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Analysis: Style over stats with Olympic goalies

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- As roster deadlines for the 2014 Sochi Olympics approach, the spotlight often shines brightest on the potential goalies.

In a tournament with little margin for error, every goal, questionable or not, allowed by the candidates is replayed and critiqued, every losing streak broken down and analyzed.

But what about how each goaltender plays? Should that be as important as the results he posts as the Jan. 7 deadline for rosters to be submitted approaches?

Perhaps yes.

With the 2014 Sochi Olympics being contested on the larger international ice surface, the style a goaltender plays may affect his ability to adjust to the different angles and reads on short notice.

Simply put, goaltenders who play aggressively outside the top of the crease will have to make up more distance to recover if they are off with their reads. Goalies who play farther back inside the blue paint can correct mistakes with shorter, quicker movements and adjustments.

So when considering the depth charts for each country, it may also be worth taking a closer look at each goalie's depth in the crease.

"On the big ice surface, I do think playing deeper helps," said Phoenix Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke, who played 158 games for Canada's national team, including appearances at the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Junior Championship and World Championship and two Olympics during a 20-year career. "But that doesn't mean a guy who is aggressive can't play on big ice."

Burke, as well as recently retired goaltender Martin Biron, made it clear goalies' positional depth should not be the sole consideration, or even heavily weighted against other factors, when selecting Olympic goalies. But Burke and Biron, both of whom adopted more conservative positioning late in their careers under the tutelage of current Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire, also believe the adjustment to big ice will be easier for goaltenders playing deeper in their net.

"The guy I had on my list as No.1 (for Canada) was Mike Smith, and that was the reason, because of his deeper style of play," said Biron, who retired from the New York Rangers this season after a 16-year NHL career and now works as an analyst for both TSN and the MSG Network. "I look at some goalies who performed well at World Junior on big ice or at Olympics on big ice, and vice versa, some of the goalies that did not perform well on the big ice, that's where the theory comes from."

Henrik Lundqvist, Biron's teammate in New York, won gold at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, the last time the tournament was played on big ice. Not surprisingly, Lundqvist plays as deep as any goalie in the world. For Biron, though, the theory also comes from personal experience - most of it bad - starting with the 1997 World Junior Championship.

"I played really well in Canada getting ready in training camp, and when I went over there, I had one exhibition game and I absolutely was terrible," Biron said. "I got pulled middle of the second period because I could not get comfortable with my angles, I couldn't read where guys were going to be, and it was really tough."

It didn't get any easier almost 15 years later, when the Rangers opened the 2011-12 season with two weeks in Europe.

Biron gave up nine goals in his first exhibition start.

"I felt like I had a soccer net behind me," he said. "I couldn't tell if I was dead-on angle, or not. So I can definitely say it is an adjustment. Some goalies do it faster than others, but with the added pressure of the Olympics, I really think it's going to be a tricky situation."

It should be a little less complicated for goalies who don't wander as far from their posts, and don't play out beyond the crease.

"The further out you are, the more space you have to recover and the more ground you have to cover," said Burke, who works with Hockey Canada and has consulted Steve Yzerman, Canada's executive director for the Sochi Games. "So playing deep just gives you the advantage of being able to get across laterally quicker."

Burke was quick to point out the advantages of shorter movements depend on the team you are playing and its preferred style of attack. He remembers having to retreat against the Russians during his early days with the national team because "if you were really aggressive, they would just pass the puck around you."

Mike Smith may be Canada's No. 1 goaltender in Sochi. (Photo: Norm Hall/NHLI)

The adjustment, Burke said, is recognizing most of the extra space on a larger international rink is on the outside and behind the net.

"You have to remember the big ice doesn't really change where the quality scoring chances are coming from," he said. "The extra ice means there are a lot of things that happen on the outside of the rink, and in the corners, that don't happen in any NHL game."

Part of the adjustment is feeling comfortable in the ability to get across on lateral plays that take longer to develop on bigger ice, and using the extra time to read the play rather than worrying about plays along the wall that aren't the scoring threats they can be in the NHL.

"You know eventually it has to come to you anyways, it still has to get to a scoring position, and that's the key," Burke said. "You want to be in position, and the only way you get in trouble on the bigger ice is if you are overcommitting to things that aren't dangerous."

Even the crease can throw you off in that regard, Biron said.

Unlike an NHL crease, which cuts back straight to the goal line from just outside each post, the semicircle on an international crease continues in an arc back to the goal line on both sides.

"So when we are standing on the left for a faceoff at the left dot in the NHL, you don't see any blue paint next to you," Biron said. "When I practiced in buildings that didn't have that NHL-size crease, I used to be thrown off because if I was on my angle, I could still see blue next to me and it made me feel like I had to move over to my left a little bit more because of that. But if you play deep in your crease, those markers are different. You just touch the posts and feel like you only have to move a few inches left or right and you are on your angle."

Burke reiterated that choosing goalies based exclusively on depth is a mistake, saying the goalies being considered for spots on Olympic rosters "are not going to get fooled by an extra 15 feet on the ice."

However, the patience Burke talked about on plays that take longer to develop is something goalies who already play deeper are used to, whereas more aggressive goalies often like to have a little more backward flow as the play approaches. In that case, a bigger adjustment may be necessary as that timing is altered on bigger ice.

"Absolutely, if you can play a little deeper on international ice, then the guys that come down the wing and they are lost in that extra four or five feet by the boards, you don't have to face them at the top of your crease anymore," Biron said. "If you play a bit deeper, you can just sit back in your net and the margin of error is bigger."

With so little margin for error for any goaltender at the Olympics, it may be worth considering any element that increases that margin.

"For the sake of argument, I have to say yes, you have to consider a positional goalie, a deeper goalie, as opposed to a guy who is out more and challenging, absolutely," Biron said. "But does it always make it 100 percent perfect? No, it never does."

Taking a look at the goaltending candidates for Canada and the United States based on how deep each one plays, there appears to be more balance north of the border, although it won't be known for sure until Canada names its roster Jan. 7.

Canada's favored trio of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith could provide a perfect mix. Smith emulates the goal-line out approach of Sweden's Lundqvist, Luongo has retreated to more of a three-quarter depth position in recent years, and Price, while backing up slightly under goalie Stephane Waite, still plays with the toes of his skates outside the blue ice.

Burke feels that is "overthinking" it.

"The way (Smith) plays, it's not really an adjustment when he gets to big ice," Burke said. "But Carey has a lot of experience, and I think his adjustments will come on his own just because he's a good player and I think he can read the play and he understands."

The United States named its roster Jan. 1, with Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings named as the goalies.

In terms of playing style, the U.S. will bring an aggressive trio of goalies to Sochi.

Miller and Howard play outside the blue ice, but Quick, who is coming back from a lengthy injury layoff, is the most aggressive.

Biron has Quick as his No.1, but admitted "he might be the one that would struggle with [the bigger ice] most. If he can adjust well, he will be good, but if he starts getting lost out there, it could be swimming in a big pool."

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