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Has the Era of NHL Goalie Unicorns Come to an End? Evolving Trends in a Formerly Elite Position

Once upon a time, NHL goaltenders were among the singular stars of the game, and you could tell who they were with just a glance. Ken Dryden, at 6-feet-4, towered above his contemporaries, a statue when the puck was in the opposite end of the rink, cool and collected when the action was right at his crease. Tony Esposito, a lefty with a butterfly style, quick and smooth, flashed his leather glove to spear pucks as they were headed to the top corner. Dominik Hasek, Gumby on skates, a lithe human Slinky, made acrobatic lunges and contorted his body every which way to make a save. Mike Vernon and Mike Palmateer, part of a generation of Mighty Mite goalies, relied on reflexes, athleticism and an ability to read and anticipate the play, to become generational fixtures. They were distinctive in playing style. Their objective may have been the same — to stop the puck — but their methods varied wildly.

That was then, in the before times. Now? The vast majority of NHL goalies play a similar style that revolves around blocking, not actively stopping, the puck. It’s a small, but nuanced difference. The change can be traced primarily to evolutions made in goaltending equipment and the explosion of goalie coaching. The net result: There’s little unique to separate the current generation of goaltenders, who try to use their size and the bulky gear they wear to cover as much net as possible and dare shooters to hit open spots.

The lack of stylistic variety doesn’t mean goaltending has gotten worse. Quite the opposite, actually. Goalies have never been harder to beat one-on-one, and getting good goaltending is as vital as ever to winning. But the emergence of goalie coaches — especially from a young age — has streamlined the position, closing the gap between the best and the rest, making it increasingly difficult to project which goalies will play at an elite level.

Adin Hill was third on the San Jose Sharks’ goalie depth chart less than a year before he finished third in Conn Smythe Trophy voting as playoff MVP, as he backstopped Vegas to a Stanley Cup. Jordan Binnington began the 2018-19 season in the American Hockey League, then led the St. Louis Blues to a title. Stories like this are becoming more commonplace, and the days of a goalie like Hasek leading the league in save percentage for six straight seasons while racking up five Vezina trophies seem long gone.

Is it a problem? Has goaltending lost its mystique, its allure, some of what made NHL netminders such popular figures with fans? Former NHL goalie and longtime scout Tim Bernhardt thinks so and he thinks he knows why, too. “Goaltending, for me, is just so boring to watch,” Bernhardt said. “Blocking the puck is all they do. … It’s not the goalie that’s blocking the puck, it’s the equipment, and it doesn’t look like any fun to me and that’s why kids aren’t drawn to the position anymore.”

Bernhardt was picked in the third round of the 1978 NHL Draft by the Atlanta Flames. He was a standout goalie for three years with the OHL’s Cornwall Royals and went on to play 12 seasons of professional hockey, divided mostly between the Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs organizations. He then spent 28 years as a scout for the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, then with the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes. After four decades of watching goaltending evolve, he isn’t a fan of where things stand today.


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