Seems Like Old Times

A new generation of star goaltenders like Felix Potvin (left) has emerged, recalling the days when netminders like Tony Esposito (above) ruled the game
February 20, 1995

A strain of goaltender feared extinct these past 20 years—stingy and dominant, so stinting that each goal is paid for in blood and exhaustion—has suddenly, emphatically resurfaced in the NHL. After record-shattering abuse at the hands of an era of scorers like Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull and Yzerman, and after seasons of bloated goals-against averages when shutouts were eclipse-rare and the goaler's lunch was nightly fare, the masked thieves of the crease have returned.

The statistical evidence is plentiful. Last season there were 99 regular-season shutouts, 30 more than in 1992-93 and nearly five times as many as in '82-83, when there were just 21. Goalie save percentages, too, are on the rise—the league average was .883 last season, up from .871 a decade ago. Twelve goalies had a save-to-shot ratio above .900 last season, and the average goals per game plummeted from 7.2 to 6.5, the lowest in the NHL in 20 years. Those trends have continued in '95. In the season's first three weeks, the goals-per-game average fell to 5.9 while the save percentage was .898.

Some of those numbers, to be sure, can be attributed to expansion. The league has added five teams in the past three years, so there is a general dearth of scorers. This has happened before. When the league doubled in size in 1967, from six teams to 12, the goals per game fell from 6.0 to 5.6. To compete, the expansion teams buckle down defensively, and the coaching in the league has become so sophisticated that if a team is determined to cut its goals allowed, it can do so with minimal talent. "Our scoring chances have dropped dramatically in the last couple of years," says Doug Risebrough, general manager of the Calgary Flames. "It's not that we're seeing fewer shots. We're seeing fewer high-percentage shots."

Still, the individual brilliance of some of today's young goalies, guys who might still be in Europe or on the bench or in the minors if it hadn't been for expansion, is too lustrous to be ignored. Everywhere one turned last season, most particularly during the playoffs, goaltenders were stealing the show.

Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres, a 29-year-old Czech with only 53 NHL regular-season games' experience before '93-94, had a goals-against average of 1.95 for the season, becoming the first netminder since Bernie Parent (1.89) in '73-74 to allow fewer than two goals per game. Hasek continued his sparkling play in the postseason, notably in Game 6 of Buffalo's first-round series against the New Jersey Devils, when, with his team facing elimination, Hasek made 70 saves in a 1-0 quadruple-overtime win.

The losing goalie in that 1-0 classic? Martin Brodeur, the Devils' sensational rookie, who at 22 seemed the very embodiment of the curse of the New York Rangers by extending the eventual Stanley Cup champions into double overtime of Game 7 in last spring's conference finals before New York's Stèphane Matteau slipped the series-winner past him in a 2-1 thriller. "To be honest, the transition between junior hockey and the American Hockey League was tougher than between the AHL and NHL," says Brodeur. "Our defense in New Jersey was so good I was only facing 22, 23, 24 shots."

Except on those occasions when—to use Game 7 against the Rangers as an example—Brodeur kicked out 46 shots to keep his outmanned teammates in the contest. "When I was with Montreal, I saw that a kid could come up and play well his first year in goal," says Devil coach Jacques Lemaire, who had no qualms about starting a rookie in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the playoffs. "Rogie Vachon. Ken Dryden. Patrick Roy. We had a number of them. They come up with a lot of confidence, a lot of excitement. You try to put the kid in when the team is playing at its best so you don't destroy that confidence. They aren't afraid, these young guys."

Twenty-eight-year-old Arturs Irbe, a third-year pro from Latvia with 49 games of NHL experience before last season, was another newcomer who was magnificent in net in '93-94. He led the San Jose Sharks to the biggest one-year improvement in league history in the regular season, then engineered the most startling upset of the playoffs by slamming the door on the high-scoring Detroit Red Wings in the first round. The Sharks were knocked off in the next round by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who for the second straight year rode into the conference finals on the goaltending of Felix Potvin. The 23-year-old Potvin was a rookie sensation in '92-93 and now seems destined for a decade or more of greatness.

"It's time we admitted that young goalies can play this game earlier than we ever thought they could," says Boston Bruin general manager Harry Sinden, who has a 24-year-old rookie, Blaine Lacher, as his starting goalie. In Lacher's first seven games, he had a 6-1 record and had allowed only 2.26 goals per game. "Based on the success of kids like Brodeur and Hasek, we thought it was worth a try," says Sinden. "Having these kids step right in and do the job wasn't something people thought could happen 20 years ago."

That's funny, considering it was 23 years ago that 23-year-old rookie Ken Dryden played six of the Canadiens' last 11 regular-season games, then was named MVP of the playoffs, leading the underdog Habs to the 1971 Stanley Cup.

"What's changed is that coaches and managers don't automatically assume that someone can't do it because he's 21," Dryden says. "Earlier the thinking went: The goal's too important a position to entrust to a rookie. Forwards were broken in the quickest because a mistake by a forward probably wouldn't lead to a goal. Defensemen were broken in a little slower and goalies the slowest of all. They were seen as too emotionally vulnerable. There was a fear that if they made a mistake it might ruin them, break them. What people forgot was that goalies have been trained for that their whole lives. They've let in big goals before, and they've learned to forget them."

Add to the aforementioned bevy of fresh goaltending talent Roy, Mike Richter of the Rangers, Kirk McLean of the Vancouver Canucks, Curtis Joseph of the St. Louis Blues, Ed Belfour of the Chicago Blackhawks—all of whom are still in their 20's—and it becomes evident that the NHL now boasts the best crop of goalers since Dryden, Parent, Tony Esposito and Gerry Cheevers were in their prime in the 1970s.

"There used to be a few teams who had great goalies," says John Davidson, the former Ranger and Blue goaler who is now a Ranger TV commentator. "Now there are a few who don't. Teams are paying more attention to the position than they did in the past. They've all added goalie coaches. The overall conditioning of goalies is better than it's ever been. Right now, they tend to be the best athletes on the team."

That's certainly a change from the days of potbellied puck-stoppers like Gump Worsley. Esposito, Cheevers and New York Islander Billy Smith were among the best of their day, but they were not exactly paragons of fitness. A summer of Ping-Pong to sharpen the reflexes used to pass as off-season conditioning. "Cheevers was a great athlete," says Sin-den. "But he probably drank too much beer. I don't believe there was ever a goalie who wouldn't have been better if he'd been in better shape."

"Goalies have come a long way, both technically and in off-ice conditioning," says Wayne Thomas, the former netminder who is now an assistant coach for the Sharks. "Irbe, Richter, Belfour—they're all in tremendous condition. They work a lot more on their legs, on the slide board and in the weight room, improving their ability to move laterally and up and down. The basis of it is the teaching. Before these guys get to the NHL, they're being reached in youth and summer programs by people who know what they're doing."

A generation ago the only instruction a goalie was likely to get was from a coach who'd never played the position and knew little more than to mutter, "Stay on your feet," as if it were some sort of mantra. A bad goal, to the coach, was a goal that went in at the wrong time. "The knowledge of how to play goal is really quite limited," says Sinden. "Goaltending is to hockey like putting is to golf. It really has no relationship to the rest of the game."

The stand-up style, in which the goalie relics on playing the angles and rarely drops to the ice, was acclaimed primarily because it was adhered to by most of the great goalies of the '50s and '60s, including Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante and Johnny Bower. It made a great deal of sense at the time. The equipment was heavier and more cumbersome than it is today, which made getting back in position more difficult and time-consuming once a goalie had left his feet. Goalies back then also played most of their careers without masks. Standing up reduced the chances of injury, from both pucks and sticks.

Glenn Hall, a contemporary of the trio mentioned above, introduced the butterfly technique, fanning his legs out in a V to cover the lower corners. But Hall didn't remain on the ice. He was up as quickly as he went down, and both he and his butterfly were viewed as anomalies, not to be copied by youngsters. When Esposito came on the scene in the late '60s using a butterfly style even more pronounced than Hall's—he would often drop into his V before the shot had been fired and remain there after it had been stopped—he was criticized by traditionalists. Montreal gave up on him in 1969 and exposed Esposito to the expansion draft, where the Blackhawks selected him. Then Espo left the mouths of his detractors gaping by turning in 15 shutouts for Chicago in 1969-70, a figure unmatched by any other goalie in the last 65 years.

A new generation of butterflyers was launched by the Canadiens' Roy, who goes down on the majority of the shots he faces and has led Montreal to two Stanley Cups. Brodeur was 14 when Roy, as a rookie, was voted MVP of the 1986 playoffs, and he has modeled himself after Roy. So have hundreds of other French Canadian goalies.

"Patrick Roy is a superstar in Quebec," says François Allaire, the Canadiens' goalie coach, who runs several goalie camps in Quebec during the summer and has had 18 pupils drafted by NHL teams in the last six years. "So now all the good athletes in Quebec want to be goal-tenders. Ten years ago in the hockey school, if you couldn't skate, you were the goalie. Now the best athletes on the team, guys 6'1" or 6'2", they want to play goal. That's a big difference. And it's just starting. There's going to be a big generation of goalies coming from Quebec in the next 10 years."

Many of them will play Roy's butterfly style, which Allaire strongly endorses, especially if the goalie has size. The place to shoot against a butterflyer is the top of the net, which, in the current close-checking climate that is played in the NHL, is the most difficult portion to hit without having time to set up. "Players these days don't have two or three seconds to shoot," Allaire says. "And to score up top, first you have to see a good spot, then you have to reach it. The shooters are under too much pressure most of the time to do that. That's why as a goalie the bottom of the net is very, very important."

One of the new techniques young goalies are using to defend the bottom of the net in traffic is to drop down and lay the paddle of the stick, which is longer than the blade, across the ice. "Curtis Joseph and Potvin came in with that," says Brodeur, a frequent practitioner of that style. "Nothing goes through your stick, and when the forward doesn't have time to pick a corner or go high, he just wants to take a shot and get out of there. There are also more one-timers and passes across the net than there used to be, so goalies are on the ice more. It's just easier to control the rebound when you're down."

The technique isn't pretty, but the results are apparent. And the success of Potvin and Brodeur will lead other young goalies to play similarly. "It's a wave," says Lemaire. "You get a good goalie who plays the butterfly, then other young goalies coming up play the butterfly."

This doesn't mean that other styles aren't equally effective. "There never has been a single acceptable style," says Sin-den. "Dryden played nothing like Plante. Plante played nothing like Esposito. And none of them played anything like Cheevers. With the Europeans, there are some incredibly unorthodox styles in the league now. Nobody can play like Irbe—although Hasek's pretty close."

"Coaches today are allowing goalies to come in and play their own way," says Davidson. "They only ask one question: Can you stop the puck? I remember when Eddie Belfour came into the league, I thought, My god, what is this? He's down all night. Richter is a stand-up goalie. So is McLean. And Hasek—nobody else lies facedown seven or eight times a game. Nobody else drops his stick a half-dozen times so he can close his hand on the puck.

"Also, the fear factor with injuries has all but disappeared. When we played in the '70s, we'd get pretty bruised up. I remember once the team doctor counted 16 bruises on my arms and legs after a home-and-home series against Philadelphia. The equipment just wasn't as good."

Allaire agrees. "Before, goalies weren't well protected on the face and around the shoulders and arms. They used to stop every shot with their gloves or their pads. Now guys get a shot in the shoulder, and they don't feel it. The pads are lighter. The equipment now is really good."

If the equipment is better, there is no doubt the shots are coming harder. Why, then, fewer goals? As Dryden points out, there's a world of difference between a player who shoots hard—they nearly all do now—and a player who knows how to score. "There are two types of forwards in the NHL," he says. "Scorers and bangers. Scorers score, and bangers bang. Any goalie knows that no matter how many shots a banger takes, how many chances he gets, how many times it looks like he's been robbed, he's still a banger."

Good goalies eat bangers for breakfast, and the balance of power in the league is now such that there are more good goalies than there are good goal scorers. "The pendulum will swing back, but we're here for a while," says the Flames' Risebrough, who is starting an inexperienced goalie, 22-year-old Trevor Kidd, this season. The Washington Capitals, too, are breaking in somebody new, rookie Olaf Kolzig. And the Los Angeles Kings, burned in the past by the inconsistent play of veteran Kelly Hrudey, are giving 19-year-old rookie Jamie Storr a chance to be No. 1.

No doubt other teams will spring a young goalie on the league during the year—some butterflying, paddle-dipping, belly-flopping, octopus-armed, puck-picking bandit who just might take his club deep into June. Great goaltending can cure a lot of ills, and it comes in a variety of packages. As Allaire likes to say, "If you can stop the puck, all the other problems disappear."

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PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO PHOTOTONY TOMSIC PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThe success of Roy has encouraged a new generation of young butterflyers. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSLike many goalies now, Brodeur uses the paddle of his stick to defend the bottom of the net. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHODespite his unorthodox style, Hasek had the best goals-against average in 20 years. PHOTODAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINTIrbe was magnificent in the playoffs last spring as the Sharks shocked the potent Red Wings.

On the Decline

Goal scoring fell last season to its lowest point in 20 years. Here are the goals-per-game averages during that span.

Season

Goals per Game

1974-75

6.9

1975-76

6.8

1976-77

6.6

1977-78

6.6

1978-79

7.0

1979-80

7.0

1980-81

7.7

1981-82

8.3

1982-83

7.7

1983-84

7.9

1984-85

7.8

1985-86

7.9

1986-87

7.3

1987-88

7.4

1988-89

7.5

1989-90

7.3

1990-91

6.9

1991-92

6.9

1992-93

7.2

1993-94

6.5

On the Rise

Goaltenders' save percentage has risen significantly since the NHL began keeping the statistic in 1982-83. Here are the season-by-season averages.

Season

Save Percentage

1982-83

.869

1983-84

.871

1984-85

.873

1985-86

.872

1986-87

.878

1987-88

.878

1988-89

.879

1989-90

.878

1990-91

.884

1991-92

.886

1992-93

.883

1993-94

.883

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)