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The most prevalent goaltending style of the past several decades may soon face extinction

The butterfly style has become synonymous with goaltending since its popularization by Patrick Roy, but the evolution of the position — and the ills of the butterfly — could see the birth of new styles in the blue paint.

There is an orthodoxy in modern goaltending, and while the techniques are the most efficient the game has ever seen, serious cracks are beginning to show in the dominant butterfly style. While Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito were two of the first notables to break from the rigid “standup” style of the old days, the butterfly was popularized by Patrick Roy and preached by coach Francois Allaire.

The butterfly technique held many advantages over the standup styles of yesteryear, particularly the ability to take away the bottom of the net. But changes to the modern game have made the techniques involved in the butterfly (which includes variations such as “profly” and “hybrid”) a little more leaky than they used to be. Meanwhile, the long-term consequences of the style are beginning to come to the fore.

Young goaltenders have been beset by chronic injuries that, in the past, had only been seen in older athletes, and the repetition used to practise the butterfly is an obvious factor.

Vancouver Canucks goalie-in-waiting Thatcher Demko, for example, had hip surgery back in 2015 when still a teenager. The problem had gotten so bad that he had barely any internal rotation in his hips before he went under the knife. But there is still a reticence among the kids to cut down their reps. “Goaltending does put a lot of stress on your hips, for sure,” said Detroit Red Wings pick Keith Petruzzelli, who plays for NCAA Quinnipiac. “I do a lot of hip mobility stuff to counteract that. It’s just part of the game. I don’t try to avoid it.”

Thomas Speer is the goaltending coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and a former netminder himself. He says the goalie world is still experimenting with how to fix the injury problems associated with the butterfly, but instituting the equivalent of baseball’s pitch count when it comes to practice is one avenue. “When I was going to goalie school, it was up-down-up-down for five hours a day,” Speer said. “That 10,000-rep mentality has taken a toll.”

The idea of dropping to your knees and popping back up over and over again – in skates and heavy equipment, mind you – doesn’t sound super healthy, and Speer believes reacting to a play instead of defaulting to the drop can help protect goalies from wear and tear but also in stopping pucks. Once you’re down in the butterfly, a cross-ice pass can be deadly, and the only option at that point is to slide across. “If there was ever a pass, they’d slide,” said Speer of his young pupils. “But guys are passing the puck better now, especially with the NHL crackdown on slashing, so if you’re going down all the time now, you’re going to let in goals. I tell my guys, you slide if you’re late on a pass. So much can happen before the shot now.”

Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot has another thought on the issue, and it’s one that is not just applicable to netminders but is interesting nonetheless. “I think it’s more that kids are so sport-specific now,” he said. “When I was growing up, you put your equipment away in the summer and did something else. Now, it’s 12 months a year. For me, I don’t go back on the ice until mid-July or August.”

Teaching the butterfly at the grassroots level is also quietly becoming controversial. For Montreal Canadiens director of goalie development Vincent Riendeau, the physical necessities that come with playing the butterfly at a high level are disqualifying kids from the position before they even get a chance to spread their wings, so to speak.

“You have goalies so big now, their five-hole is huge, so they have to play the butterfly,” he said. “The two biggest guys on your team these days are often the goalies. Unfortunately, this takes away a lot of smaller goalies. I loved basketball when I was a kid, but I couldn’t do what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did. Style should be later on. You can’t teach a 5-foot-10 kid to play like he’s 6-foot-5.”

One of the most famous female goaltenders of all-time has a similar sentiment. “It sounds silly, but the butterfly is getting overused in my opinion,” said Manon Rheaume. “You have these kids who are barely five feet tall, sliding and playing on their knees. A 6-foot-4 NHL goalie on his knees covers a lot of net. A 4-foot-8 goalie covers nothing.”

Rheaume coaches the Detroit Little Caesars AAA under-12 girls team, but she also gets insight when she goes on the road to watch her son play: Dylan St-Cyr is the backup goaltender for the NCAA’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish and, at just 5-foot-9, he’s a great case study.

Since her son doesn’t have the height of NHL prospects such as Cayden Primeau or Joseph Woll, Rheaume has encouraged St-Cyr to stay on his feet longer and learn to read the play before committing to a movement. Similarly, Speer sees top 2019 goalie prospect Spencer Knight (who does have the requisite size at 6-foot-3) staying on his feet if the NTDP star reads a shot as coming in high.

One final pet peeve from the coaching ranks? The reverse V-H – which sees a goalie put one pad flat on the ice, a skate on the post, while the other knee is raised – was made famous by Jonathan Quick when he was helping the Los Angeles Kings win two Stanley Cups. But Quick is a freakishly elite athlete, and the usefulness of the move against wraparounds or jam plays isn’t so useful in today’s game, according to Riendeau. “It’s way overused, but everyone does it these days,” he said. “The puck’s in the corner, they pass it out front and you’re stuck deep in the net. Look at some of the goals Sidney Crosby has scored this year.”

So what comes next? That’s the intriguing aspect of the game and why everyone from the coaches to the goalies themselves are always tweaking their ideals. Shooters keep getting better – and the netminding world has to respond.

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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