See the puck, stop the puck.
The hockey goalie's job might seem like the most straightforward position on the ice. Sounds simple, but hold that thought.
"When a forward makes a mistake, the defensemen and goalie can cover," says Ron Francis, NHL Seattle's general manager. "If the defenseman makes a mistake, the goalie can cover. If the puck gets past the goalie, everyone sees it."
Sometimes everyone sees it except the goalie, who can be "screened" from puck view by opponents or even teammates. Goalies, pros or amateurs, routinely have to track the puck through a sea of ten bodies who tend to circle the ice in frenetic fashion.
"The toughest save to make is the one you don't see, with guys in front of you," says Corey Schwab, goalie coach for the Arizona Coyotes. "In the NHL that's where it's more difficult for goalies, the traffic they face on a nightly basis in front of the net…you have [forwards on the attacking team] whose job it is to get in front of the net."
Schwab knows. After playing in goal with the Seattle Thunderbirds for three years in the late 1980s, he logged more than 10 seasons of pro hockey including 147 NHL games with New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and Toronto.
How goalies stop a puck, making the "save," has transformed over the years.
For decades, a "stand-up" style was the standard among hockey goaltenders: Rarely drop to the knees. Kick out low shots (sometimes leveraging the paddle-like goalie stick blade). Protect the top portion of the net with a catch glove on your free hand and your blocker on the stick side, a glove that allows stick control along with an oversized rectangular shield for stopping an airborne puck.
In the 1950s, Hall of Famer Glenn Hall, playing with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, was the first goalie to use a "butterfly style" in which Hall would routinely drop to his knees to take away the low shot with his big goalie leg pads. He handled high shots with the blocker or catch glove. Strange as it might sound, low-to-the-ice shots can be the most difficult to see and therefore stop; positioning more leg pads on the ice blocks you might not fully see.
Today's goalies mostly use a hybrid version of the butterfly and stand-up styles to stop pucks. Patrick Roy, who won Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche, is most often associated with perfecting a combination of the two goaltending styles.
"It's more situational," Schwab says of current-day goalies. "I think the butterfly, that's now an actual save you're making. The game has evolved so that the goalie isn't just dropping into a straight butterfly. Guys still stand up to make saves, but I think it's more what each guy is most comfortable with."
Blocking the puck isn't the only responsibility goalies have at the NHL and other top levels. Goalies must be communicators who direct traffic for teammates, in and around the net. For example, when a defenseman is chasing the puck deep in his own end, the goalie can see who is trailing behind the d-man and is responsible for letting him know if he has time or needs to move the puck quickly.
Along with communicating, goalies need to be able to handle the puck.
The goalie stick is not ideal for making passes and stickhandling, but goalies who are good at it can act as a third defenseman and even post an assist or two on goals during the season by making the first of two passes that directly result in a goal.
"It can take away the forecheck [opposing forwards pressuring to regain the puck] that the other team would like to have," Schwab says. "It's an advantage with a goalie who handles the puck really well. Often times [those goalies] have a good hockey sense and can read the plays."
Former Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall is among the best puck-handling goalies of all time. He would often roam out of his net to retrieve pucks dumped in. He was the first NHL goalie to score a goal in a game, something he did by flinging the puck down ice and into an empty Boston Bruins net in 1987.
Goalies like Marty Turco with the Dallas Stars and Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils (and long-time Team Canada starter) were so skilled at retrieving pucks and stifling offense that the NHL instituted the trapezoid area, limiting where goalies can play the puck behind the goal line. The objective is to encourage more shot attempts and scoring.
Current goalies considered to be elite puck handlers include Montreal's Carey Price, Dallas' Ben Bishop and Nashville's Pekka Rinne. Mike Smith of the Edmonton Oilers is in the mix, too, though a digital search will turn up "best and worst" outcomes for Smith, prompting some fans to posh at the elite status.
One more thing about tending goal in the NHL that doesn't make it simple: When asked about how the position has changed, veteran goalies such as the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist and Boston's Tuukka Rask agree: The game is faster than ever. Shot quality has never been higher.
"Players shoot better and try things they didn't 14 years ago," says Lundqvist, now in his 15th NHL season.
"I think goalies are even more athletic [now]," says Rask, who played his first full NHL season in 2009-10. "The game is lot faster. You have to move quicker."