(Photo credit: Amy Irvin, 38 Photography)
Kick saves, challenging, blocker angling, butterfly, vertical horizontal (VH), paddle down, hybrid, flopping, center line, and reverse-VH (RVH).
No, this is not a list of super-secret sexual positions. This is a list of the goaltending innovations that have been made over the last 40 years. Now, despite the fact that “normal” people don’t become goalies, puck stoppers are probably the most clever and intuitive athletes in any sport. Think about, goalies find a new way to stop pucks every 5-10 years and are able to integrate new adaptations successfully into their games no matter how long they have been playing the position.
For example, Roberto Luongo grew up in Quebec in the early 90’s when Patrick Roy and the butterfly goalie movement was the new gospel. When Luongo started his carrier, he was a butterfly robot dropping down on most-to-all of the shots he faced playing “the percentages.” Fast forward to 2009-2010ish to when Jonathan Quick changes the game and the position with RVH and now every goalie has to integrate RVH – including Luongo!
This speaks great volumes to not just Luongo’s, but all goalies’ ability to adapt and fundamentally change their game whenever a newer, better way reveals itself to the art form. So, what is the next stage in goaltending evolution?
Head tracking (aka. head trajectory).
Bill Meltzer pointed last week that both the Flyers goalie coach, Kim Dillabaugh and Phantoms goalie coach, Brady Robinson are teaching head tracking to all of the Orange and Black goaltenders:
“A lot of what Kim keeps hounding on is tracking the puck. When you are tracking the puck, you’re cleaner. Your rebounds are better. So that’s what we work in, the majority is just clean tracking,” Mason said.
What then is head tracking, and how does it make you a better goalie?
At its very base, head tracking is the what everyone learns in T-ball, in that you follow the ball all the way into your glove to ensure you make a catch. The same is true of goaltending with the exception that you follow the puck into wherever the point of contact is being made to your gear in your save selection; which is a concept that you probably already understand without having made a save in your entire life.
What you probably don’t understand about head tracking is how crucial head movement is to your balance and momentum in body movement. To demonstrate this, let’s try an exercise:
- Stand up right now and keep both your feet flat on the floor.
- Look straight ahead and then try to look as far over your left shoulder as you can.
- Repeat moving your head back and forth from looking straight ahead to looking over your left shoulder 3 or 4 times.
You probably didn’t notice that as you turned your head to look over your left shoulder, your torso very subtly rotates left which will bring your right shoulder forward. As you try this again to see if I’m full of it, you probably also didn’t notice that your right knee will bend a very tiny bit inward as well.
BFD, right? How does this affect one’s goaltending ability? The idea is that your head is like the bubble in a level, and that whenever that bubble moves, that will effect the movement of the rest of the instrument. This is particularly important to understand as the aforementioned RVH is currently the style d’jour and it calls for constant body rotational adjustments and half pad slide course corrections.
Meltzer’s article continues with Anthony Stolarz talking about how ‘head tracking has improved his ability to track puck movement from behind the net.’ This makes sense considering that a lot of offensive strategies are designed to generate chances from behind the net. When you’re in goal, tracking the puck behind the net means that you have to take your eye off the puck and quickly re-find it as you move laterally back and forth.
In the clip below, we see Michael Neuvirth track Mattias Janmark come down his right side below the goal line. The frame will freeze as Neuvirth tracks the puck as far as he can on his right side, and must disengage his sight of the puck and pick it up over his left shoulder as he executes his half pad slide going from right to left where the frame will freeze again the moment he is able to gain full vision of the puck again:
Neuvirth’s head tracking is so good during this sequence that he makes the initial save on the wrap around attempt from Janmark and then is able to push off his left post, maintaining his vision of the puck with his body following to make a second save on Patrick Eaves.
What is particularly impressive about this clip is that moving left to right in tight is a really dangerous situation because it’s common to see goalies push too aggressively taking them self completely out of the net. Neuvirth’s head tracking (and edge work) is able to prevent him from taking himself out of the play. After his save on Eaves, you will see Neuvirth’s head tracking ability almost pick his body up, and lead him to the point after Sean Couturier fails to clear the puck. Finally, the most impressive part of this sequence is how Neuvirth refuses to stop trying to find the puck after the shot is deflected out of play.
In terms of making your game “cleaner” as Mason talks about, in the clip below you’ll see him track the puck over 180 degrees from one side of the goal line to the other. The important things to notice is: 1) even though John Tavares is able to stall and look for a pass, Mason never takes his eye off the puck; 2) Mason’s head positioning is right on top of the puck as his entire body -not just his right leg- cleanly is able to put the rebound in the corner away from danger; and 3) Mason’s head movement in the final second of the clip as he scans the field for potential risks before Robert Nielson is able to redistribute the puck to prepare for the next save:
These first 2 examples show proper head tracking and how it can make goaltenders more efficient. However, just like any complex skill, you cannot forget the basics. In the clip below you will see that Mason (probably) has full sight of the puck through the entire shot sequence. When the frame freezes, you’ll see that line of vision maintained but what you don’t see is Mason’s head moving towards the puck. He relies solely on his glove instead to make the save:
As you watch the video a couple more times, you can make the argument that Mason’s view of the shot release point was sub-optimal via a partial screen from Nick Schultz. Fair enough, however, whether there was a partial screen or not, there is enough time for Mason to recognize that the trajectory of the puck is going towards his right at about 2 feet off the ice. If he would have employed proper head tracking, he would have kept his head down on the puck as he moves more of his torso towards the puck to make a save. In doing so (much like the previous example), Mason would not only have made the save, his body’s momentum would have guided the rebound safely to the corner (assuming that he isn’t able to catch it for no rebound).
InGoalMag (the online Harvard of goaltending which you should be reading) brought head tracking into our daily vernacular as they try to explain James Reimer’s recent success. What you’ll see at the bottom of the attachment is two gifs of Devan Dubnyk who has integrated head tracking. At the end of the day the difference between the before and after is that Dubnyk switches from relying solely on reactionary saves and throwing body parts at pucks to controlling his body and therefore, his rebounds with head tracking techniques.
I always tell my goalies that “your stick and your eyes have to get to the puck before you do” under the guise that it’s not just about making saves. Roman Chechmanek made saves but he did so with virtually no control, and with zero regard to rebound placement for any continued subsequent attack time after the initial shot.
With that being said, it is not impossible to be a NHL goalie and not utilize head tracking. However, if you prefer your goalies to have more consistent performances and more control over rebounds, you better hope that your masked man has a good head on his shoulders.