Experience, adaptation spell success for older goalies
National Hockey League goaltenders don't all get old.
Some just get more experienced.
How else to explain the ascension of the aged between the pipes, a geriatric charge up the statistical puck-stopping leaderboard led by Boston's 37-year-old record-setter Tim Thomas last season, and Edmonton's Nikolai Khabibulin this year? The Bulin Wall turns 39 in January, and with a miniscule 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage shows no signs of crumbling.
For both, the feats are all the more remarkable coming off debilitating injuries that contributed to poor seasons before the renaissance. A serious hip problem cost the Bruins' goalie his starting job in 2009-10, and Khabibulin underwent back surgery in 2010, explaining, in part, a dismal showing last season.
"You gotta live through stuff," Vokoun told NHL.com. "The goalie position has always been one where you can't buy experience when you are young. It's just something you have to kind of pick up along the way. Even if somebody tells you what to expect, it's not the same as when you live through it. I think that's it. The older guys are just better equipped to deal with adversity."
The pressure that comes with being the last line of defense on the world's biggest hockey stage can be an incredible mental battle, added Vokoun. The benefit of experience can manifest itself in different ways, he says.
Take Khabibulin, who was a noted statistics junkie earlier in his career, and still perilously consumed by them during a lean first couple of years with the Chicago Blackhawks from 2005 to 2007. But the numbers are no longer an obsession for Khabibulin, whether they were miserable last season in Edmonton, or atop the League during an amazing start to this one.
It comes with experience, which can also be as valuable between the pipes as it is between the ears.
As New York Rangers' goalie guru Benoit Allaire is fond of saying: "Beat the pass, solve the equation." Experienced 'tenders tend to have a better idea where that pass is going, and a quicker response to what happens when it arrives.
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The best in the game today know when they have time to react with active hands, when they need to stay on their skates, and when they need to drop, seal the holes and simply take up as much space as possible. It all comes with experience.
"For the goalie, hockey is a game of patterns and the faster you can recognize patterns the better you will be," Mitch Korn told NHL.com. Korn is in season No. 14 as Nashville's goalie coach after a seven-year run with Buffalo.
"Playing goal is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and, at 23, you don't have all the pieces together. Sometimes they don't fit or you don't have all the colors, so you don't know where they go. You have to get older and wiser for the pieces to start to fit. But it's Mother Nature's cruel joke that just when you figure out all the answers, your body breaks down and doesn't let you perform."
If there's a common denominator among goalies like Thomas, Khabibulin, Roloson and Hasek, who Korn coached with the Sabres, it's their health and fitness.
Thomas was reduced to a "one-legged goalie" by hip problems before surgery two summers ago restored his mobility. But he'd already been working to improve flexibility and fitness by adding yoga to his workouts years earlier.
Khabibulin, whose summer training focused on core strength, has talked about the post-surgery stiffness that plagued him last season being mostly gone now, and his back going from 80 percent to a lot closer to, if not quite, 100 percent.
Hasek still works out hard enough at 47 that he hasn't ruled out yet another comeback, and Roloson exercises his eyes as much as some young goalies do their entire bodies, all in an effort to improve his ability to track the puck.
"For the goaltending position, if you keep yourself in shape at 35 it's not like players who maybe lose a step," Vokoun said. "With goalies, it's different movements, short movements. So as long as you keep up your conditioning, agility and flexibility, I think being mid-30s is not a problem for goaltenders."
Surviving at the top level for an extended period usually means evolving along the way. That became especially true as the game opened up during the past six-plus seasons.
The increase in quality scoring chances from prime shooting areas forced goalies out of the drop-and-block mentality that was so successful through 2003-04. Those that could not adapt were phased out of the game. Give a shooter time, space and the same corners to pick and almost all can do so at the NHL level, which is why Thomas's unpredictability gives so many of them fits.
If being 5-foot-11 has forced Thomas to be more patient on his skates and rely less on the butterfly, experience allows him to read and react effectively.
"I can't go on my knees and cover the whole top corners with my shoulders, so I have to be selective with when I am down on my knees and selective with when I stand up and I've had to learn over the years to read whether a guy is shooting high or a guy is shooting low," he said. "And just years and years of practice kind of gives you the percentages in your head, so at the time when you don't know whether to stay down or go up, you choose based on experience."
It may also help that goalies like Thomas, Vokoun and Khabibulin are old enough to have played before the butterfly became the most common -- and, for some, the default -- save selection. They grew up relying more on their own instincts, which Korn said forced them all to learn how to track the puck better, both around the zone and reading how it comes off a shooter's stick.
"Dom saw the game and puck in slow motion," Korn said of Hasek. "He used to like to do a drill where guys came in close and he wanted them to hammer the puck as hard as they could and he could tell high, low, left, right from a very short distance. It was like slow motion. And that doesn't disappear with age."
Thomas wasn't exposed to the butterfly until he was 23, and grew up reading and reacting on instinct, a trait many young goalies have not embraced fully because of a reliance on style.
"I've seen a lot of kids that have great technique but turn into robots and it's like their arms are glued to their sides; but you have to be able to move out of that technique mode when need be," Thomas said. "Some of the kids having trouble because they rely on technique too much could use some street hockey because when you have to move on your feet you can't use the same technique."
Khabibulin re-activated his hands after leaving Tampa Bay by moving his gloves forward and off his hips, freeing them from more of a blocking mentality.
That's not to say technique goes out the window.
For all the focus on Thomas' more acrobatic saves, he has worked tirelessly to modernize his movements, and insists those overlooked technical improvements are the key to consistency.
Martin Biron is playing some of his best hockey with the New York Rangers after dropping deeper in his crease to remove some of the inconsistencies and reliance on pure athleticism that came with the extra movements he had previously. It's a change he made last season because he wants to play as long as other guys on this list.
"It's not something I had to change," Biron, now 34, said of an adjustment that started last season with Allaire, the aforementioned goalie coach. "We had that conversation where he said, 'You're not 23, you're 33, you are coming to a moment of your career where you are at a crossroads. Do you want to keep playing six, seven years and go late into your 30s and 40s and be able to play at a top level, or do you want to be content the way the last couple of years went?' And my answer was I want to play for six, seven, eight, even nine more years and I want to go that direction."
It's a direction that may have to change again during that time frame.
"I play different than I played two, three years ago, and totally different than 10 years ago," said Vokoun, who worked with Korn in Nashville. "As goaltending evolves you have to change too if you want to stay in the League."