The modern hockey world is home to countless analysts and pundits who peddle their knowledge and influence to fans of our fair game. Others – myself included – comment on hockey happenings from an unofficial, non-expert position, providing – hopefully – additional insights to compliment those emanating from official channels. However, even in this endlessly connected world with innumerable critics and constant analysis, there is one element of the game that neither fans, nor bloggers, nor experts have ever really been able to figure out: goaltending.
Think about it: outside of the top five or ten goaltenders in the league, can anyone really claim to know which goalies will be successful in a given year? What on Earth happened to Vezina finalists Ilya Bryzgalov and Niklas Backstrom? Why don’t durable stalwarts Roberto Luongo and Marc-André Fleury get the credit they deserve? And can someone please explain the remarkable resurgence of Devan Dubnyk?
People tend to judge goalies based on the ‘tenders they played with and or grew up watching. I remember specifically two instances during my (House League) career that illustrate this point: I had a parent of another kid on my team tell me that I needed to “stand up more” so that I could “be ready for high shots” – nevermind how most goals go in the lower half of the net, he grew up watching Johnny Bower, dammit! Another year, I had a coach at the tryouts pushing down on my shoulders to see how close I could come to a full split because, of course, groin flexibility is the most important criteria for judging a 11 year-old’s goaltending ability – someone clearly needed to take away his Dominik Hašek tapes.
Analysts, be they former professional goaltenders, players or otherwise, are generally no better. Nearly every goal is followed by some explanation of how the goaltender should have, somehow, had that puck. How about giving credit to the shooter for hitting their spot? Or blaming the team for a defensive breakdown? Even when the goaltender does stop the puck, commentary often takes the tone of, “and the shooter just couldn’t get the puck up over the pad”, totally dismissing a fine bit of goaltending. Obviously, analysts they have a requirement to project their admittedly extensive knowledge and experience. Thus, they are quick to explain everything in simple, black and white terms. “He goes down too early”. “He cheats on plays”. “He needs to come out and challenge”. And you know what? That commentary might well be fair enough if modern goalies were constantly turning around to dig pucks out of their net. But, judging by the fact we have had the NHL’s “lack” of goal-scoring shoved down our throats, lo these many years, that is clearly not the case. In my view, the constant criticism and deconstruction NHL goaltenders are subjected to is, for the most part, unwarranted.
Every profession has people who are successful. Each person who becomes successful does so in their own unique way. Therefore, perhaps analysts who are former goaltenders have a bias towards the sort of style they themselves employed, and perhaps those who are former players have a bias towards the sort of style they witnessed their teammates playing. Therefore, the second a goal goes in on a goaltender who is not playing a style of which they approve, many analysts pounce. That said, as mentioned before, goaltending is complicated to analyse and predict, so is it really right to blame those tasked with critiquing goaltenders to sticking to what they know? The same can be said for the fans; fans are accustomed to watching goal be tended in very specific ways – is it really fair to blame them for being apprehensive about an unorthodox style? After all, who among us doesn’t get a bit clenched watching James Reimer or Jonathan Quick between the pipes?
As a Greater Toronto resident, I am more than familiar with how this phenomenon can extend even to goalie coaches. Take François Allaire, for example. He is undoubtedly a smart and talented individual, having won Stanley Cups in 1986 and 1993 (mentoring Montréal’s Patrick Roy, who won the Conn Smythe trophy on each occasion), and adding a third in 2007 tutoring Anaheim’s Jean-Sébastien Giguère (whom he also coached to a Conn Smythe win in 2003, despite the Mighty Ducks losing in the Final). However, his insistence on strict adherence to a conservative, Butterfly-dominated style of goaltending, despite meshing well with the builds and skillsets of Roy and Giguère, severely handicapped the careers of Leafs Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer during his tenure in Toronto (2009-12). These three goalies had established themselves as lively, athletic puckstoppers, and so a switch to this much more conservative brand of goaltending was, ultimately, disastrous. Toskala has long since retired, and Gustavsson and Reimer have only recently begun to show flashes of their former brilliance.
With any other facet of hockey – any other industry, for that matter, people ask “if”, not “how”. Can you imagine if a goal-scorer was criticised for scoring too many bang-in goals? Or if a Centre was criticised for winning too many faceoffs with his feet? No? Exactly. And yet Dominik Hašek, with 6 Vezina Trophies to his name, is often deemed to have been “lucky”. Henrik Lundqvist, Olympic Gold Medal and Vezina Trophy notwithstanding, is chastised for playing too far back in his net. Corey Crawford, with 2 Stanley Cups to his name, is still considered a second-tier starter with a weak glove hand.
My point is this: leave goalies alone. They have a tough enough job already. Nobody really understands goaltending, not even goalies. It just sort of…is. The job description is pretty simple: prevent the puck from entering the net. However, there are infinite ways to execute said task, and we all need to become comfortable with that fact. Perhaps not all roads lead to Rome, but it is very rare that a goalie and or said goalie’s style of play is solely responsible for a team’s struggles. Barring that situation, let them be.