The goalie is, once again, a thinking, moving organism

9/29/2006 - NHL

And so we bid adieu to the era of the Stepford Goalie.

You know the ones. Tall, angular, technically perfect as though they were a distant cousin to Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Mark the shooter's angle, glide to the top of the crease, drop, block shot. Retreat. Repeat.

Back in the day, those goalies were turned out by goalie factories in Quebec, and later in Finland, in a fashion that would have made Ford or GM envious. And they did so because the game encouraged it, demanded it. When defensemen were allowed to restrain all rushing forwards, those with the puck or without it, a goaltender's best friends were his angles and his bulk (not to mention his fat equipment). And since only the luckiest of opponents could make it to the net to sweep in rebounds and loose pucks, it didn't matter if goalies just positioned themselves in front of the puck and didn't worry about catching or controlling rebounds.

They weren't goaltenders, "they were systems," said former NHL netminder Darren Eliot, now a national broadcaster for Versus and the Atlanta Thrashers.

But luckily, the rules committee and other big brains put a stop to this diabolical goaltending trend last season.

Goalies saw their equipment reduced by about 15 percent and their ability to handle pucks reduced, both opening the game to skilled players and forcing netminders to react and move. Goalies had to go side to side instead of simply flopping their mutant butterfly bodies down to obscure the net. They had to use their instincts to decide whether the unencumbered shooter breaking in from the side was going to blast away or pass to his partner on the 2-on-1. They had to stop shooters in the shootout. The goalie became, once again, a living, thinking organism.

A lot of goalies simply took their size, the size of their equipment and the style of game for granted, "and they stopped reacting," said veteran goalie instructor and author Ian Clark. "I don't think a lot of these goalies were using all of their athleticism."

Size will always be a benefit, Clark said. But the size has to come with a brain and he points to big, young goalies who are able to react as the ones that will have success. Goalies such as Kari Lehtonen in Atlanta, who is hoping to put behind an injury-plagued rookie year to lead the Thrashers to their first playoff appearance, and Alex Auld, perhaps the forgotten piece of the Todd Bertuzzi-Roberto Luongo trade.

"His athleticism and his ability is incredible," said Clark, who has worked with the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Auld and has seen him go from a goalie bound by methodology to one who thinks on his feet.

The issues facing goalies in the new NHL are far more complex.

Because there's more traffic now in front of goalies, they must now get into position more quickly or else the traffic forms in front of them. In that sense, Clark likens the position now to a quarterback who stays in position in the pocket.

Eliot predicts top goalies of the past four or five years, goalies such as former playoff MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Luongo, the new savior in Vancouver, are more shot blockers and will have to evolve to maintain their positions as No. 1 netminders. Giguere already has been pushed by a big, athletic netminder in Ilya Bryzgalov.

Eliot predicts the new generation of goaltending stars will be a hybrid of the standard butterfly goalie and the instinctual one. A goalie who doesn't commit too early, one who can "hold his feet" a little longer to force the shooter to commit, will be the goalie who has success.

"I think there's going to be a bit of a learning curve," Eliot said.

There's also been a bit of a time warp, too, with goalies such as Curtis Joseph, who is enjoying success in Phoenix after relearning his position during the lockout and applying that to instincts that have made him one of the winningest goalies in history. And perhaps the greatest anticipatory goalie in the history of the game, Martin Brodeur, showed again that he can play whatever style the NHL wants to throw at him even if he's not a textbook goalie.

"Nobody reads a play better than Marty Brodeur," Clark said.

As for the traffic and potential for harm that became more a part of the game last season, Eliot sheds no tears for his goaltending brethren. "It was meant to be a perilous position," he said.

Brodeur, a member of the competition committee and a lock to be a Hall of Famer, said goalies were expecting to have to change their game when the lockout ended, and they did. He said the increased traffic in front and the physicality "wasn't too bad" and Brodeur was pleased to see officials cracking down on contact that wasn't incidental.

"Everybody's exposed in the same way," Brodeur said. "I don't think they made it stupid-hard."

One element of the game that might be more crucial going forward is a goalie's durability. The quality of shots are far better, the shots are harder because of the new sticks, there's more traffic in front, players have a clearer path to the net, which means more collisions, and there are more power plays, which means more difficult work for the goaltender.

"It's not as easy to play the game as it was before, that's for sure," Brodeur said.

This issue of durability also will affect the way teams employ their goaltenders going forward.

Many goaltenders won't be able to play 65-plus games a year because of the physical demands of the new game, Eliot said. That puts a premium on depth, depth that was crucial to the Hurricanes' march to the franchise's first Stanley Cup as coach Peter Laviolette adroitly employed regular-season starter Martin Gerber and rookie playoff MVP Cam Ward. The Ducks' similarly surprising run to the Western Conference finals also relied heavily on the play of Giguere and rookie phenom Bryzgalov. The Oilers got stellar goaltending late in the going from backup Jussi Markkanen after starter Dwayne Roloson was injured.

"Everyone's going to go back to needing two goalies, and teams haven't needed that since the late 1980s or early 1990s," Eliot said.

Unlike the past, when backups weren't expected to do much more than give starters breathers, the parity in the league means backups will have to win their fair share of the 20 or so games in which they'll appear.

That's already an issue in Philadelphia, where Antero Niittymaki could be gone for two months with a torn labrum, and in Chicago, where Patrick Lalime didn't even make it to training camp before being injured, forcing the Blackhawks to sign journeyman Brian Boucher and cross their fingers that Nikolai Khabibulin is back to form.

This explains why, at least for the time being, the Atlanta Thrashers likely will carry three netminders. Last season, the Thrashers lost Lehtonen 20 minutes into the season and then went through a dizzying array of backups before missing the playoffs by two points. This season, they've got Johan Hedberg and Fred Brathwaite in camp, but are fearful of losing Brathwaite to another team on waivers if they send him to the AHL. San Jose also appears set to start the season with Nolan Schaefer hanging around to see what happens to incumbents Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, rather than risk losing Scheafer to the AHL.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.