Much like NFL quarterbacks, the performance of goaltenders in the NHL is often the difference between winning championships and finishing with a high draft pick.
It's the most important position on the ice and the one most responsible for playoff success and failure. The reason why becoming a great goalie is such a difficult challenge is because there are so many skills to master, some of which players are born with and others that require hours of training to polish.
Not only are there plenty of physical attributes required for success, a great amount of mental toughness is also needed to enjoy a lengthy career.
Let's look at a breakdown of what makes a perfect NHL goaltender with video examples from players of today and the past.
There are many times throughout each game when goalies cannot see the puck. They may have an idea where it is, but the exact location isn't known because of the traffic in front of the net. This is why good positioning is so essential. It's still possible to save a puck that cannot be seen if a goalie is well-positioned in his crease and takes away the five hole. These are what we call "positional saves."
Positioning also helps goaltenders stop deflections that occur within a few feet of the net. Good reflexes help prevent these shots from going in the net, but sometimes they happen too quickly for a reaction save. The best goaltenders leave just a little amount of room between them and the stick of the player closest to the crease, which helps prevent deflections from going into the net.
Being well-positioned also helps goaltenders make saves on shots that are created from a pass behind the net. In the video below, former Boston Bruins goalie and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas makes a positional save on Buffalo Sabres star Thomas Vanek by taking away the post and five hole while the puck is fed to the Austrian from below the goal line.
While the above video was a fine example of good positioning, Thomas is also the poster boy for how bad positioning can give the opponent a great scoring chance.
His very aggressive and unorthodox style of play in which he comes far out of his crease to cut down the angle was effective for several years, but it also resulted in opposing players having plenty of net to shoot at when Thomas was out of position. The only goal scored in Game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final was a good example of this.
When goalies such as Thomas are too aggressive and lose their position, teams will take advantage of it like the Canucks did in the video above by firing the puck wide off the end boards on purpose to give Maxim Lapierre an open net to shoot at.
Good positioning goes a long way in making sure the puck stays out of the net when it cannot be seen or takes a sudden deflection. It also helps goalies fill the net and take away open areas in the net for opponents to target.
Another part of positioning is awareness. In the following video, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask points out the open man at the point, which helps his defensemen, but it also shows the awareness he has while still watching the puck.
Being aware of your surroundings and identifying which players are in a position to score are crucial to a goalie's ability to react quickly.
The speed of today's game and the overall talent level of the goal scorers make having great athleticism a requirement for long-term success as an NHL goaltender.
A common display of athleticism is moving laterally from post to post, which often happens on two-on-one odd-man rushes and one-time shots on the power play. The goalie with the best athleticism and lateral movement is Los Angeles Kings star Jonathan Quick, who also won the Conn Smythe Trophy two years ago.
Quick doesn't have ideal size or height, but he gets to almost every shot because he moves so well in and around his crease with fantastic quickness. No goaltender moves post-to-post or side-to-side faster than the former UMass standout.
Athleticism also comes in handy when rebounds are given up. Forwards often shoot at a goalie's far pad with the hope that if a save is made, it will bounce off the pad and fall to a teammate who was trailing on the play. When this happens, a netminder has to quickly move from side to side and save the rebound shot.
In this video, Quick is unable to recover in time from a shot off his far pad.
It doesn't help that his defensemen didn't pick up Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, but it's a good example of why superior athleticism is critical to stopping scoring chances off of rebounds.
The old saying "you can't teach speed" doesn't really apply for goaltenders. Improving athleticism can be accomplished with many on- and off-ice exercises and drills that focus on agility and lateral movement.
Strong Glove Hand
A strong glove hand goes a long way in winning games at the NHL level. Glove side is an area often targeted by forwards because it's usually one of the weakest spots for goaltenders.
Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford gave up a lot of goals high glove during the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, but luckily for him, the Bruins were unable to score consistently when shooting at other areas of the net. Here's a look at the goals given up by Crawford through the first four games of the series.
It takes a lot of practice to improve the glove side, but one thing the best goaltenders do to make sure they are ready to react in this area is positioning the glove in the proper spot. If the glove is in the right position, it's easier to make saves up high.
Former Colorado Avalanche star Patrick Roy, who is arguably the greatest goalie of all time, made a highlight-reel glove side almost every night.
Calm Demeanor in Net, High Level of Mental Toughness
Mental toughness is one of the most important attributes for a goaltender.
Without the ability to remain calm and stay composed after allowing a bad goal or taking an embarrassing loss, there is no chance for long-term success.
One goaltender often criticized for a lack of mental toughness is Vancouver Canucks starter Roberto Luongo. Many of his postseason failures, highlighted by giving up 17 goals in the final five games of the 2011 Cup Final, have been caused by a lack of mental strength.
Not letting mistakes negatively impact performance will ensure that goalies bounce back mentally.
Quick allowed an embarrassing goal from center ice in Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Final to open the scoring. These kinds of goals often destroy the confidence of a netminder (think of Dan Cloutier in 2002), but instead of dwelling on the mistake and letting it affect him, Quick rebounded and allowed just one more goal in a 4-2 road victory.
Even if a goalie has all the talent in the world, he won't win meaningful playoff games without a high level of composure and mental toughness.
Patience on Breakaways
Stopping breakaways is one of the hardest challenges for goaltenders. The important thing to remember for goalies in these situations is to not make the first move and cover the five hole because that's the area forwards look to shoot at first.
It's difficult to stay disciplined when a player with an impressive repertoire of dekes, such as Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, is skating toward you with great speed. Patience is the key to stopping these breakaway scoring chances because if a netminder goes down before the shot is taken, he will almost certainly give up a goal.
In the 2012 Winter Classic, New York Rangers star and former Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist displayed exceptional patience, came out of his net to cut down the angle and made himself look big in the net on Danny Briere's penalty shot late in the third period. It was a perfect example of how to give an opposing forward very few options on a breakaway or penalty shot situation.
Another way to make a desperation save is to poke check the puck away. It's an effective move that often catches opponents off guard. Buffalo Sabres star Ryan Miller made a great poke-check save against future Hall of Fame forward Jaromir Jagr in the video below.
Puck handling isn't as important to a goalie's skill set as it was before the NHL implemented triangles in each corner of the ice following the 2004-05 lockout.
With that said, knowing how to play the puck and start the breakout is a valuable skill for any netminder. The best example of a goaltender who helps his team with his ability to pass the puck up ice and off the boards is New Jersey Devils legend Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur's ability to send the puck up the ice and start a rush toward goal helps his defensemen save energy and catch the opposing team off guard during line changes. Here's an example of the scoring chances Brodeur can create when he plays the puck.
For goaltenders who are skilled and comfortable playing the puck, doing so can become an important part of their game. But for those who aren't skilled in this area, it's best for them to stay in the net and avoid mistakes that often result in high-quality scoring chances.
The following video is a common example of a goalie playing the puck by stopping it along the end boards to prevent the opponents from gaining possession. Crawford takes too long to control the puck, and when he decides to pass, it goes off the heel of his stick.
Crawford panicked and didn't take enough looks to the side or behind him to know where the oncoming forecheckers were coming from. His indecisiveness allowed the Kings to seal the boards and get the puck.
The key for all goalies when playing the puck is to be quick and decisive. If you wait too long, mistakes will happen. The good news is that this type of skill is easily improved with hours of practice.
Controlling rebounds is one of the most difficult challenges for goaltenders, and since so many goals are scored on second opportunities, failing to smother pucks for a faceoff can often be the difference between winning and losing.
One netminder whose poor rebound control plagued him in the playoffs was James Reimer of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He gave up way too many rebounds in his team's first-round series versus the Bruins, and in Boston's historic comeback in Game 7, the Milan Lucic goal late in the third period was created from a rebound that Reimer couldn't get a handle on.
In the above instance, the Leafs defensemen should've done a better job clearing the rebound and dealing with Lucic, but Reimer cannot give up a juicy rebound right in front of the net in this situation. Controlling rebounds is one of the most important skills for a goalie, and the only way to improve is with constant practice.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.
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