Practice does not make perfect for an NHL goaltender. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
Most NHL practices are far from perfect for goalies, and that can be a problem. In fact, a good chunk of practice can be counterproductive to good goaltending, leaving the goalie facing situations that can create bad habits.
It is the separate sessions with the goalie coach, before and after practice, that are important.
If that sounds like a stretch, consider the fact that a large portion of NHL practice time is spent on line rushes which are only occasionally defended, often in the loosest sense of that term. The result is wave after wave of players skating in with passing options and plenty of time to dish or hold and shoot from close range.
In practice, shooters repeatedly get time and space to shoot from spots, and in situations, they might be lucky to get once or twice a season. These opportunities come without the sense of urgency associated with the backchecking pressure of a game.
It can become tempting for a goaltender to cheat in practice. In many ways, practice resembles summer shinny sessions, which many NHL goalies avoid because the only way to consistently make saves in them is to play differently than they would during a regular season.
"If guys are coming in and taking that extra two seconds to shoot and pick that corner on you, you just have to realize in a game situation they won't get that time, so you should still trust your instincts," New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said late last season. "But it is tough, especially when you play deep like me and you give up a goal because you didn't cover enough, to still stick with your structure and not start challenging. But that's the challenge."
It can be more challenging for a backup goaltender who doesn't play a lot. Part of the job description includes starting early and staying late to serve as a target for shooters doing extra work. It's not duty conducive to maintaining their game.
And with practice time harder to come by late in a season and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as rest becomes as important, especially for the workhorse goalies who make it to the postseason, it often makes more sense for them to skip practice altogether.
When Jason LaBarbera, who is with the Anaheim Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk, was with the Phoenix Coyotes from 2009 through 2013, he endured long stretches between starts behind Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith. LaBarbera admitted there were times he had to abandon the deeper, inside-out approach taught by Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke just to give himself a chance on all the open shots he was seeing.
"In practice, it's tough to be that guy because everything is open and off the rush and guys have more time, and at this level if they have that much time they are going to pick corners," LaBarbera said late in his final season in Phoenix. "Game situations they don't have that time, so it's better to be a little bit back more."
LaBarbera sometimes started to challenge more in practice just to make saves to feel better about his game. Other times, he felt the non-goalie coaches needed to see him make some saves so they would feel better about getting him back into a game.
"In practice, guys have all day, and you start to get tired as practice goes on, and I found I started to be a little more of a skater, take another step out just to give myself a better chance to make myself feel a bit better," LaBarbera said. "It's hard because you don't want to get away from who you are and how you want to play in a game, but if you play deep in practice you are [hurt] to a point, especially because coaches are looking at you. You want to make sure you are making saves, look like you are playing well."
Goalie - PIT
GAA: 2.26 | SVP: .921
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
said one of the hardest parts of adjusting to more conservative initial positioning under goalie coach Mike Bales two seasons ago was trusting it in practice, with Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
"It's not easy when you see guys in the slot with time to pick corners, just waiting there," Fleury said last season. "I think sometimes they are going to be able to pick those corners, so you think you have to be able to get out there and be aggressive."
Hold-and-wait, corner-picking shooters in the post-practice sessions can cause bad habits. Those drills are designed to mimic game-specific situations when the player is forced to shoot immediately. As a result, many goalie coaches prefer to do their own shooting in these drills, or, at the very least, hand pick attentive forwards, often lower on the depth chart, to shoot in the drills.
Montreal Canadiens goaltending coach Stephane Waite needed surgery on his shoulders, in large part because of the number of shots he took at his goalies in practice.
"I love to shoot and do my own drills because I know exactly where to shoot and when," said Waite, who had his first shoulder operation in 2010. "That's very important because most of the time players just want to score and don't think about the purpose of the drill."
It's not just the quality of shots in practice that fail to mimic game situations. Pace can be a problem too. Line rushes come quickly to keep as many skaters moving as possible, resulting in a less than optimal amount of time for the goalie to reset and play each chance properly.
That's why Waite doesn't expect his goalie to try to stop every rush. He would prefer he skip a shot here and there to reset for the next one and execute properly, rather than trying to play catch up.
"When everything is going too fast, [I] just tell the goalies [to] make sure you don't take bad habits, and if you have to [let] one shot go in, don't worry," Waite said. "Let the goalie get set and make a recovery because, if not, too many bad habits start if they are rushing. … Make sure they are ready for the next one.
"I don't want him to stop every puck. That can make a lot of bad habits."