Ask any NHL fan or analyst who the best player in the league is, and you’ll hear plenty of the same names repeated over and over again. Crosby, Stamkos, Toews, Kane, and Tavares. Ask which goaltender is the best, and suddenly the list gets quite a bit longer. Rinne, Quick, Price, Raask, Bishop, Bobrovsky, and Lundqvist have all been praised as the league’s greatest netminder. Offensive talent in hockey is much easier to quantify — this player has more points than these other player — and it’s easier to arrange names in order of how valuable they are to their teams. Goaltending is a bit more intangible, and it’s an art form that’s understood by few, and criticized by many.
STATISTICS DON’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
Goaltender’s individual stats are chained to the team playing in front of them. Wins, losses, save percentage, and goals against average are all inextricably tied to their collective team effort. Great goaltenders can drag bad teams to wins they didn’t really deserve, and unremarkable netminders can punch above their weight when starting for a defensively responsible contender. Mitch Korn — arguably the greatest goaltending coach in history — doesn’t believe the traditional goalie metrics really hold water.
“Korn keeps his own stats, ones that he believes are valuable to the evaluation of a goalie’s effectiveness. Mostly because he doesn’t trust the ones generally accepted as a way to judge a goalie.
“If Steven Stamkos shoots the puck from there, and Tie Domi shoots from the same spot, doesn’t that make a difference?” he asked.
“Did the goal come from a pass? Was there a guy at the back door we had to worry about? How many seconds did the shooter have?”
He won’t reveal the specifics on what he measures, but the broad strokes are interesting. “I don’t evaluate you on the saves you make, but on the goals you give up,” he said. “If we can eliminate what some would refer to as ‘bad goals,’ what else do you want from him?”
“Should have had, could have had and pretty much no chance. If we can diminish the shouldas, and lessen our couldas”
But in the end, the foundation for everything comes down the body and the brain working in concert.
“I break the game down into three parts: The physical skills. Flexibility, size, which you can’t control; it’s mental skills. Finding pucks in traffic, connecting dots, reading patterns. Hockey is a game of patterns – the faster you identify the patterns, the better you’ll play,” he said. [Puck Daddy]
The tech-saavy coaching revolution has made millisecond-by-millisecond analysis possible, and as the game gets more compartmentalized and specific, goaltenders will have every inch of their mechanics scrutinized, every potential improvement mapped in excruciating detail. The movers and shakers in the NHL have already left the conventional goaltending stats behind, and for good reason — they aren’t effective barometers for success.
GOALTENDING IS CEREBRAL
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fluery — two time Stanley Cup Champion and Gold Medalist — was urged by his club to seek the council of a sports psychologist when he started to slump. This hyper-pressurized position can crack the strongest of men, and coping with the emotional burden is no small task. Great goaltenders possess certain intangibles that can’t easily be taught. Developing composure under pressure and finding consistency in a game decided by deflections and unpredictable bounces is not nearly as simple as a defenseman bumping his slapshot up from 80 MPH to 90.
Take a moment and read through this guide for goaltenders looking to improve their mental game. Positive self talk, arousal control, concentration strategies, and managing fear of failure are all covered in meticulous detail. It makes sense, right? As a goaltender, your slightest hesitation or miscalculation can sink the hopes of your team — and if you’re a professional athlete, you can ruin the hopes of an organization worth millions of dollars. It stands to reason that the goaltenders who rise to the top aren’t in the NHL just because of their physical abilities. Their mental strengths and instincts are as elite as their bodies, and serve to make judging their talent that much more complicated.
AMAZING GOALTENDING IS SORT OF SPIRITUAL
Listen, I know it sounds weird, but bear with me for just a moment. Great goaltenders can tap into that next gear, and when they escalate their level of play, their team (and their opposition), follow suit. Because of their disproportionate level of responsibility, goaltenders set the emotional tone for the entire game. When a sniper nets a hat trick, we marvel at his ability to score goals — but when a goaltender gets a shutout, or steals a win for his team, we are stunned by a different type of skill altogether — when a player is so talented, no one can beat him even once. Goaltenders impose a type of psychological warfare on their opponents, and when they start to control the pace of a game, they start to shake the confidence of their counterparts. The best goaltenders — like Hasek and Roy — cultivated an aura that made them seem unbeatable, and consistently used it to their advantage.
As we approach the playoffs, and that all too familiar microscope gets leveled against the goaltenders in the postseason, don’t be afraid to step outside of the well worn statlines for your favorite netminders. They’re not playing the same game as everyone else, and we should stop trying to see them just in black and white. I can tell who I think the best goaltenders are (Price, Rinne, and Lundqvist), but after years of watching hockey, I can’t really tell you who’s the best — and I don’t think anyone else can either.