Bill Meltzer: Star Gazing: Going Big in Goal, Blending Tradition and New Ideas

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GOING BIG IN GOAL

It is no secret that goaltenders around the NHL and the entire professional hockey world have gotten physically bigger and bigger over the last two decades. It is staggering to think back to the size of the goaltenders in the league even the mid-1990s and compare it to today.

Back then, the ranks of top NHL goaltenders included many players who would be considered undersized goaltender today: Mike Richter, Dominik Hasek, John Vanbiesbrouck, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon and even 5-foot-8 Arturs Irbe were among the standout goalies of the time.

Patrick Roy was listed at an even six feet tall, which today would be considered on the smaller end of an “averaged-size goaltender.”

Nowadays, standout netminders such Henrik Lundqvist (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) or Jonathan Quick (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) are not particularly noted for their size. The league is filled with more and more goaltenders who stand 6-foot-4 to as much as 6-foot-7. There are fewer and fewer ones the size of longtime former Stars starter Marty Turco (5-foot-11, 190 pounds).

In an upcoming article for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s official web site, I will be looking at how the trend has moved toward bigger and bigger goalies. I talked to a host of current and former NHL and European league goaltenders, goaltending coaches, scouts and NHL general managers to get there take on on how and why this happened.

There are many reasons why this trend has developed. In the long-term, will things ever reach a point where a sub six-foot goalie, regardless of his physical gifts, is in danger of being written off as “too small” before he ever gets a chance at the NHL?

Among the industry pros I asked to question to was Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill.

“Yes, the goaltender trend is heading towards bigger goalies, but I believe it is more a reflection that the bigger goalies have become as athletic or better, as the normal size goalie. In the past, bigger athletes were often not as ‘athletic’ as normal sized athletes. This seems to be a trend in all sports. But nowadays, athletes overall are bigger, faster, and more skilled,” said Nill.

“There will always be the ‘normal-size’ goalie who are stars such as Lundqvist, Quick, etc.., but they are also superior athletes and also have what I term great ‘goalie sense,’ the same as forwards/defensemen whom have great sense.”

Come next season, the Stars will feature one of the NHL’s biggest goaltending tandems in longtime starter Kari Lehtonen (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and recently signed backup Anders Lindbäck (6-foot-6, 203 pounds). Waiting in the wings is Texas Stars goalie Jack Campbell (6-foot-3, 185 pounds). This was not done by design, but is simply reflective of what has gone on around the hockey world in recent years.

Said former Vezina Trophy winner Vanbiesbrouck, “Your question is intriguing and most likely true. I believe we have entered into the era of the blocking goalie, not the saving goalie. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I think it makes your point about size. Possibly we have started to enter into a time equal to that of centers in basketball, where one has to be close to 7 feet to compete? I will point this out too. Size has always been the most valuable asset to a prospect, no matter what position they play. There are only 60 goalies in the NHL, which is very small window of opportunity when you hold there to over seven billion people in the world.”

Former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher sees it somewhat differently that his former teammate Vanbiesbrouck.

“You can’t tell me that someone like [six-foot-five Pekka] Rinne is just a blocker,” said Boucher. “He is an incredible athlete. So are a lot of the other big goalies out there these days, like [6-foot-7 Ben] Bishop. If there’s a really good big guy and a good small guy, I am going to take the big guy. Goaltending has evolved to such a high point in the last few decades, that I don’t know how much more it can be perfected.”

Of course, there are recent exceptions to the size trend around the game. Former Stars goaltender and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas has a very thick body on a 5-foot-11 frame. Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier is a former first-round Draft pick and one of the rising stars at his position despite being listed between 5-foot-11 to 6-feet tall. Former Stars backup Richard Bachman is an undersized goalie by today’s standards but made it to the NHL through his competitiveness and fast reflexes.

There also figured to be a cutoff point for how big of athletes can be recruited to play goaltender. In some ways, the bigger the goalie, the more moving parts (and potential holes) there are. Right now, there are no 6-foot-9 or bigger goaltenders on the horizon. While it is possible there may someday be an exceptional goaltender with that sort of size, such a player would probably be an anomaly. Additionally, there may be a “market correction” of sorts in upcoming years.

Maxime Ouellet, a former NHL first-round draft pick who is currently a goaltending instructor for Eisbären Berlin in Germany’s DEL and the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, says that there is a danger in going overboard in prioritizing size in goalie but the other physical and mental qualities teams seek will not change.

“I believe the trend will slow down a bit if the bigger goalies don’t meet the expectations. A great small goalie will have more obstacles on his road and his character will be tested much more to see if he can get at the top than before. But it is up to them to meet the challenges,” said Ouellet.

The full article will run on IIHF.com later this month. I will post a link to the piece when it is published.

*********** BLENDING TRADITION AND NEW IDEAS

If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend reading Michael Pachla’s Sabres blog today on whether hockey’s “analytics revolution” is hitting an apex this summer.

Likewise, the article on Jim Nill’s views and use of analytics that HockeyBuzz’s Travis Yost recently wrote for The Sporting News is another must-read.

The two pieces are somewhat of a counterbalance to one another’s. Pachla’s article concludes that analytics will eventually become a niche area of most clubs’ hockey operations departments. Yost strongly believes that the surface has only been scratched for the applications of analytics — with increasingly sophisticated tracking methods available — and the straggler teams will be left in the dust.

My own view is that the teams that excel in the future will be the ones that find successful ways to get the traditionalists and analytics enthusiasts to be on the same page. Right now, there are a lot of folks talking AT each other and a minority who seem to have a firm grasp on how to balance various methods of assisting both the front office and the coaching staff.

Recent Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM hire Kyle Dubas seems to have a first grasp on how to bridge the gap. So does Nill. Likewise, new Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall appears to have a clear-cut plan for how the organization will use analytics (mostly for the benefit of having data to back up the goals the coaches set and not as the basis for roster decisions).

As a matter of fact, one of the most striking things about Nill is how comfortably he blends traditionalism with the more recent trends. He cut his teeth in the old-school hockey world and learned through first-hand experience in just about every aspect of the business in the Detroit Red Wings organization before he became the Stars’ general manager.

During his playing days, Nill was a rugged checking forward who rose to the NHL after playing in the rough-and-tumble Western League of the 1970s. Nill’s coach with Medicine Hat Tigers was Vic Stasiuk.

For younger readers who are unfamiliar with Stasiuk, the former NHL player and coach was tough as rawhide and about as old-school as it got (even for that era). A few months ago, in conjunction with a book on Fred Shero that I am writing, I asked Nill to recount his experiences playing for Stasiuk.

“Vic was very tough on the players, but taught us many of the finer points of the game, such as play along the boards,” said Nill. “He always liked to scrimmage with us and being such a strong man and us being juniors, he pretty well manhandled us with and without the puck.”

Stasiuk was a coach who strongly believed that players needed to be “toughened up” to succeed in the game and, above all else, he valued competitiveness. Nill was one of Stasiuk’s favorites. Likewise, Nill earned a lot of respect from peers during his NHL playing days in the 1980s.

In other words, Nill is someone who carries a lot of old-school credibility within the business even before he began his lengthy scouting and front-office career. But Nill has never been satisfied just to stick to tradition for its own sake. He has long sought out a variety of ideas and then adapted them in ways he finds useful.

It is those combination of traits and his strong credibility among traditionalists and analytics enthusiasts alike that seem to have put Nill’s Dallas Stars in a strong position both for the near future and the long-term. In his soft-spoken way, Nill is redefining the term “hockey man” and he has surrounded himself with other people on his hockey staff who understand the desirability of blending both traditional and newer ways of assessing the game.

Ultimately, of course, the real test will be what the Stars do on the ice in the seasons to come. What’s fair to say for now is that the early outlook of Nill’s first year on the job in Dallas are very encouraging.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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