Does Goalie Size Matter? How the Predators' Juuse Saros is Defying Hockey Convention

Abbey MastraccoFebruary 25, 2022

Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros plays against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

The gold standard for goaltending in today's NHL is probably Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion has everything an NHL team could want in a goalie: He has the instincts and tracking abilities to read plays before they even fully develop, a high hockey IQ, athleticism, strong lateral movement and he's durable, regularly making more than 50 starts in a season at a time when several teams are moving toward a tandem approach. 

He also has the ideal size for a modern goalie at 6'3" and 225 pounds.

As of 2019, the average size of a No. 1 NHL goalie was 6'3". It's considered the "sweet spot," or something close to it, according to Kevin Woodley, a goaltending expert for InGoal Magazine and NHL.com. The bigger the goalie, the more space he takes up in the cage. 

It wasn't always like this. It wasn't all that long ago that Henrik Lundqvist was one of the top goalies in the world at 6'1", which might be considered "undersized" now. 

But tall goalies have always been coveted in hockey.

Legendary former Montreal Canadiens netminder Ken Dryden was 6'4". And yet, Dryden thinks the trend toward extra-lanky goalies has gone too far, saying the tail wags the dog in an op-ed in The Atlantic last year. Dryden also took the goalie gear and rule changes into account, but he argued that big bodies wearing big pads have led to a less exciting style of play, with more teams trying to jam pucks in front of the net instead of using the open ice and creating off the rush. The game is faster than ever, but creativity isn't necessarily being rewarded. 

However, goalies don't have to be 6'3" or taller to be elite. This weekend's Stadium Series game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville will have Vasilevskiy facing another Vezina candidate in Juuse Saros, the Predators' No. 1 netminder who is listed at 5'11", though some have even said that number is generous. It's an interesting case study in contrasts, and it shows that size isn't the defining factor for hockey's most important position.

"What makes this game special is the control and the patience," Woodley said. "And the fact that [Saros'] threshold for 'goalie 911'—his threshold for panic—is so much later than everyone else's. He needs it every once in a while but not as early and not as often as a lot of goalies around the league. His ability to get to the edge of the crease and control that square and just hold there and wait everything out is as good as anyone in the league. Maybe [Igor] Shesterkin might be the only other one who sort of is at that [level]."

Saros watched Pekka Rinne's No. 35 be raised to the rafters of Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night. It signaled a passing of the torch. And maybe it even signals a new trend emerging in the NHL, one that favors some undersized backstops. 

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You can't mention the Vezina conversation without mentioning New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who isn't quite as small as Saros, but stands at 6'1".

 Before the two of them emerged, it was Jonathan Bernier. The 11th overall pick in 2006 is injured right now, but he's put together a 14-year career at 5'11" (he's currently listed at 6'0, but Woodley insists he's below that mark).

These goalies walked so that top prospects like Dustin Wolf and Devon Levi will be able to run. 

They possess many of the same attributes as their taller counterparts. They just don't have the height. There are some smaller goalies who are capable of moving better than the bigger ones, but the most important aspect is their intelligence and their ability to read plays. If they can do those things, then they can play goalie at nearly any height. 

"I really believe that it's how smart they are and how well they read plays. Then on top of that, their skating ability is gonna go a long way," said Devils goaltending coach Dave Rogalski. "But I really mean this: The reading ability of plays is so important, whether you're small or big. The one thing that they have to be really good at is that. And then, instead of just being big and blocking, their hand-eye coordination off of tracking releases is as critical as well. They can't just kind of go down and just fill space; they've got to be able to read the release."

Smaller goalies, like many smaller athletes, sometimes have chips on their shoulders. They know they have to prove themselves more than those with the ideal height. This can be advantageous, leading to good habits, precise movements and competitiveness from a young age.

"Big goalies, when they're younger, they don't have to perfect these things," Woodley said. "They get away with more. Pucks just hit them. They didn't have to refine their technique to the degree that a guy like Saros would have had to in order to continue to move up levels as the smallest guy."

Ascending through hockey as a high-level junior player and into the professional ranks is a difficult, non-linear path. Especially for goalies when there aren't that many spots to fill. It takes a certain type of mental toughness and some luck with health. 

"It's just really hard to make it," Rogalski said. "I'd say the disadvantage that the small guys have is proving their value over time and getting a lot of games in to prove that they can do it. They need to earn that trust that they can play at that size. That's a big key—proving it to the American League coach. And then when they go up [to the NHL], they do well enough, and then they go back down, and they continue to have success."

The opportunities to play goalie at the youth level might not be limited, but the pipeline really starts at the junior level. While there is still plenty of room to grow by the time players are drafted to major-junior teams in their teens, their positional fate may have already been decided by then. The bigger kids are going to get put in the net more often than the smaller ones, mostly because it's difficult to properly project size. 

"You only can sculpt what you're able to see," Rogalski said. "The bigger guys are getting more opportunity at the younger levels. You're not going to see a lot of smaller goalies to even look at the draft. And then on top of it, the ones that are smaller, they're going to be really good. Then it's just a matter of, can they get through the barrier, the five-, six-year window on the American League to get into the NHL?"

It begs the question of whether a Saros or a Shesterkin can change the narrative around undersized goalies if one wins the Vezina this season, or even a Stanley Cup. 

It's pretty simple in Rogalski's mind: If you can play, you can play. But Woodley says he hasn't quite seen the changing tides yet and expects these particular goalies to be pegged as backups until they prove otherwise. 

Another NHL source had a very clear answer when asked if undersized goalies will get more opportunities: "No." They'll be scouted, but likely to be "written off early." 

However, with two recent expansion teams, there will be more opportunities. So the answer is probably something closer to a maybe, not anytime soon. 

"On average, each team has five goalies under contract. That’s 10 contracts for goalies that wouldn’t have one across the league," Rogalski said. "Expansion will open doors for not only smaller goalies but all sorts of different types of players of all sizes."