We’re living in the greatest goaltending era the sport has ever seen. The modern-day legends – Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy – still stand in a league of their own, but, across the board, today’s keeper is bigger, stronger, faster and more fundamentally sound than his forebearer.
In an age with stick technology that allows snipers to shoot harder and more accurately, how have goaltenders gotten to the point where they’re increasingly unbeatable? If you ask former NHL netminder Steve Valiquette, now a broadcaster with the MSG Network who runs his own goaltending school, it’s all in the training.
Like no time before, goaltenders are brought up learning the fundamentals at a young age and developing a more technically sound game than their predecessors. They understand the four pillars of goaltending, which include having the proper depth and angle, as well as skillful footwork and an ability get square to the puck.
“If you don’t understand those elements then you’re essentially just chasing rabbits,” Valiquette said. “You’re flailing all over the place, you’re diving when you shouldn’t be, and NHL goalies understand this better than anybody.”
The necessity for strong movement has modified styles in recent years. As Goalie Guild founder Justin Goldman explained, the position can be viewed as a pendulum. On one end is the reactionary stand-up style of the 1980s, and on the other is the slip-sliding butterfly that was prevalent during Roy’s heyday with the Colorado Avalanche. That pendulum is starting to swing back in the direction of goaltenders staying upright.
“It’s something you’re going to see over the next couple of years,” Goldman said. “Goalies are really going to start to rely on keeping their feet, focusing on patience and using their inside edges to their advantage so they’re not dropping down early and butterflying on every single play unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
One technique changing the way the position is played is head trajectory training. Valiquette was taught the skill by Lyle Mast, a goaltending coach who developed the system and lends his time to WHL’s Tri-City Americans among others. Valiquette explained it as goaltenders keeping “their head down on the puck – not up on the horizon, but down where the water meets the sand – and looking down at it with their head.”
Valiquette admitted there’s a learning curve. “A goalie may feel a little slow when learning this technique initially,” he said. “In essence, a goalie will follow the puck with their head until it gets over their leading knee and then the movement begins. They actually gain speed through the crease because their head is positioned over their leading knee.”
Another boost to movement has come with the implementation of the Reverse Vertical-Horizontal style of post play. Manitoba Moose goaltending coach Rick St. Croix pointed to Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist as two of the NHL’s best at using the Reverse VH, which allows for increased protection around the posts and crease areas.
“Goaltenders are able to slide into their posts and use their posts as a pushing point and a stopping point,” said St. Croix. “The Reverse VH allows them to go right into the post and seal it with their shoulder. It’s very effective.”
Valiquette added the implementation of Reverse VH has hampered the effectiveness of the old-school, drive-the-puck-hard-to-the-net mentality.
Goaltenders are also finding physical ways to increase their speed. Lundqvist, who Goldman pointed to as one of the most creative netminders when it comes to equipment modification, is wearing the new skates that do away with the protective outer shell, called cowling. In essence, he’s wearing a one-piece goalie skate. “The skate is lighter and it has a better attack angle – the angle that the skate is at when he goes to lift it off the ice, how quickly he can catch his inside edge and push off,” Goldman said. “Lundqvist is so sharp with his footwork right now, and I think a part of that has to do with how he’s wearing skates that are pretty revolutionary. No one else in the league, except maybe one or two guys, is wearing them right now.”