Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why do NHL goalies struggle to catch the puck?

We've seen Ben Bishop, the goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning, muff a save with his glove hand in Game 4, allowing a crucial goal and getting yanked as a result.  The only goal he allowed in Game 1, to Max Pacioretty, was largely the same, a simple glove save that he misplayed.

I’ll ask again, for the goaltending experts out there: Why do NHL goalies struggle to catch the puck?

Hockey goalies nowadays are bigger, better conditioned, more athletic, and they generally tend to be mobile and handle the puck better on average than goalies in the 70’s and 80’s, if anyone remembers Ken Dryden’s adventures outside his crease.

One area where they’re nowhere near as good as goalies of yesteryear is how poor they are at catching the puck. I’ve thought of two hypotheses why this might be.

1) Fewer hockey players play baseball nowadays. In the olden days, practically every hockey player played baseball or softball in the summer. Everyone was handy with a glove. And the catcher and first baseman positions were usually reserved for the goalies. For one, they usually had the appropriate, specific glove, the tool of the trade, but it was also understood that those positions allowed them to train for winter, and also that they were best suited for that spot, good at actually catching. It was a positive feedback loop in essence.

Nowadays, maybe kids don’t play baseball, but rather play soccer, or even don’t play a summer sport, just summer hockey camps and whatnot?

So while goalies are better prepared overall, the cross-training they used to get on the diamond for their glovehand has gone away. And we see it by how many times goalies will bat the puck with their arm, fend it off with their glove, but not actually catch it, trap it.

2) Goalie gloves nowadays are huge, more like a pool skimmer than an actual mitt. It probably has a tonne more padding than the olden days too. So goalies can’t quite ‘feel’ the puck in their glove, when it hits, when it rests in the pocket. The glove serves more to cover a large surface area of the open net than to be a precise, surgical instrument to snag the puck.

Any thoughts? Anyone?


Someone raises an interesting point about Ben Bishop simply not 'following' the puck very well.

A common problem for football players is catching the ball properly, not dropping the ball. It’s usually not so much a question of a lack of ability, but a lack of focus. It’s commonly seen in games when a receiver drops an easy toss when he’s wide open. The play-by-play caller will usually say the player “took his eyes off the ball”, or that he “tried to run before he caught it”, or that he “heard footsteps”, braced for a tackle.

I had a coach whose simple drill was to follow the ball with your eyes all the way into your hands, and when you caught it, you had to yell out the position of the laces as you hold the ball, relative to a clock. So if once you have the ball in your hands the laces are pointing straight up, you’d yell “Twelve o’clock”, and if they were a quarter turn clockwise, you’d yell “Three o’clock”, and so on.

I got the point of the drill immediately: it made you focus on the ball, on looking it all the way into your hands, into completing your catch. You completed the act of catching the ball, until it was in your hands, you didn’t start thinking of something else, like juking or sidestepping or bracing for impact as the ball approached.

Torry Holt, an All-Pro wide receiver for the Rams for many years, was known for his exceptionally good hands, even though they were small for a receiver. He worked on it every day on the Juggs machine, doing a specific drill, forcing himself to focus, and doing it flawlessly, with no drops, for 50 or 100 straight reps, a pre-determined figure. If he dropped one, he’d start over at zero.

He’d do things like have his back to the ball, spin around, locate the ball and catch it.  He'd toss the ball to a coach, and then turn around and face away again, and repeat the process, a hundred times.  Another day, he'd stand still but have the ball be targeted at hip level to his right, and catch such a pass 100 times.  The important skill he practiced was the actual catch itself, in various conditions, until it did become routine, failsafe.

Anyway, I’m sure goalies and goalie coaches have their own exercises and drills, but yeah, Ben Bishop may need to work on his focus, on making sure he has the puck in his mitt before he thinks of doing anything else, like whining to the ref, or dropping on his fainting couch.

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