The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2018-19 NHL season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.
In this edition, David Marcoux, former goalie coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames, explores the subject of goalies tracking pucks and why small details matter.
Many goalies spend countless summer time hours trying to increase their focus and ability to track pucks with specialized hand-eye reaction ball drills, eye-muscle strengthening and even laser surgery.
Although these goalie-specific off-ice exercises certainly can benefit reaction time, other on-ice factors contribute to a goalie's ability to read the shooter's release and to make more saves.
Let's start with an obvious but important factor -- the distance of the shot.
An NHL slap shot from the blue line takes .9 seconds to cross the goal line.
Top-end goalies in their prime have a reaction time (the combination of analysis time and actual movement time) of .45 seconds.
NHL goalies clearly have enough time to read and react to an unobstructed point shot, able to be patient on their feet and to read the height and location of the shot.
As the shooters get closer into the high danger area, there is less time to react. A shot that is released from the hash marks has an arrival time equal to or less than the goalie's reaction time, so there's a critical point where the goalie has to select more of a blocking, butterfly style and be positionally sound. At this point, rebound control becomes quite difficult due to the proximity of the shot.
A goalie's job is also complicated by other factors. When sticks and bodies get in the way of the shot, goalies don't get an early read of the shooter's release.
In a game between the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins on Monday, Dallas' Radek Faksa scored a shorthanded goal on a sharp-angled shot past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask. It seemed like a very weak goal.
Video: DAL@BOS: Faksa opens scoring with shorthanded goal
As Faksa took his shot from near the left-wing boards, Boston defenseman Torey Krug made a normal reaction by trying to get his stick on the puck to deflect it out of play. Instead, Krug slightly redirected the puck and didn't allow Rask to properly track the shot. We'll never know what might have happened had Krug not intervened, but I'm betting if Krug's stick is not in the shooting lane, Rask is going to stop the shot, catch it, or at worst control the rebound.
By no means are we picking on Krug here. He's only doing what he's been taught to do for many years, what's ingrained in a defenseman's DNA -- to get a stick on the puck to deflect it away from the goal.
Now let's look at this play from the goalie's perspective.
If we only consider the angle and distance of Faksa's shot, it doesn't look like a difficult save. But what most people don't realize is the effect the stick on puck can have. It often creates a fluttering, knuckleball type of shot that has an abnormal trajectory, as opposed to an easy, clear view and a trackable trajectory.
Without a clean read on this stick-on-puck shot, Rask has to deal with a puck that could do many things, including bounce out of his glove or even go right through him, which is what happened on this shot.
Rask's career success, like that of most Finnish goalies (Pekka Rinne and Miikka Kiprusoff, for example), is based on active hands and catching pucks to create a stoppage in play.
Along with most goalies, I do see the value of defensemen deflecting away pucks in high-danger areas. But I believe that shots from low-danger areas are better left untouched for the goalie to get a good look at them. I know some coaches may not agree with this theory, but most NHL goalies I've spoken to during the past 10 years definitely prefer that their defensemen get their sticks out of the way when we're talking about shots from far distances or sharper angles.
A game between the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday produced good examples. A high-danger shot by Nashville's Colton Sissons needed to be contested and redirected, even though it resulted in a fluttering puck that ramped up Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard's stick. The shot went over the shoulder of Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov, who was unable to properly track the shot; however, the replay clearly shows the defenseman's good intentions.
Video: NSH@COL: Sissons rifles home slapper top shelf
There's another common-sense factor that can assist goalies in tracking the puck. I believe the use of white stick tape by defensemen can help goalies in this area.
Washington Capitals defensemen Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson all use white tape, possibly at the request of their No. 1 goalie, Braden Holtby.
From a goalie's standpoint, it's simply easier to see the black puck coming off a white stick blade.
To my knowledge, there is at least one team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Sherbrooke Phoenix, that mandates white tape on stick blades of defensemen for this very reason. Their coach, Stephane Julien, is a former defenseman and their general manager and one of their co-owners is former NHL goalie Jocelyn Thibault.
Tape is just another small detail. But if a defenseman's habits or definite preferences aren't that strong, I believe it can positively impact a goalie's save percentage and success rate.