Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has a theory as to why a couple of teenagers are challenging for the NHL lead in goals and points through the first quarter of the season, and he thinks it bodes well for the future of scoring in the League, if not for his own fraternity.
Simply put, Holtby believes the new generation of forwards are finally putting the same amount of work into their craft in the offseason as goaltenders have for the past 15-20 summers.
"I feel like it's catching up; the skill coaches now are coming around," Holtby said. "We had goalie coaches years ago, and I think goalies got so much better because they had specific training. But when I was growing up there was no one teaching you how to score, teaching you skill moves. You just learned it from watching TV and hard work, but no one really taught you how to score. Now you see all these kids coming up that have had skills coaches since they were six or seven years old, just like we had goalie coaches. It's come full circle."
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Though most forwards and defensemen used to spend their summers focused on getting bigger, faster and stronger, many goaltenders have been working on position-specific training since the early 2000s. Every element of their game was broken down, not unlike a golfer examining his swing, using slow-motion and puck eye-view video to identify holes in coverage or delays in movements caused by either poor technique or biomechanical inefficiencies.
Forwards now are taking a similar approach, with players like Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, who leads the NHL with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games at age 19, focused on developing puck skills from a young age. Like the goalies before them, those skills are being broken down like never before, incorporating studies and sports physics into variables like hand placement.
"I definitely do a lot of that, and it's very important in today's game," McDavid said. "There's not much space out there, and you have to be able to do stuff almost in a phone booth. You've got to be able to play with a lot of speed while the puck is on your stick. A lot of guys get the puck and they want to slow down, and I don't think that's how you generate offense."
Fellow Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is only 23, but he can see a difference in the type of skill work being done by even younger players.
"Guys in Connor's age group are working on stuff from a young age and doing stuff that even I wasn't doing," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's more focused on the actual specifics of stickhandling and shooting. When you start training stuff like that from a young age, it definitely translates when you get older and there are a lot of good players coming into the League."
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The evolution of skill-based training doesn't just echo what goalies have focused on for years; increasingly it also involves working at goalie schools or with goaltending coaches.
The Network Goaltending symposium, which attracted 100-plus goalie coaches from all over the world to Madison, Wisconsin, in August, featured presentations from shooting coach Ron Johnson. The topics from Johnson, whose clients include forwards Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks, Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks and Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, ranged from when and where to shoot, to how to hide a shot and deceive goalies with their release.
At the NET360 Goalie Camp in Kelowna, British Columbia, skills coach Tim Turk was brought in to work not only with players like defenseman Justin Schultz of the Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Andrew Ladd of the New York Islanders, but also with eight NHL goalies on what those shooters are looking for.
It's no longer about simply picking a spot like low blocker. Tactics now include getting a goalie to move a certain way, or waiting until the weight is loaded on the leg a goalie is pushing with to move to one side before shooting back to that side because he can't move that way.
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"They realize where to put a puck. They are using blade deception and guys are whipping pucks trying to catch you moving," Holtby said. "There have always been guys that have done it, but you see more and more doing it now because they have been taught it."
NHL goalie coaches also play a role in the ability to target opposing goalies' weaknesses, using video to find holes in specific situations. Also, just as goalies and equipment companies worked to close those holes over the years, the new generation of shooters is better equipped to find them.
It's not just high-profile names like Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine, who is challenging for the NHL lead with 13 goals in 25 games as an 18-year-old rookie.
"This whole generation coming in all grew up on composite sticks," Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller said. "It's a different kick point and release. It used to be guys had a good wrist shot or good snap shot or good slap shot, and now everybody has a good every kind of shot."
More than before, they are also being taught new, creative, deceptive ways to get those shots away, and exactly where to place them depending on the situation and the goaltender.
"You see young guys coming in doing things with their stick and the puck and it's, 'How in the world did he do that?'" said Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson, citing Colorado Avalanche forward and former teammate Matt Duchene as an example. "So there's definitely benefit to doing a lot more skill work versus playing Golden Tee with a case of beer every summer."
Goalies have known that for a while, but the shooters are quickly catching up.