Is bigger better?

Smaller goalie becoming an endangered species in pro hockey

21.09.2014
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Will shorter-than-average goalkeepers such as Jhonas Enroth become an endangered species in international and NHL hockey? Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

The average NHL and Olympic goaltender in 2014 is roughly four centimetres taller than his peers of 20 years ago.

There is an old adage in boxing that says a good big man will beat a good little man, although a good little man might make a lesser big man look foolish. In the last 20 years in professional and major international hockey, there has likewise been a trend toward bigger and bigger goaltenders. The difference is dramatic.

In the 1994 Olympics, the average goaltender who played in the tournament stood 181.9 centimetres (5-foot-11). Among the teams that won a medal or reached the semi-finals, there were no goaltenders who stood 183 centimetres tall.

The biggest goaltender among the medal-winning teams was Sweden’s Tommy Salo, who stood 182 centimetres (a shade below 6-feet) tall. Overall, the tallest goaltenders in the tournament were Czech Republic netminder Roman Turek, Team USA’s Garth Snow and France’s Michel Valliere. All stood 192 centimetres or 6-foot-3. The smallest goalie was Italy’s David Delfino at 172 centimetres or 5-foot-8.

The same pattern held true in the National Hockey League. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the average NHL goaltender stood right around 182 centimetres. Back then, the ranks of top NHL goaltenders included many players who would be considered undersized today: Mike Richter, Dominik Hasek, John Vanbiesbrouck, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour, Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon and even 174 centimetre (5-foot-8) Arturs Irbe were among the standout goalies of the time. Superstar netminder Patrick Roy was listed at 183 centimetres (an even six feet tall), which today would be considered on the smaller end of an "averaged-size goaltender."

By way of comparison, the average height of the 36 participating goaltenders in the 2014 Olympics was 185.9 centimetres (a little more than 6-foot-1). Within the NHL, the average height of goaltenders league-wide during the 2013-14 season was 186.2 centimetres.

Nowadays, standout NHL and international netminders such 185-centimetre (6-foot-1) Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) are not particularly noted for their size. In the meantime, the sport is filled with more and more starting goaltenders who stand anywhere from 190 centimetres (a bit over 6-foot-3) such as Kari Lehtonen to as much as 201 centimetres (6-foot-7) like Ben Bishop.

“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 Dallas Stars general manger Jim Nill.

There are, of course, some exceptions to the rule. Recent goaltenders such as Tim Thomas, Jonathan Bernier, Jhonas Enroth and Jaroslav Halak have enjoyed varying degrees of NHL and international success despite being undersized by today’s standards. Meanwhile, within European hockey, the average size of goaltenders is also creeping up steadily but there is a somewhat higher percentage of goaltenders who stand less than 183 centimetres than in the North American professional leagues.

"Around hockey, 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/defencemen who have great sense,” said Nill.

Come next season, the Stars will feature one of the NHL's biggest goaltending tandems in longtime starter Lehtonen and recently signed backup Anders Lindback (198 centimetres or 6-foot-6). Waiting in the wings in the farm system is Texas Stars goaltender Jack Campbell (188 centimetres).

Robert Esche, a former NHL and KHL goaltender, is now the club president for the AHL's Utica Comets. He believes that the increased volume of big goaltenders is simply a matter of how the game itself has evolved and not something that happened by design.

Said Esche: “Years ago they threw you in the net for a couple different reasons; one because you couldn't skate and two because you didn't have the same build as others. The second changed over time as the goalie position morphed into a more hybrid style requiring goalies to look big even when they were down. Over the last four decades, goaltending has gone through more change then probably and position in sports and will most likely continue to do so.”

He continued: “As soon as the goalie position starts to perfect itself they will change the rules much like what they did back in '05. Which I believe they should have. I wouldn't be too worried about it, however. If you stop the puck there will always be a spot for you in the NHL. The bigger goalies today, simply put, are better than the smaller ones with the way the game is played. I'm not sure when that trend will change. One more thing to remember, generally speaking, we all are bigger in hockey than four decades ago.”

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 to play at the top levels?

Austrian goaltender Bernd Bruckler believes it is possible that undersized goaltenders will get “shut out” in the near future. Bruckler, who played collegiate and minor league hockey in North America before embarking on a successful career in Finland, Russia and Austria as well as the Austrian national team, says that size has become almost a prerequisite when teams – especially NHL clubs – search for goaltenders.

“Today, the big, tall, athletic goalies are the hot commodity. Size has become so important that I do think some great smaller goalies may be overlooked. This recent phenomenon will just continue because NHL scouts are looking for size,” said the 186 centimetre tall Bruckler.

Former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Vanbiesbrouck wonders how much bigger goaltending prospects will continue to get in the near future. He also cites changes in goaltending style and the laws of supply and demand.

“The 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 a very small window of opportunity when you hold there to over seven billion people in the world,” said Vanbiesbrouck.

Brian Boucher, who played in the NHL for five clubs, sees the evolution 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. 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. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still some excellent goalies who are average size or smaller-than-average. But those guys really have to stand out.”

Two NHL scouting directors confirmed to IIHF.com that bigger goaltenders are generally given priority over smaller counterparts with comparable talent. One said that there is so much traffic around the net in today’s game that it is harder for small goaltenders to fight for space. Both noted that under today’s defensive systems prevalent around the hockey world, it is advantageous for a goaltender to be able to cover as much net as possible.

Correspondingly, professional hockey scouts do not automatically rule out smaller goaltenders from consideration. However, the combination of traits they look for tend to favour bigger goaltenders who also possess solid athleticism.

Neil Little, a former goaltender in the AHL and NHL who is now a scout for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, says when all other things are roughly equal, the big goaltender will get the priority.

“I am traveling the hockey globe all year looking for draft-eligible goalies and size really does affect my decision making and overall feeling about a prospect’s future chances in pro hockey. I rarely stamp my approval on anyone 6-foot and under simply because you can find a bigger kid with the same skill set who is 6'2 and above,” said Little.

“With that said, there's no question that some of the best goalies to play – and some who are still playing – are smaller goalies. There are exceptions to the current trend of bigger is better, but for the most part, I would say that the trend is headed away from the small goalie. If you are under or around six feet, you must be able to move like Jonathan Quick, and consistently be the best player on the ice.”

There also may be a “cutoff point” for how big 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. In other words, the pendulum may swing back somewhat from finding and developing goaltenders with monstrous-sized goaltenders to ones who are closer to today’s averages.

Maxime Ouellet, a former NHL first-round draft pick who is currently a goaltending instructor for Eisbaren 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.

BILL MELTZER

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