The Lost Art of Stacked Pads

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I think it’s no secret that in the past 10 years, we’ve seen a serious decline in elite level Canadian goaltenders coming up the pipeline. Even the Canadian Hockey League has identified the need to develop young Canadian goaltenders by implementing a restriction on drafting European goalies in the CHL Import Draft. When compared to our foreign hockey rivals such as Finland and the United States, the disparity becomes even more apparent. Whereas the Finns have seen elite goaltending prospects such as Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi become stars in recent years, Canada has seen their elite goaltending prospects such as Justin Pogge (famously) and Dustin Tokarski (perhaps due to lack of opportunity) not reach their expected potential in the NHL. Whereas young American goalies Jonathan Quick and John Gibson have led their teams to Stanley Cups and World Junior Hockey Championships, respectively, in recent years, young Canadian goalies such as Carey Price, Devan Dubnyk and Steve Mason have struggled to find consistent success or any at all. And while Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury have won Stanley Cups in the past 5 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find many hockey pundits who would place them in the elite category. Performance wise, all 3 goalies nominated for the Vezina Trophy last season were Europeans. Internationally, there seems to be a wide-open race for the Canadian Olympic goaltender spot, and its definitely not due to an influx of sparkling candidates.

While one can describe Quick’s acrobatic, somewhat freestyling, goaltending style as unorthodox, there is no doubting his athletic prowess in the cage. Same goes for a goalie like Rask who shows off his incredible athletic ability almost every time he makes a save. The closest thing I see in terms of a Canadian equivalent is Braden Holtby who seems to rely a lot more on athletic and reflex ability to make a save than structure.

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This leads to the question of WHY young foreign goalies seem to be surpassing their Canadian equivalents at such an astronomical rate. Perhaps this is just a cyclical process and young Canadian goalies will return full force over the next decade. Part of the problem may even be the developmental system where European goalies are able to play in the Euro leagues with men, and come over the NHL after they have already been professionally seasoned for multiple years. But to me the big problem appears to be much more institutionally based. That meaning the way we are teaching our young goalies almost seems to be such an overly-structured process where we rely on them to be in position and let the puck hit them, rather then use their athletic ability to make a save. The problem obviously being that when the puck doesn’t hit you, we end up in a Devan Dubnyk or Steve Mason scenarios where multiple pucks continue beating you when they should be in reality, routine saves. Former NHL goalie Robb Stauber who now runs a goaltending school in Minnesota also believes this to be the problem. To him, coaching in the US allows allows young goalies to have a lot more personality and not be stuck in such a rigid approach. Again, consider Quick – he is clearly fundamentally sound, but it is clear after watching him that his athletic and creative style have as much to do with his success as does his positioning.

Hockey Canada has recently announced the launch of a new advisory group that will oversee the building of the country’s first national goaltending development and goalie coach certification program. This group has been tasked with identifying new ways of developing young goalies on a grassroots level. Among those making up this group are Sean Burke, Bill Ranford, Dwayne Roloson, Rick Walmsley, Fred Brathwaite, Matt Cockell, David Marcoux, along with 1 representative from each CHL team. Basically Hockey Canada appears to be going the way of Finland and Sweden, who have been churning out solid goalies by the handful the past decade by focusing on developing better coaches throughout the country. This will be done through a certification process for goaltending coaches featuring a three-level guide to learning the system.

The biggest concern for me in this obviously comes back to what I mentioned above – that goaltenders will continue to be taught with an overemphasis on structure rather than skill and athleticism. What is encouraging to hear is that there was consensus from the advisory group on two key points: 1. That there needs to be a focus on athleticism and agility before technique when developing young goalies; and 2. That there needs to be a consistency and standardization in what young goaltenders in Canada are being taught. To me the athleticism in a goaltender is much easier to teach at a younger age as this becomes about creating certain habits that stay in a player moving forward. Suggestions to improve athleticism in young goalies include focusing much more time on specific skill and drill progressions, along with an increased emphasis on off-ice training rituals.

Going forward its still left to be seen whether such a program will result in a steady stream of elite Canadian goaltending talent. Whether that would be attributable to the new focus on development is still left to be seen. At the very least, it seems to be an issue the powers that be have correctly identified as needing a cure. It might be 5-7 years before we can see the long-term effects of such a program – but hey until then we always have the structured ways of Steve Mason and Devan Dubnyk to remind us of why we are doing this.

For Hockeyland Canada,

RK, Esq.

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One response to “The Lost Art of Stacked Pads

  1. Great article! It really highlights a growing concern in Canadian hockey on the international level, and demonstrates how Canada can actually learn something about hockey from other countries. I have read other articles, from guys like Kevin Woodley at In Goal magazine, that have commented on this phenomenon. In terms of some of the explanations I have thought about:

    1) As you have mentioned, there seems to be an ingrained mentality amongst Canadian goalie coaches that the “butterfly” style is the best way to play. From a young age, goalies are being taught to have an economy of movement, and be systematic when dropping to their knees to take up a large portion of the net. Patrick Roy and his goalie coach Francois Allaire really popularized the style, and that’s why many of the French Quebec netminders seen in the late 1990s were direct descendants of that style. But I read an article recently in which Stephane Waite (the new goalie coach for the Canadiens, and the former goalie coach with the Blackhawks, who had Antii Niemi and Corey Crawford) stated that goalies are so drilled in the butterfly situation, that they cannot respond when plays break down, and that they don’t have the “battle” skills to recover. In addition, the butterfly style can be quite physically demanding, putting greater strain on the hips and knees. Not being instructed by a goalie coach myself, I found those words somewhat interesting. I agree, there probably needs to be less rigid coaching at the youth level, and perhaps there should be more spontaneous discovery of individual style for young netminders.

    2) I think one factor that cannot be understated is the rising costs of goaltender equipment. If I were a parent of a top athlete, why would I want my son to play in goal? At the youth level, the equipment costs are largely prohibitive, and probably acts as a barrier for the best athletes to freely play and practice in that position. I don’t know how goaltender equipment is funded in the Scandinavian countries, but given Hockey Canada’s massive budget (Bob Nicholson said 2010 jersey sales alone generated $20 million dollars), could they not subsidize youth hockey programs to purchase goaltending equipment?

    3) Waite also explains that Europeans are generally better athletes than Canadians, suggesting that they may have a genetic advantage (like how Kenyans are better distance runners, or African descendants are better sprinters). He cites some of the Scandinavian netminders, like Miika Kiprusoff and Tuuka Rask as being extremely flexible, and who stretch for hours before the game. Maybe Canadians do not have the same skillset in athletic traits that would be beneficial for playing goal. This may not have been realized in the past, since the doors to the NHL for Europeans were largely closed before the early 1990s. However, since Europeans have freely come over, this finding has become more pronounced.

    4) I think the current decline in Canadian goaltending is probably more cyclical than we think. We still have large hockey participation rates (despite the fact that the number has been declining in recent years), and the infrastructure in place will ensure that players develop to the professional ranks. However, even if it is cyclical, this is a great window in which we can be critical of the system, and try to find ways to become more effective and efficient in developing top flight netminders.

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