By Paul Campbell
Hockey has been mourning the death of goaltending style since the late 1990s: exceptions like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas, apparently, only served to highlight the abject uniformity of the goaltenders around them. The position has become robotic, pundits tell us, increasing efficiency at the cost of creativity and athleticism.
Fortunately, we have some excellent news for you: reports of the death of goaltending style have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s easy for even dedicated hockey fans and professionals covering the game to miss what’s really happening in the blue paint. The position has become so specialized and made such advances in the past 15 years that it’s scarcely recognizable as the same activity practiced in the ’80s and ’90s.
It’s tempting to dismiss modern goaltending as nothing more than drop-and-block with big gear. Compared to goaltenders of bygone eras, it might well appear this way.
However, when you know what to look for, you begin to notice there’s as much variety and creativity in the position today as there ever was. By looking at goaltenders who diverge widely in one specific area, we can start to see the elements of modern goalie style far more clearly.
Lundqvist vs. Quick: The Depth Divide
There is no clearer contrast between NHL goaltenders than the differing depths chosen by Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist. Despite the fact that both have been considered elite throughout their careers, they’ve achieved their successes at remarkably different distances from the goal line.
Quick’s noted flexibility and athleticism are absolutely vital to the depth he often chooses. Facing a 3-on-2 rush with speed that quickly becomes dangerous, watch how he maintains his distance from the goal line:
Quick begins the sequence in the white ice, only briefly touching the top of the crease as he moves laterally. His priority is clear: take away as much net as possible, and maintain that depth for as long as possible. The further out the goaltender is, the closer to the puck he stands, meaning there is less net available to the shooter. The objective is to fill so much net you have to move very little, if at all, to cover the very limited openings remaining.
That sounds like the opposite of an athletic style, but it is only one aspect of Quick’s game. His power and flexibility are called into service when, instead of a shot, a pass is made to a speeding forward who cuts wide fast. From his advanced depth, Quick has a long way to go to cover the rapidly growing area of available net. He pushes into an impressive split, sealing the required space just in time.
Lundqvist, by contrast, approaches a similar 3-on-2 rush very differently.
Though the rush begins at a similar point to Quick’s, Lundqvist is barely off his goal line, waiting in the blue ice for the play to approach him. Compare where both goalies are when the puck-carrier gets to the top of the circles: Quick is still in the white paint, having retreated hardly at all, while Lundqvist remains buried in the crease.
Lundqvist has the misfortune of facing Alex Ovechkin here, who’s able to exploit the extra net he’s given by using the defender as a screen and releasing a quick shot against the grain. Whereas Quick was better positioned to face the initial shot and had to scramble to deal with the pass and lateral drive, Lundqvist is better positioned for a lateral play, and gets burned by the shot.
Like all goaltending style decisions, depth is a trade-off. Challenging way out in the white ice isn’t automatically better or worse than sitting back near the goal line. Each goaltender chooses a depth for a given situation based on his skill set and personal preferences. Lundqvist’s incredible reflexes allow him to play deeper than most without sacrificing many direct-shot goals, while Quick’s power and flexibility allow him to play further out without allowing many goals on lateral passes.
The pros and cons of each depth selection are highlighted even more clearly in the two nearly identical situations presented below:
Both of these 2-on-1 plays develop on quick chip passes up the ice to waiting forwards who take the blueline with speed. An off-wing puck-carrier presents a dangerous shooting option, and the primary defender skates almost the same line at the beginning of both plays. Note where the goaltenders are when they come into view: Quick is well out challenging the shot, while Lundqvist is well back, inviting the play to develop.
The plays diverge once the puck-carriers get into the circles, just above the faceoff dots. The San Jose passing option is somewhat better covered, so the carrier elects to shoot. Because Quick is, even at that point, so relatively far out, almost no net remains, and he has to move very little to make the save.
The Lightning have a clearer passing route, and take that option instead against Lundqvist. He is so far back that despite the high speed and accuracy of the pass, he has very little distance to cover laterally, and arrives in plenty of time to bar the door. He didn’t have to launch into a massive sprawl because he was already very close to where he needed to be.
If we swapped goaltenders here, the outcomes might have been very different. Sitting back deep in his crease, Lundqvist would’ve been more vulnerable to the close-in shot. Standing in the white ice, Quick would’ve had to use all his strength and flexibility to reposition himself on-angle after the pass.
Modern goaltending requires different goaltenders to choose different depths based on their individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s one of the most important elements of a goalie’s style because it has such a strong influence on the others. Watch closely the next time you take in a game: the variety of depths used by different netminders in similar situations will surprise you.
And finally, an important note about creativity. Even though a given goaltender tends to use a consistent relative depth, that’s simply their preferred starting point for handling a given play. When the situation demands it, some very conservative goalies have been known to do some remarkably wild things:
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