Thomas the Technician? More structure than most realize
Teammate Patrice Bergeron even labeled his goalie’s style the “battle-fly,” an aggressive, outside-the-blue, take-no-prisoners approach that, in the words of Thomas himself stems from a combination of being 5-foot-11 – and therefore unable to rely solely on size and blocking – and never having anything given to him. That includes being a third string walk-on in junior, and accepting his career would end in Finland without a real shot at the NHL before reluctantly taking a final “last shot” with the Bruins six years ago.
Along the way, Thomas has endured all kinds of criticism for, and misconceptions about the way he plays. Make no mistake, Thomas excels because he is willing to go well outside the “butterfly box” with unique save selections that makes him harder to pre-scout and can leave opposing shooters scratching their heads.
So it’s somewhat understandable that a few of them – not to mention most casual observers and more than a few “hockey experts” – chuckle when they hear Thomas talk about the importance of his improved technique between the pipes.
“Isn’t this the guy who confuses barrel rolls with a butterfly,” they ask.
Truth is, Thomas has worked hard to improve his technique since making it back to the NHL in 2005, which also happens to be his first time in goalie school.
“I was an instructor, not a student,” Thomas said of that first goalie camp with long-time Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa, who was trying to point out how well Thomas tracked the puck. But when Essensa asked the students about one play, a 10-year-old girl pointed out his legs open as he moved laterally. “I ended up being a student because it was the first goalie school I had ever been to in my life. I had 10-year-old girls critiquing every move I made out there.”
Back then Thomas wasn’t even familiar with the idea of proper leg recovery. Now he uses it without thinking, making it possible to get in position (often an aggressive one initially) for those spectacular stops that have become the focal point for a goalie that is instead labeled as “unorthodox” and an “acrobat.”
“Most of it is played up in the media and I’ve done a good job of not letting it bother me,” Thomas told InGoal Magazine of all the misconceived notions about his style, adding he’s given up trying to remove the labels.
Among the many things Thomas has improved is the concept of proper-leg recovery into a butterfly slide, working to get up on the proper push leg when he needs to move laterally without getting all the way back up to his skates. It allows him to make saves like the stop below from the Stanley Cup Final, which would have required a headfirst dive six years ago because his natural instinct was to get up off the right leg, which obviously makes it impossible to push to his right off the left skate:
Anyone who doubts the importance of technique to Thomas need only look at last season, when a painful hip injury turned him into “a one-legged” goalie, only allowing him to recover on the healthy hip before offseason surgery. Never one to use it as an excuse at the time, Thomas now admits the painful hip injury slowed his movements, forcing him to change his style and tweak his technique just to get through the season. He’s since told reporters that a lot of “bad habits” crept into his game “out of necessity” last year, forcing him to “really change” technically. He’s worked hard to get back to his old form, though again many may scoff at the acrobatic Thomas talking technique.
Thomas is first to admit that form starts with a more aggressive initial depth, especially on rush chances. And he plays more on his skates than most because he relies on those more explosive, on-the-skates movements to recover space back to his net, often popping back up on both skates rather than into a backside push.
To him the acrobatics don’t usually start until second and third chances. But Thomas also stresses that being good technically does not mean dropping blindly into a butterfly on every save, especially as a 5-foot-11 goalie.
“I can’t go on my knees and cover the whole top corners with my shoulders, so I have to be selective with when I am down on my knees and selective with when I stand up and I’ve had to learn over the years to read whether a guy is shooting high or a guy is shooting low,” he told InGoal. “And just years and years of practice kind of gives you the percentages in your head so at the time when you don’t know whether to stay down or go up you choose based on experience.”
The problem, as Thomas sees it, is too many young goalies are losing the ability to make those read-and-react decisions. The blocking butterfly has become a default save, one they can get away with at a younger age, when shooters aren’t capable of picking the exposed corners. But it will catch up to them.
“You need to learn the technique and you need to practice the technique, but when it comes game time you have to do whatever it takes,” Thomas said. “Even in practice. You do the goalie drills in practice and work on the technique and then in the game you will use them when necessary. But then the rest of practice you don’t want to just get scored on while practicing technique all the time. You need to find a way to stop it, and play a little street hockey.
“Technique can help you move more efficiently, but once you are in position if the shot is going somewhere away from your body you have the have the ability to move your legs or move your arms. I’ve seen a lot of kids that have great technique but they turn into robots and it’s like their arms are glued to their sides and they don’t have the ability to throw a shoulder, or whatever it is. You have to be able to move out of that technique mode when need be.
“Some of the kids having trouble because they rely on technique too much could probably use some street hockey because when you have to move on your feet and stuff you can’t use the same technique so it will help you get out of it.”
Thomas had already completed a standout college career when he was first exposed to the butterfly technique during training camp with Colorado in 1997.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Thomas said. “There was no butterfly technique until I was 23 and at my first pro camp, and Jacques Cloutier in Colorado, he was trying to pound it in to my head and make me learn it, and at the time I didn’t like it because I was a pretty good goalies as it was. But it didn’t take me too long to realize the benefit of some of these things and I spent my whole rookie year, whether I was in the East Coast, the IHL or Finland – because I played in all three leagues that year – every practice, before practice and if I had energy, after practice, I was practicing the techniques for proper movement.”
Back then, though, the movements weren’t complex butterfly recoveries. Thomas, already an All American at the University of Vermont, was learning to skate.
“I didn’t even know the t-pushes,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even know how I was moving. I never even thought about it. I just did it.”
The Avalanche never signed Thomas, who attended both the rookie and main camps without a contract, touching off a long, winding journey throughout the minor leagues of North America and top professional leagues in Europe.
When Thomas returned to the NHL for good in 2005, coaching had changed.
“Now they try to find a way to make the game easier and that’s fine with me,” Thomas said, adding some of the new techniques integrated into his game slower (like the backside butterfly recovery push) and others (like post play behind the nets) were faster. After the initial rude welcome to goalie school, Thomas spent the ensuing summers putting the same effort that go into his sprawling, circus-act stops into revamping both his body and his puck-stopping approach, working with Essensa and Eli Wilson, then partners at a school in Calgary.
By 2007-08, he was seeing the results as basic recovery – lifting the power leg, rotating the hips, and pushing across in a slide – started to become innate.
“I actually had instances where I’ve used the ‘correct’ technique so to speak and I’ve thought ‘gee, that was easy, I wish I would have learned that a long time ago’,” he told InGoal that season. “That’s one that we’ve been practicing for a couple of years, but it’s just starting to show up more reliably in my day-to-day game this year because I’ve practiced it long enough. When it gets into a game I’m not the type of guy who is going to think ‘I should move this way or I should move that way.’ It takes away from my game. Game-time I just concentrate on playing and in practice, I practice the right technique and then eventually it just shows up in my game.”
For Thomas, the key was figuring out what works for him and getting comfortable with it through practice repetitions. No goaltender wants to be consciously thinking about technique during the play, but as one that relied for so long on his ability to react, it was especially important to Thomas. It was also important not to try to stuff any square pegs into round holes.“You have to be able to shut it off during the game and not worry about how you look making the save, because that’s what happens when you start thinking to much about technique during a game you’ll make the save your old way and you’ll be like ‘oh I should have made it this way’ and you can’t really think like that. Who cares? You made the save,” said Thomas. “And some things have to be modified. The technique has turned into a big goalie’s technique; it’s easier for a big guy. Some things I’ll never be able to do, or I can do them, but I feel it’s better to do it a more traditional way rather than the new butterfly technique simply because I’m only 5-foot-11 and my shoulders don’t cover the top of the net like (new partner) Alex Auld or a Roberto Luongo. I have to stand up more basically. I have to, in most situations, make sure they’re shooting where I can reach it in a butterfly before I use the butterfly.”
For Thomas, developing “stand-up” patience on his own – and the play-reading experience to know when to use how much of it – has made it easier to add a more consistent, fundamentally sound technical base – without worrying about relying too much on it. In other words, he can still make a reactionary save rather than just blocking all the time, something he has seen a little among some of the younger students while instructing at summer goalie schools.
“The kids were really learning the technique well, but I noticed some of them were turning into robots,” he said. “For that perfect shot that goes high glove they weren’t even moving their glove to try to get it, they were just assuming it was going to hit them. So I think the danger of counting totally on technique is there. If you make someone play the exact same way, some don’t develop that other part of the game. So in some ways it might be easier coming from my direction. You’d know whether the kids have the hand-eye earlier. It’s getting hard to judge young goalies that are 18, 19 years old because they all look the same and you can’t tell until they go up against a higher caliber of players whether they have that extra gear – the improv in their game – or not.”
Thomas has “the improv” in spades, just don’t ignore the technique he uses to set it up.