberto Luongo opens his blocker to the shooter in "blocking" situations (InGoal file photo).

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.

Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin uses a more active blocker position, keeping it facing the shooter and his stick in the 5-hole (InGoal file Photo)

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.

Oilers veteran Nikolai Khabibulin's more forward initial blocker position creates a different look when he's down in the butterfly (InGoal File Photo)

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.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.

15 Comments

  1. Russ

    Great article! Explores many pros and cons to the drop and block technique. Pictures are very helpful in illustrating this point. Great work!

  2. Brandon

    Great article, I was always taught as kid the Khabi style with the elbows out, stick centered approach. You do get squeekers here and there but at least you have more coverage in the upper torso area and have more options for 2nd & 3rd shot shot hand movement.

  3. Retired

    Being 48 and having lasted played at 34 after 23 years in the nets, when I got back in touch with our sport a few years ago, I was surprised to see the whole fingers up business in association with the “blocking” deal. I get the concept of no holes but I still dont get the theory of the fingers up approach. Have you ever seen a 3rd baseman play with his glove pointing at the sky? During my time, we were taught it is faster to move your glove up than to move your glove down. Just goes to show that with the advances in gear and tenders being much larger than I, the premium is on size used to fill the net rather than speed to react to a shot. Goes to show how things evolve.

    • paul szabo

      The third baseman you refer to mostly catches a ball that is coming from above, or at least at head level. However, many first basemen reach for the ball by pointing their glove with fingers up, just like a goalie. Goalies catch pucks that come from below, leaving from ice level. Turning the glove so the t-trap faces up helps to orient it so a puck with an upward trajectory will hit it and stay in. The old style trapper turned sideways was inefficent because the puck often hit it, twisting it sideways and continued into the net. I am not sure how it can be faster to lift a glove than drop it. The former fights against gravity, the latter, with gravity.

      • Mike @ MHH

        The arm movement up vs. down uses different muscle groups. The mantra of up is faster than down is well-known throughout baseball and hockey. You develop muscle strength and speed through the repetition of fighting gravity’s influence when moving your arm up. Rarely has anybody trained a muscle group by moving down “with” gravity. What I mean is, most movement in gravity’s direction is accomplished by the relaxation of muscles as well as engaging others. There is very little muscle relaxation involved in a lifting motion.

        The same logic applies to the correct execution of the butterfly. Using your logic, it would be easier to drop to the BF than recover from it (which it is) but it isn’t necessarily faster. That’s why goalie coaches universally instruct their students to DRIVE the knees down for more speed. That downward drive is much easier to train (IMO) with the leg muscles than it is for arm muscles, especially given that you’d be doing it on one side of your body only.

      • Goaliedad

        In regards to hand quickness in net I find I am rarely fast enough to raise my glove hand up to stop a fast wrister if my hand position is down but it is easy to squeeze my elbow down from the glove up position if they shoot low.
        If you close off the angle shooter has then you can keep you hand lower as odds are they will only elevate over leg pads if down in BF.

        I taught Martial arts for 20 years and if your hands are down they are difficult to move up to block a strike so we always taught hands up in similar fashion to glove up position. I like to think of covering net by taking away high percentage of net and making them make great shots to beat me and also use, hopefully some skill to read play and stop the puck. Helps to see the puck; have defense help…

  4. Bret

    Great insight. I have to mention that from a fan’s perspective, the reaction-based goaltending is just so much more entertaining to watch. As a team, of course, you’re concerned with wins, not entertainment. But, as a fan, there’s just nothing like watching some of the great “reactors” like Richter and Dafoe compared to their more restrained modern counterparts.

    A great modern day example of this is Dwayne Roloson. He’s adopted a lot of the modern movements and disciplines, but he’s maintained that reactive athleticism that, in my opinion, makes him one of the most entertaining goaltenders to watch in the entire NHL.

    Also he has such a deep repertoire of save selection that if you watch him closely in warmups, you’ll still see him stretching out for the old-school skate save just in case. If you get a chance to see him play live, it’s a real treat.

  5. John Alexander

    Great article. Also, like elbows tight with hands forward. Fills more space & allows for more active hands.

  6. Tomas Hertz,MD, BA

    This article only further validates my two recent articles on ‘Goaltending and the Blocking Technique’ !! It’s overused, frequently with incorrect application, and BORING !!

  7. Matthew Bourgeois

    Great Article! Hands out or hand projection is something I teach at my goalie school. Khabibulin’s technique is slightly different from what I teach. The current expert on hand projection is Tom Dempsey (www.dempseygoaltending.com) of the Ottawa 67’s. Hand position for me is determined by the type of shot the goalie is facing. If the Goalie starts on their feet and is dropping on a low shot, I teach to keep the hands tight and block; but look to trap/gobble the puck into the chest. If the shot is tight to the net, a rebound I teach hand projection but in a manner where the exposed holes are not an issue. It would be the goalie turning their glove hand fingers down just over the goal pad, while intersecting the puck’s aerial angle to the net.

  8. Pasco Valana Elite Goalies

    Nicely written article and another reason why athletes should be subscribing to INGOAL MAG. They provide you with a peak inside the mind of the professional goaltender that young athletes would normally not have access to.
    Having gloves in front is incredibly important as it also provides the goaltender with glove position within his or her periphial vision. Your brain recognizes the tools and can identify shot lines quicker, with less movement and more efficiency. The ability to block vs the ability to control the shot is the real advantage.

    Look at a shot as a “willed transition” the team is shooting the puck and trading possession for a chance at a goal, the goaltender is the one that stands in the way of that goal. If a goaltender block the puck he essentially provides the opposition with a chance to regain possession, control allows teams to eliminate the threat and create an immediate transition out of the d zone.

    Shoot for control, the drop and block technique era has come to an end. The reason why there has been a paradigm shift in Canadian goaltenders making the NHL is that European goaltenders have strong visual connection to the puck, they see the impact from the stick to the puck , they see flight of the puck and they see the save.

    Positioning, Visual connection and Mental toughness will separate goaltenders in Junior through to the NHL.

    Pasco

  9. Retired

    Just two followup points. As to the first baseman remark, his/her purpose with the fingers up is to give the other infielders a target at which to throw. As to the blocking and fingers up as a style/technique to stop pucks, my two cents is that although effective (which is all that matters) sometimes some goalers just default to it no matter the circumstances; for instance, Mike Leighton in the Finals on Kane’s shot. I am a big fan of Leighton but if he had just stayed in his stance, the puck merely hits his stick blade. I was pulling for the Hawks but hated to see him get beat on a shot which he stops even while asleep.

    P.S. As a fella who is done, even though I get to watch and enjoy without having to worry about wins and losses, I still burn for it and would give anything to be able to play again. Play as long and as hard as you can; the desire never goes away.

    P.P.S. Dr. Hertz’s work, the contributers, and boards like this one are a great service to all goalers. This stuff, together with goaler schools and coaches, didnt exist in my time so all active goalers should soak this stuff up and take in everything you can even if you dont use it in your play. I marvel at the level of education and excellence of today’s goalers from youth to the NHL. What a wonderful time to be a goaler!

  10. Dave Wells

    I teach all my goalies the active hands, elbow high approach when the puck is not in tight. Having that elbow on the blocker side up and active is the key to taking away those shots to the upper corner using your elbow block, a concept that is virtually foreign to many goalies these days. The added benefit is that the stick blade stays flat in the 5-hole and makes deflecting pucks into the corners a no brainer.

    Great article that I will be sharing with all my goalies. Thanks!

  11. TheGoalieGuru

    The article doesn’t mention the most important part of blocking versus reacting and that is the shot itself. The speed and location being the two vital components. There are shots that a reaction save is not possible.

    So, it’s not which save technique you chose to use it’s what each shot forces you to use.

    GG

  12. Dean Jones

    This is an excellent article – the kind that opens up discussion on playing the position – I love it!
    I too am an “old school” tender who was taught to hold my catcher down.
    When I hit junior I rebelled and started holding it up in front of me. The logic being, when you perform the biomechanical movement of lifting that one arm up, you typically call into play muscles from the other side of the body.
    When this happens, you immediately cause yourself to be off balance (not have your weight even on both feet). So you better hope you catch the puck because you won’t be properly balanced in your “set position” to move for any second shot.
    I taught this to my son starting at age 6, and now he is 11 and uses the “hands in front” technique extremely well.
    Note: this style does require a certain amount of athleticism that the ‘blocking’ style doesn’t. So as always, it depends on the person using it as to which style ‘fits’.
    And as others have mentioned above, it would be handy (no pun intended) to have ALL the techniques in your toolkit, then pull out the best one given the play/shot you are seeing.
    Thanks for this resource ingoal!
    DJ