Young goalies carrying mantle of greatness

Originally Published: April 30, 2004
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

Among goalies left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, only Ed Belfour can claim a Stanley Cup title.

Yet it's not difficult to envision that one of the new faces will emerge as the standard bearer for netminding excellence in the NHL, even before we've had time to forget Patrick Roy's steely-eyed stare, Dominik Hasek's indescribable unorthodoxy or Martin Brodeur's unflappable nature.

"There's a new wave breaking on the NHL and with all due respect to Eddie [Belfour], who is still a great goalie, we could see a first-timer win the Stanley Cup," said Mitch Korn, goaltending consultant to the Nashville Predators.

Korn knows of what he speaks. Besides developing Tomas Vokoun into the Predators' No. 1 netminder, he spent seven seasons working for the Buffalo Sabres, where he helped Hasek to two Hart Trophies and to four of his six Vezina Trophies. He also has coached such notable NHL goaltenders as Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, Mike Dunham, Olaf Kolzig, Steve Shields and Martin Biron. After more than 25 years of coaching college, minor-league and NHL goalies, Korn is convinced that the new generation of goalies is here today.

"Marty [Brodeur] is great, and if you look at his regular season, he had another great year," Korn said of the heir apparent to Roy's NHL career record collection, "but you look at the teams still going at it and if there's a single constant theme, it's that they've all been getting good play in the nets."

Belfour, who won the Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars and almost single-handedly willed the Toronto Maple Leafs to a first-round win over the Ottawa Senators, may be the best illustration of talent and mental toughness still playing in the post Hasek-Belfour-Patrick Roy era, but postseason numbers show that Philadelphia's Robert Esche may be his equal or even better. Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin is also having an outstanding postseason, as are Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov. Though the Montreal Canadiens are gone and the Colorado Avalanche are in a precarious position, those teams made it to the second round because their goalies -- Jose Theodore and David Aebischer -- outplayed their highly regarded counterparts -- Boston's Andrew Raycroft and Dallas' Marty Turco.

"The argument in the past has always been that if you have a goaltender who gets hot at the right time, then you can win a series that maybe you had no business winning," Korn noted. "Nowadays, though, you have a lot of goaltenders playing at a very high level all the time and if you're going to win, you have to have the talent and the tools to beat the other guy who's seemingly always playing at his best."

That's not to say that one or more of the new breed might not still falter or that Belfour won't still prevail. Even if they do, though, the emergence of young goaltending can't be denied.

"There are a variety of reasons for so many goaltenders having success, and it's not all just talent," Korn said. "There's a science to the game now and especially to the position. What once was maybe just a hodgepodge of elements -- skill, athletic ability, a good team to play behind -- that conspired to produce some success, now there's the science of the position. Everything is studied, taught and pursued in a somewhat relentless fashion now.

"You can pre-scout an opponent just by having DirecTV. Teams use video technology to break down tapes, and a lot of teams have taken that a step further with digital technology that allows you to break down the different elements of a single aspect of a game. You have coaches who look at and work with mechanics and biomechanics, and a lot of these guys have taken it even further by retaining their own coaches and some even have their own sports psychologists.

"It's a much more calculated game, but especially at the goaltender position. It's become something of a science all to itself."

Korn's argument is reflected in the numbers.

Before the Flames eliminated the Red Wings on Monday, four of the top five goaltenders in postseason goals-against average were still playing. Tampa Bay's Khabibulin leads the playoff parade with a stunning 1.00 GAA and the next four -- Nabokov, Curtis Joseph and Aebischer -- are all under 2.00.

Things don't change much when you look at save percentage, perhaps an even better barometer of how well an individual goalie is playing. Khabibulin again tops the list, with a stunning .964. Nabokov (.947), Belfour (.932), Esche (.929) and Joseph (.928) follow him

"Hasek was a great goaltender and a great athletic talent, but what a lot of people don't realize is that he contributed so much to the science of the game," said Korn. "For all the laughing people did when he was lying on the ice doing snow angels, he had figured out that when he made them, he took away the bottom of the net even if he wasn't in a good position. Statistics said that when he did that, chances are the puck stayed out of the net. Even today, the majority of goals are scored low along the ice, and if a goaltender takes that away, then he forces the shooter to make a more difficult shot and the odds are smaller that he can do that.

"You look at goalies today and what was laughed at then is now very much a part of the way they play the game."

There are other elements that come into play. The development of equipment -- or, as some would argue, its increase in size -- is a big part of the equation, so is mental toughness. While all goalies have access to the same equipment, being able to focus for a long period of time and through sometime chaotic situations -- both on and off the ice -- is part of what separates them. Though it's a trial-and-error process and some -- such as Belfour and now, apparently, Khabibulin -- are farther along than others, all goalies work at it via science-like techniques.

"Sports psychology is a science, and almost every team employs one or a goalie has access to one," added Korn. "You look at a goalie like Belfour and you can see where he's made physical changes to his game over the years, but he also appears to be much more developed mentally.

"The pressure in that series with Ottawa was enormous, but he never cracked. He always played within himself. He was the same goalie night in and night out."

One can't say the same about Ottawa's Patrick Lalime, a still relatively young goalie in terms of his experience in pressure situations. Some playoff criticism could be leveled at Turco and Raycroft, as well. Certainly, there were questions regarding Nabokov in his formative years. And in some cases the jury is still out regarding Khabibulin, who was replaced in favor of backup John Grahame in Game 5, the Lightning's deciding game against the Devils. Still, the goal is to get better each time they are tested.

"Dom enjoyed winning, but he spent a lot of time looking for the reasons he got beat, too," Korn said. "He was a student of the game and of his position, and I see a lot of that in the younger goalies in the game today. They've taken the science of the game to a place where maybe the rest of hockey hasn't yet caught up."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.