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Getting to the bottom of strange early goalie numbers

Monday, 01.28.2013 / 2:28 PM
Kevin Woodley  - NHL.com Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- As abbreviated training camps wound down and a condensed schedule started, longtime NHL goaltending coach Mitch Korn was asked what he expected from goalies out of the gate.

Korn, who was in Buffalo for seven seasons before spending the past 14 in Nashville, had been through it in 1995. He'd even spent time studying that season for clues, but ultimately admitted he still had no real clue how goaltenders would be affected this time.

Goaltending -- and the demands the game puts on it -- changed a lot in the 18 years since the last 48-game season in the NHL.

"There's no real precedent," Korn stressed. "It's the great unknown. This is [uncharted] territory and I think everyone will be affected a little different. I have a hunch it will be all over the board."

Ten days later, Korn's words have proven prophetic.

Goaltending has indeed been all over the board, with big names pulled from big starts and bloated goals-against averages where you'd least expect them. It's a small sample size, but the only thing more surprising than the number of goalies with a goals-against average above 3.00 and a save percentage below .900 was the names on those lists.

Mike Smith of the normally stingy Phoenix Coyotes had a .836 save percentage before getting hurt, and the sub-.900 club features Vezina Trophy-winner Henrik Lundqvist (.893), Niklas Backstrom (.885), Miikka Kiprusoff (.872), Jonas Hiller (.864) and Cam Ward (.845), as well as Brian Elliott (.875) and Cory Schneider (.897), who were 1-2 in save percentage last season.

"The shooters' awareness may take a while to catch up, but as long as they can shoot the puck hard and put it where they want they will have an advantage until goalies catch up," Schneider said. "If the goalie is a half-second off, the puck is going to go in. That last one percent of readiness makes a bigger difference than for skaters."

If there's a consensus that goalies suffered more than shooters from an eight-month layoff, a drastically shortened training camp and the lack of tune-up games, unified reasons on why some goalies been more affected than others is harder to achieve.

But most point to that lack of preseason games after a long gap between real games as a big reason for the struggles.

"In the past, I remember going through camp and having scrimmages and whatnot, but it's in those exhibition games you would really go, ‘Wow, this is fast, I got to adjust my focus and catch up,'" said Clint Malarchuk, who played for 20 years and is now goaltending coach of the Calgary Flames. "So no exhibition games, that's huge."

Coaches like Malarchuk do their best to simulate game-like situations in practice, and the goaltenders are still facing NHL-caliber shots from teammates. But neither is enough to really mimic a game, especially when it comes to tracking the puck through traffic, which Kiprusoff cited as the biggest game adjustment after so much time off.

"It's lots of traffic nowadays, and quick plays behind the net, and so many shots and you have to play big and try to find shots," Kiprusoff said. "We try to practice that, but game is game and it might take goalies a little longer."

Former NHL goaltender Kelly Hrudey, now an analyst for CBC, has talked about the muscles around the eye needing to be retrained to NHL shots, and how vision training helped him coming out of the last lockout. A lot of today's goaltenders already train their eyes, whether it's simple juggling before games, or in high-tech labs hooked up to computer screens. But doing it at game speed is another matter.

Malarchuk stressed vision to Kiprusoff after he gave up nine goals in his first two starts.

"What I worked on with Kipper was staying square and just really seeing the puck -- don't just look at the puck, really see it," Malarchuk stressed. "I mean, it's black, but how black is it, that sort of focus.

"The game is another level you can't duplicate in practice," Malarchuk continued. "You try to, but you get 20,000 people in an arena, game atmosphere, the heart rate goes up and the adrenaline gets going and everyone is at a little higher pace, and that's what the goalies are dealing with right now. It's going to take a few games."

The next question then is why it's taking some goalies more games than others.

You'd expect how each goalie spent his time off to play a role, but even then there is a discrepancy in the results.

Most goaltenders stayed home, participating in informal skates and practices. Some added in goalie-specific workouts with position coaches, while a few relied on those exclusively, worried about bad habits from the shinny-like sessions with teammates. Only a handful actually played games, either in the American Hockey League or overseas, but even then, the early returns are all over the board.

Dan Ellis signed a tryout contract in the American Hockey League in order to find his game timing after missing most of last season with a groin injury that required surgery. It helped earn a job with the Carolina Hurricanes and Ellis made 40 saves to win his first start during the weekend.

Washington's Braden Holtby also played in the AHL after a breakout performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and was named Goalie of the Month just before the NHL returned. But he is second-to-last with a 5.04 goals-against average after starting the first two games for the Capitals, and watched Michal Neuvirth start the next three.

"It's just the pace," Schneider said. "This League is so fast and things happen so quick, that if your timing is not pinpoint you are going to be a fraction of a second late, and that's when pucks go through you."

Schneider was among the few to find work in Europe, a move he made, in large part, because he worried about the lack of intensity in the informal practices in Vancouver. But after a month in the Swiss league, Schneider was ready to return, in part because many of the bad habits goalies fear in shinny -- if they don't cheat in such a wide-open game, they don't have a chance to make saves -- were creeping into his game in the pass-first, shoot-never European style.

"I started to regress a little," Schneider said. "If I stayed, I think I would have adjusted more to that style and it's not pass and shoot, it's pass and catch it, and maybe pass back, and maybe dust it off, and then shoot it. I was caught in-between and on my heels with my reads when guys would make those backdoor pass or make that second or third pass and you start second-guessing and leaning and cheating."

At least one other NHL goaltending coach was seeing similarly bad habits in his goalie after spending time overseas, but for others that have made the transition back before, the game action appears to be a benefit. Antti Niemi (.933), Ondrej Pavelec (.932), Semyon Varlamov (.927), Tuukka Rask (.925), and Ilya Bryzgalov (.923) were all in the top-12 in save percentage after time playing at home in Europe.

Of course, Neuvirth also played overseas, and despite playing well in his three starts, has a .889 save percentage, which brings us to systems play as a factor.

The Capitals, like the Flames, have a new coach and coverage kinks to be worked out in their own end, and mistakes can leave the goaltender guessing. The same can be said for players on new teams, or defensemen on new pairings.

Even those returning to the same system and same teammates are more likely to make mistakes after so much time off. Many of those mistakes are subtle, though, and a lot harder to notice compared to the goaltender fishing a puck out of his net shortly after a gaffe. An increase in early power plays -- and some porous penalty killing -- hasn't helped either.

"Some teams are still pretty loose, but some are playing shut-down D already," Schneider said.

Of course, not all goaltenders are struggling.

Craig Anderson has been sizzling to start the season. Martin Brodeur isn't far behind.

Ironically, both are considered read-and-react goalies that rely less on technique and more on feel and rhythm. Many expected that style to struggle more after so much time off, while more technical, stationary peers with less flow to their style would be able to get by on strong positioning and efficient movement until the rest of their game caught up.

"But a guy like Marty has played the game such a long time and the way he plays is not as technical, so he knows how to stop the puck no matter what position he is in, and I'm sure he's relied on that and it's helped him have a great start to the year," said Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, who is on the other end of the spectrum as a more technical goalie. "It's such a fine line between being on top of your game or not. It's razor-thin."

Then again, Anderson did spend four weeks on the ice with Luongo and former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending coach Francois Allaire, who invented most modern butterfly techniques. It was a curious mix, one that had a few other goalie coaches scratching their heads.

Ten days into the new NHL season, they aren't the only ones bewildered by the state of goaltending.

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