Analytics, talent, chaos and equipment: Why playing goal in the NHL has never been harder

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Analytics, talent, chaos and equipment: Why playing goal in the NHL has never been harder

Connor Hellebuyck isn’t exactly the poster child for a struggling goaltender.

Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top netminder in 2020 and has been a finalist on two other occasions. No goaltender has played more games or stopped more pucks than he has since becoming the Winnipeg Jets’ full-time starter in 2016, with only Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning winning more games.

This season, Hellebuyck put together a historic run of play, giving up two or fewer goals in regulation in every game he played for over two months, and he leads all goalies with at least 20 starts in save percentage, goals-against average and goals saved above expectation.

But even Hellebuyck says his job is getting harder. He’s studied the cat-and-mouse battle between the NHL’s best shooters and its goaltenders, and he says the shooters are winning.

The stats back him up: Shooting percentage has gone up every single year from 2013-14 to now. The average team has scored over three goals per game for three years running — the first time that’s happened since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky ran the league in the ’90s, before the rise of clutch-and-grab hockey or the New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup win playing “the trap” in 1995.

Players like Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl and David Pastrnak score 50 goals or more goals routinely now. Matthews, Pastrnak and Connor McDavid have crossed the 60-goal threshold more times in the last two seasons than anyone since Lemieux, Pavel Bure and Brett Hull did it routinely in the early ’90s.

Asked why save percentages are declining seemingly every season, Hellebuyck recently offered The Athletic his list of reasons why. It’s not a short one.

1. Skaters are getting better.

2. Rosters are changing.

3. Stick technology is improving.

4. The game moves faster than ever and reaction time is getting pushed to its limit.

5. Goalies’ pads face more restrictions than ever, while chest protectors are form-fitting, opening up holes that the pads of yesteryear would cover up.

“Every year, they have a competition committee meeting that comes together to talk about how to get more goals,” Hellebuyck says. “They’re actively making our jobs harder, and players are just getting better.”

Hellebuyck is a deep thinker and a straight shooter. If he likes his process on an ugly-looking goal, he’ll tell you he played it well. If he doesn’t, he’s not above self-critique. He has his standards for excellence and an obsession with improving his performance.

And he says the very way that hockey gets played in the NHL has changed. Significantly.

Other elite goaltenders — including the Boston Bruins’ stalwart tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, plus Hellebuyck’s backup, Laurent Brossoit, whose playoff performances last season helped Vegas on its way to winning the Stanley Cup — are seeing much of the same. The rise in skill and a leaguewide focus on seam passes, shot quality and systems play make it more difficult for goalies to succeed.

It’s time to look at the data, the trends, the gameplay and the outright shift in power from the perspective of goaltenders. Goal scoring is on the rise, and while goaltenders are working as hard as they can to keep pace, they’re falling behind.

Here’s why.

‘Credit teams with the analytics’

Save percentages skyrocketed in the ’90s and peaked in 2003-04, before the NHL’s 2004-05 work stoppage. Part of the league’s emphasis coming out of the lockout and into the era headlined by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin was a crackdown on obstruction penalties: Teams got more power-play opportunities in 2005-06 than in any NHL season before or since.

Power-play opportunities gradually returned to previous averages, and goaltenders started winning the battle again.

That’s where it gets interesting: The Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins split Stanley Cups between 2012 and 2017 and a new save percentage peak formed. Then came a brand new crash — the one we’re witnessing now — and this time, the number of power-play opportunities had nothing to do with it.

The NHL set a record of nearly six power plays for each team per game in 2005-06, but that gradually dropped to approximately three power plays for each team per game by 2014-15 — where it’s largely stayed.

Brossoit says the approach of those Cup-winning Kings changed the game for a lot of people.

“There was that era where shot volume was everyone’s M.O.,” Brossoit says, “And it’s a copycat league, right? Whatever works, teams are scouting it and trying to implement it. (Shot volume) is still effective — there’s a lot of different ways to have success — but I think you raise the probability of that goalie getting hot if you throw everything at him.”

He says shot quality has increased year over year as teams move away from the Kings’ shot-attempt-heavy game that won them titles in 2012 and 2014 and focus more on east-west passes, selective shooting and fresher approaches to the offensive zone.

Shot quality is important to discuss through the lens of the NHL’s top goaltenders. The first thing to know is that while power plays are improving in efficiency, the most drastic change in shooters versus savers is taking place at five-on-five.

This is because the way teams create offense has changed.

The beauty of power-play offense is that with an extra skater and extended zone time, teams largely take the shots they want to take.

That’s instructive, for our purposes, because the shots teams want to take involve plenty of goaltender movement: seam passes, delivered quickly, onto the sticks of elite shooters.

“You really have to credit teams with the analytics,” Buffalo Sabres goalie Eric Comrie says. “I think it was (Clear Sight Analytics president and CEO) Steve Valiquette who was one of the first to talk about the slot line. He called it the Royal Road. You look at the analytics and the goals scored off slot-line passes. Then you look at double slot-line passes and the numbers go even higher.”

Goalies can anticipate slot-line passes. They do so at their own risk.

“You’ve got to read it and put yourself in a position to make the first save, then the second save,” Swayman says. “On a slot-line pass like that, you’ve got to put yourself in position to get over. Because shooters are so good that if they see you cheating, they’ll put it short side and make you look like an idiot.”

Hellebuyck says that emphasis on quality over quantity, and the understanding of which shots pose significant challenges to goalies, is at the root of this sudden decline in save percentages.

‘They’re a hell of a lot better and more ready to play’

Between Brossoit’s NHL debut — a spectacular, 49-save performance in an Oilers loss to San Jose — and his most recent excellent stretch of play for Winnipeg, there were some journeyman moments that gave him a unique insight into team construction.

He played parts of three seasons for Edmonton’s minor league affiliate in Bakersfield and that’s when he noticed the flood of NHL veterans arriving in the league.

“There was a big influx of fourth-liners who used to be in the NHL full-time,” Brossoit says. “They all seemed to go down in the same two-year span. I think, with the rules changing, less clutching and grabbing, less tolerance for big hits, hitting from behind, and the more brutal plays out there, it paved the way to ‘Why not have more skilled players out there?’”

Teams used to stack their best offensive players on the top two lines. They used checkers on their third lines. Fourth lines were comprised of energy players with sometimes limited offensive skills. Now, there is offense on all four lines — and on the blue line as well, where two-way unicorns like Dustin Byfuglien and Roman Josi have given way to superstars like Cale Makar and an era where the majority of NHL defensemen can jump into the play.

To Brossoit, this makes a team’s fourth line as important as any other. To win a championship, he says teams need fourth lines that can handle elite opposition and chip in from time to time.

“I would say that, 10 years ago, Vegas’ (current) fourth line would have been more like a second line in terms of the amount of skill they have,” he says.

Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy agrees. “I think most teams have better shooters and more skilled guys every year,” he says. “Even if it’s only one player per team every year. I think that’s part of it.”

This infusion of younger, skilled players can raise scoring in two ways. Not only are they better at scoring than the typical bottom-six grinder players who used to fill more of those roles, but they’re also worse at defending. This interpretation focuses on shooters’ strengths as opposed to goaltending weaknesses.

“Players are going to adapt, you know what I mean? Especially young players coming into the league. They’re a hell of a lot better and more ready to play these days compared to when I first came into the league,” Brossoit says.

‘Chaos is what creates’

If you’ve watched an NHL game in any era, it’s notable that even the most methodical teams play so quickly that — despite a coach’s best intentions — it’s not exactly a chess match. Situations repeat themselves all the time — breakouts, transition play, battles along the wall — but each individual example often includes as much chaos as orchestration.

This is where the cat-and-mouse element of the game that Hellebuyck talks about comes into play.

One small example producing outsized results is in the battle to take away goaltenders’ eyes. Coaches are emphasizing net-front traffic, as they’ve always done, but net-front traffic comes with more layers now — and more players in motion means more chaos in front of the net. At the same time, shooters are encouraged to get pucks through, not necessarily blast them at top speed.

“Teams are so good at getting traffic in front,” Comrie says. “Then guys are so good at not just getting it on net but picking corners. It makes it really tough on goalies when there’s so much happening in front.”

Swayman says a lot of those goals are tips. “It’s hard to see from the camera angle or the fans’ perspective,” he says. “But being in net, you know if a puck is tipped or not. It’s a minute millimeter that can change the angle of a puck. At that speed, it’s nearly impossible to stop.”

There are cat-and-mouse elements in other areas of the game. Consider something as simple as carrying the puck into the offensive zone.

One thing hockey’s analytics era has cemented in NHL circles is that zone entries with control are way more dangerous than dump-ins. That’s all well and good — hold onto the puck instead of dumping it in — until defenders learn to cheat, playing the tightest gaps their teams’ backpressure allows, knowing they’ll never need to go into their corner for a retrieval. It’s when skilled forwards dump it in every once in a while, forcing defenders to respect the possibility that they might need to turn, that they start getting more space to try to carry it in.

Hellebuyck says this philosophy applies to the very way teams try to generate offense. It’s not good enough for top teams to be great in transition or at cycling or at creating traffic in front of the net. They need to know when each attack has the best chance of working and make decisions that keep defenders guessing.

“If I get 10 shots high glove, I’ll stop all 10,” Hellebuyck says. “Or, at least, I’ll stop the back half of them a lot easier because I’ve seen it five times so now I know exactly what I’m looking for. That’s in the goalie world. In the player world, if they’re seeing the same system coming in on them — ‘OK this is what worked last time so I’m going to do it again’ — they can get into a routine of how to stop it. Chaos is what creates.”

Vegas won the Stanley Cup last season by knowing when to play which style of game. Brossoit compares it to a poker player who knows to play tight and conservative for much of the game but is ready to go all-in when the circumstances are right.

The Golden Knights could play a patient, suffocating game when the time called for it, but what they did better than anyone — and why they won the Cup — was pick their spots, turning defense into offense faster than their opponents could handle.

“In Vegas, even though teams could pre-scout us and knew what we were doing, we executed so consistently and efficiently that, because we had the puck, it was like we had the snap count advantage,” Brossoit says. “Teams could pre-scout it, but they couldn’t defend it. They had to give something up.”

Teams cranking up the speed of their counterattack, adding second waves in the form of defensemen jumping into the play, also makes goaltenders’ lives much harder. Time, space and speed kill.

“The more time he has, the more he can look up and see if there’s an opening or at least have a target to shoot at,” Hellebuyck says. “NHL players have good shots (and) if they have time to use their speed, step into it, and have no one on their limbs, they can put everything into it.”

Linus Ullmark and Connor Hellebuyck at the 2023 NHL All-Star Game. (Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

‘They made our equipment smaller’

It’s downright admirable the way Hellebuyck praises skaters for their pace, skill and shooting prowess. He’s more than willing to give shooters credit.

But there are a couple of elements of his job that get on his nerves.

“They made our equipment smaller,” he says. “They made our jobs a lot harder. Goalie interference is a joke — what they call — and I have been trying to change that.”

Speak to any goaltender and they’ll walk you through their personal pet peeves. Equipment regulations have changed several times from the 2005-06 post-lockout season to now with the aggregate effect of reducing pad length, shrinking chest protectors and opening up holes in goaltenders’ coverage where no holes used to be.

For one example, Brossoit pointed to an artificial-looking arch in the top of his pants, referencing a five-hole goal against which he said goalies’ old pants would have stopped.

“For me, it was the chest pad,” Hellebuyck says. “The first year that came in, it was really strange to me because the arms got really tapered. It felt really weird because I’d just built my structure on my old chest pad. You like to see things and feel things a certain way. Now the new chest pad came in and it’s skin tight and everything felt weird and out of alignment.”

Most recent NHL equipment regulations have focused on reducing bulk and creating silhouettes that are “anatomically proportional” to goaltenders’ bodies. The league has progressively moved away from universal pad length maximums to calculations based on each individual goaltender’s measurements. Leg pads were reduced from a maximum of 38 inches to a calculation based on each goalie’s floor-to-knee and knee-to-pelvis measurements; this tweak took multiple stages with increasingly stringent reductions. The reduction in chest pad size from the 1990s- and 2000s-era bloating to tight, form-fitting equipment — with the newest reductions arriving prior to the 2018-19 season — is something goalies are still getting used to.

“Everything’s tight in here, and it just bounces a little different and hurts sometimes,” Hellebuyck says. “The chest pad getting smaller definitely helped squeakers happen, or more rebounds happen.”

As Hellebuyck points out, it’s not common for committees to exist with the sole purpose of making somebody’s job harder. But it goes well beyond pad regulations.

NHL teams are attacking better. Five-on-five play has evolved to the point where elite teams attack the middle of the ice in a greater variety of ways than ever. Transition offense is more effective than ever, while in-zone play has evolved to include a variety of ways for teams to get the puck off the boards and into dangerous plays. Cassidy’s Bruins teams were at the forefront of that development, and his Golden Knights have continued the trend.

Brossoit says it’s all part of the inevitable evolution facing the sport itself — and that, even as a goalie, it’s probably for the best.

“Whereas a sport like soccer has been played for so long, hockey still has a lot of room for growth,” Brossoit says. “I think you’re seeing that in this decade: There’s been a huge shift in the development about how a goalie plays, how each player plays, and how much more productive the defenses are. We seem to be finding a balance in terms of how much physicality we want versus how much skill. The league wants more and more goals, but I think the product is still better.”

Even if it makes life difficult for the men in the crease.

(Top photo of Boston Bruins forward Charlie Coyle scoring on goaltender Cal Petersen of the Philadelphia Flyers. Credit: Len Redkoles / NHLI via Getty Images)