The Death of the Puck-Handling Goalie

Frustration had mounted.

As Henrik Lundqvist made a mad dash to the bench, the pressure was now on his teammates to get the puck in deep and generate a scoring opportunity. The New York Rangers found themselves down 3-1 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. And with 1:34 left on the clock, veteran forward Ruslan Fedotenko flipped the puck into the far-side corner, customarily attempting to retrieve the disk. Fedetenko, accompanied by arguably the fastest skater in the NHL — Carl Hagelin — raced to the corner before essentially giving up on the play. The puck had inched its way out of the corner, and in short, Martin Brodeur had done it again.

Brodeur casually skated out of his net, waited for the puck to hit his stick and sent it around the boards and up the ice. Defenseman Bryce Salvador chipped it further out of his zone before captain Zach Parise took the offering and followed it to the back of the net. The game was effectively over, sealed at 4-1, stopping any chance of a Ranger comeback.

For the New Jersey Devils, the win was a much-needed, series-tying win. For Brodeur, it was simply another day at the office, proving that not only is he the best of all-time, but also why some call him so.

Brodeur, unlike most starting goalies nowadays, has a knack for moving the puck. In fact, the rule to entrap netminders into a trapezoid behind the net, which came to fruition after the lockout, is mainly for Brodeur. You can even argue that the delay of game penalty — in which goalies and skaters alike are penalized for flipping the puck out of play of their defensive zone — is also because of Brodeur and other like-minded netminders.

But just like the game, the position has adapted. Brodeur is the one of the last of his species as the goalies in the league evolve into an entirely new entity. Goalies don’t leave their net aggressively because, well, there isn’t much room for it in today’s high-paced game.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-W5ZeHN7srE&version=3&hl=en_US]

On Mike Smith and the modern-day goalie

Phoenix Coyotes starting goalie Mike Smith had a fantastic playoff run. Not only did his team come within three wins of the Stanley Cup Finals, they did so in the midst of ownership and attendance issues. The Coyotes were a great story this year due to their determination and the emergence of Smith.

Once a promising goaltending prospect, Smith struggled after his immediate success with the Dallas Stars. The centerpiece in the Brad Richards deal showed flashes of brilliance while with the Tampa Bay Lightning but their consistent rotation of personnel and systems failed to accommodate his unique style. Through three-plus seasons in the organization he was a year or two away from losing his NHL worth altogether. And then the Coyotes came along with an opportunity and a second chance.

Now in a well-coached, consistent environment, Smith could shift all of his focus to his game play. He battled journeyman backup Jason LaBarbera for the starting gig, and ran with it from the first game of the season. With no distractions, Smith worked with goalie coach Sean Burke to stabilize his strengths and regain his confidence. Standing at 6’3″, Smith has always been a netminder with size, and Burke helped him further improve that advantage. Smith stood tall and wasn’t afraid to battle through adversity.

Throughout the playoffs, Smith was lauded for his aggressive style, and more importantly his puck handling. But the Kingston, Ont., native remains a relic of a past generation. Once the protégé of Marty Turco, he very much exemplified that former technique by clearing the offensive zone with ease on the penalty kill or making a crisp outlet pass on the power play.

Only a few other netminders are put in the same conversation as Smith. Turco can handle the puck with the best of them but likely won’t have an NHL job come October. By that same token, you could make an argument for Dwayne Roloson as a decent puck handler. Regardless, the only other guaranteed starting goalie that can hold his own with Smith and Brodeur would be Carey Price in Montreal. And outside of those four, and possibly Rick DiPietro (if healthy), the future of the puck-moving goalie looks bleak.

Antti Niemi Sharks

(Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

On the depreciation of amateur goalies and the emigration of the Europeans

Following the lockout, organizational strategy in regards to drafting goalies completely reversed. Instead of paying for a goalie– as teams did in the past– netminders began to be drafted later and later. Last season, the Nashville Predators selected the first goalie in the NHL draft, taking Magnus Hellberg with the 38th overall pick. The 2010 NHL Draft saw two goalies taken in the first round but Jack Campbell, universally regarded as a franchise goalie, fell all the way to the Dallas Stars at 11. In 2009, Mikko Koskinen was the first goalie taken– with the 31st overall pick. The last lottery pick to be spent on a goalie was on Price, who at the time was viewed as a natural goalie with a gift for stopping the puck, and moreover, learning how to adapt.

Price earned his selection years after being scrutinized for his lack of being Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy. But other goalies taken early like Riku Helenius or Leland Irving have not been as fortunate. Wasting a first round pick on such a volatile position is a trend of the past for several reasons.

For one, the influx of undrafted European goalies is simply astounding. Netminders like Antti Niemi, Niklas Backstrom, and Jonas Hiller have all proven that they can enter the NHL and succeed without being drafted. Likewise, star goalies like Mikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and countless others were taken in the 7th round or later.

In this era it feels like star goalies grow on trees. And perhaps they do.

The Anaheim Ducks recently signed top free agent Viktor Fasth in hopes of finding the next Hiller. A few seasons back, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Jonas ‘The Monster’ Gustavsson, and essentially gave him a shot at the starting goalie gig immediately. Teams are quite open to dressing a little known goalie with the hopes that he breaks out on the big stage. And can you blame them? It makes sense, especially with high-impact forwards becoming more NHL-ready by the year.

Or maybe we are simply seeing the trickle-down effect of ‘Mad’ Mike Milbury. If you are unaware of the scenario, Milbury, as the general manager of the New York Islanders, drafted Roberto Luongo with the 4th overall pick in the 1997 draft. After a few years in the organization and 24 insufferable games with the Isles, Luongo was sent packing as Milbury preferred to draft DiPietro first overall in the 2000 draft.

“He possesses an element that Roberto doesn’t possess,” Milbury, at the time, explained after his costly mistake. “We think his unusually strong puck-handling skills weighed out in his favor.”

Milbury thought he was accelerating his team’s winning curve but he set the Islanders back so many more years. He also thought he was making history, and in essence, he was right. Milbury showed why it was such a ridiculous gamble to take a goalie in the top five picks, or as the top pick. And while the Islanders pay their puck-handling goalie until 2021, other teams can afford to offer a one year, $1 million contract with very little long-term impact on the salary cap.

Simply put, the risk isn’t worth the reward.

torres hit on hossa

(Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

On the ever-evolving game that is hockey

Make no mistake, the NHL is an ever-evolving machine. Whether the buzz-word topic is blocked shots, head shots, lack of scoring, or the speed of the game, the highest level of the sport is constantly in flux.

The game, as a whole, continues to get faster at the behest of those who play it and those who call the shots. In the clutch-and-grab era, defenseman might have a few extra seconds to allow the goalie to leave the net and touch the puck. However, due to the removal of the red line and the crackdown on obstruction, the margin for error has decreased exponentially. Likewise, players have much less time to protect themselves or make the right decision as we witnessed through countless head shots, concussions, and suspensions.

And perhaps in this version of the NHL, a puck-handling goalie isn’t quite necessary. In years past that extra element was desired by every coaching staff around the league. Nowadays, it is a luxury item and certainly not a difference maker. At the beginning of 2011, The Hockey News tackled the topic of the 10 best puck-handling goalies of all time. Names like Jacques Plante, Gerry Cheevers, and Eddie Giocomin ring true to this day while only a few active players made the cut. Why? Well, because much like the glow puck or two-line pass, the novelty has ended. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like the league needs Brodeur and his counterparts flicking the puck out of the zone every time it goes behind the net — think of the ratings, man!

Nevertheless, there is almost no correlation between the ability for a goalie to move the puck, and them getting glorified on the box score for it.

As you can see from the above table, assists have fluctuated over the last decade or so. They rose directly following the lockout while leveling out somewhat after that initial spike. Considering scoring increased with the lockout, it only makes sense for the goalies’ numbers to increase. (As an aside, European goalies, who aren’t necessarily known for their stick work, are consistently among the league leaders in assists.)

However, we are fully aware that a goalie doesn’t need to make a dramatic outlet pass in order to receive an apple. All they really need to do is settle the puck down and allow the skater to push the puck forward. In essence, such a simple play is a metaphor for how a ‘tender’s role has changed.

In the past, a starting goalie was asked to assist the offense and try to make the right play with the puck. But with added emphasis on skill, skating and scoring, why not leave handling the puck to the experts. Sure, having a great puck mover would be a strong asset, but in this era is it really a necessity?

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