Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens is the favorite to win his first Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender. He also is a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy as the League's Most Valuable Player.
Price is atop every key goaltending category, leading the League with 42 wins, a 1.93 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. His nine shutouts are tied for the League lead.
So rather than joining discussions about his candidacy for various end-of-season hardware, or where this season fits among all-time goaltending performances, Unmasked takes a closer look at the evolving skills that have set Price apart from his peers, particularly during the past two seasons.
The continued maturation and increased experience of a goaltender who has always been long on talent, work ethic and a passion for his position is certainly part of the equation. The confidence boost from leading Canada to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics helped, even for a goalie who never seems to lack confidence. But there have been other changes in Price's game that helped propel him to the heights of this season.
Off the ice, the most obvious difference is the addition of goalie coach Stephane Waite to the staff before the start of the 2013-14 season. Waite came home to Montreal with the credibility derived from winning the Stanley Cup twice with largely unheralded goalies playing different styles for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Just as he had in Chicago, Waite added another important layer to the bubble which protects Price from the outside noise in hockey-mad Montreal, ensuring all conversation, even from others coaches, is filtered through him.
Waite's positive impact has extended to the ice.
Price has always preferred to play with a little outside-in movement, or backward flow, in his game. He likes to start above his crease and time his retreat with the attack, even if some goalie coaches in the past would have preferred a more contained approach and less movement. By the end of the 2012-13 season, Price had become unnecessarily aggressive with his positioning too often, leaving himself too much space to cover between passes or to recover from on rebounds. It was a developing tendency that could not be addressed by his silky movement.
The backward flow remains in Price's game, but it has been reined in during the two seasons with Waite.
"Just trying to stay at the top of the paint; heels in, toes out usually," Price said last season of his new positional staple.
A more contained system shortens the distances Price has to move between save positions, but a change in his stance improved that movement. It hasn't gotten as much attention, but the move to cut Price's stance at the waist and have him more hunched may be one of the most important changes.
Look at the photos below of Price setting up for a save in 2013 (right side of image) and you can see where his jersey meets the waist of his goalie pants. Find a similar photo now and you probably won't be able to see the entire "CH" logo on his chest because it's tucked over his pads in the new stance (left side of image). So what was this change intended to do?
"With his new stance, [Price] is quicker side-to-side to beat the pass, and he's better [positioned] to track the puck through the screen," Waite said.
Finding pucks by looking around screens instead of over them is easy to recognize and leaves Price less likely to get caught too high on low shots that were getting under and through him before.
As for how being more compact can actually make Price faster with his lateral movement, it appears to have a lot to do with how Price moves his head. Rather than tracking passes left and right by turning his head, which opens up that side of his body and causes a delay in movement, the new stance keeps Price more on top of the puck.
If that sounds a lot like the Head Trajectory philosophy Devan Dubnyk introduced to NHL.com, the Minnesota Wild goalie agrees.
"Carey is so good at it," Dubnyk said.
That is not to say, however, Price and Waite are using the philosophy specifically. The more active, engaged stance leaves Price less likely to pull off high shots, but there are times he comes off the puck with his head. But the effects of Price's new stance have produced a similar enough result for another NHL goaltender to see it.
Price's evolution is not limited to style of play either. He has become an equipment innovator, making alterations designed to improve his play. It started with the elastic strap that wraps around his knee.
Price was the first to attach the strap to the outside of the calf area rather than wrapping it straight around his knee. That change opened up the knee area, allowing the pad to hang slightly to the inside, which takes away some 5-hole visually in the ready stance and lets the pad rotate more smoothly in the transition to the butterfly.
Stephane Waite helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup twice with two goalies playing different styles. (Photo: Getty Images)
Last season, Price completely removed his bootstrap, which typically runs from the bottom of the pad and under the goalie's skate. By getting rid of his strap, Price eliminated any downward pull on his pad when he drops into the butterfly. More importantly, it freed up his ankle mobility, making it easier to push side-to-side on the ice.
Price also leaves extra slack in the tie between the bottom of his pads and the toe of his skates. This extra gap not only eases extra pressure on the ankle, knees and hips by letting the skate reach the ice easily in the butterfly, but Price uses it to improve his post play. The gap lets him get a good seal between the pad and post while still having his skate free inside the post.
Price's custom knee strap setup has been widely copied and is now a standard option on several retail pads, and the removable bootstrap will be a stock option on the CCM pad that launches Friday.
That means players everywhere will be able to wear their goalie equipment just like Price. As for trying to play like him, they'll need to watch closely because it's an evolving game that has allowed Price to dominate this season.