Puckhandling - from a goaltender's standpoint - is an underrated skill that can be more valuable than people realize.
When it comes to exiting the zone cleanly, you're always aware of the way a team forechecks against you and the routes your defencemen run when coming back in. This week, I'm looking at it from a starter's standpoint - it's the starter who handles the bulk of the games and the skaters get used to tendencies of the guy who's back there the most.
My first ever goaltending partner in the NHL was Ron Hextall. He was - and still is to this day - the greatest puckhandling goalie of all time. Not only did he revolutionize the position, he singlehandedly changed the way goalies play (and are expected to play) when it comes to handling the puck and playing dump-ins.
When I played with Ron, we would chart how many touches he had in a period with the puck outside the net. Then we kept track of how many positive and negative plays that were made with the puck. On average, I remembered him handling the puck anywhere from 15 to 20 times per period. And he had about an 80 per cent success rate on his decision-making - pretty impressive for someone who handles the puck that much.
Now keep in mind - this is someone who literally had a better slap shot than some of our teammates and re-strung his catcher's glove so that he could get a better grip on his stick. And that stick was curved with a blowtorch and shaved along the blade with a file - an unreal process to see in person.
Hexy's puckhandling was a lot different than your general leave it or play it decisions. He cleared the zone down the ice when we were killing penalties or made a saucer pass to hit someone at centre ice on a transition play to catch the other team on a change. Some high rate goaltenders today are certainly capable of doing it, but I've never seen it with the consistency that Hextall had.
That being said, there are really four generic plays that goaltenders use when it comes to getting out and stopping the puck behind the net or making a play/exchange with your blueliners.
LEAVE IT: This is simply stopping the puck it and leaving it for the defenceman to come back and make a play with it. This ensures the puck a) isn't stuck against the boards on the edge and that b) you're leaving it in an area where a defenceman has options to turn up, cut the net for a clear exit or ring it hard around the boards for the winger. That's usually communicated between the defeneeman in the goalie with the words, "leave it."
PLAY IT OR RING IT: It's where the goalie just rings it hard around the boards. Ninety-five per cent of it is done on the strong side - meaning a forehand shot that's usually up on the glass. The purpose is to beat the first forechecker, who most likely has pressure on the defence and is trying to cut the boards off. If you ring it hard on the forehand, you'll likely get it past this first forechecker and the strong side winger will come back to retrieve it on the half wall. The worst-case scenario is a 50-50 battle with an opposing defenceman who's potentially pinching. This is usually communicated between defencemen and the goalie with the words, "play it" or "ring it."
REVERSE OR OVER: This is a reverse play where the defenceman will fan off to the other side of the net and the goalie draws a forechecker to him. Then the goaltender makes a snooker play - banking the play off the boards so that a defenceman still receives it where he can make an up-ice play where he doesn't have to dig it off the dasher of the boards. The call on this is usually the words, "reverse" or "over."
PASS IT: This is for the advanced goaltenders - a direct pass to a winger or centreman past the first forechecker. This is usually when the first defenceman back has drawn a forechecker very close to him. When that happens, there's a lane to get directly to the boards. This is more high risk and most goalie coaches will frown on that play - unless his starter is capable of making it consistently.
There are certainly other set plays from team to team, depending on the starting goaltender's skill. But if the starter of your favourite team is consistent with these calls and strong with his exchanges with his blueliners, then puckhandling can become a very reliable source in exiting the zone cleanly.
That said, there are different styles of puckhandlers as well:
THE QUARTERBACK: These are guys who really skilled with the puck and are capable of making complex plays and direct passes. They can clear the zone in a penalty killing situation and are generally the best in the business in handling pucks.
We're talking about Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Arizona's Mike Smith, Washington's Braden Holtby, Steve Mason of the Flyers, Pekka Rinne in Nashville and Montreal's Carey Price.
THE DISHER: These goalies are above-average at handling the puck, but don't play a risky game with it and usually stay within their comfort zone.
That's Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars, Toronto's Jonathan Bernier, Ottawa's Craig Anderson, Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, Anaheim's Frederik Anderson and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
STOP AND LEAVE: They're very efficient at making the first three plays listed above. Their focus is to get in and out of the net very quickly, with average skills and puckhandling.
This applies to Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, Chicago's Corey Crawford, Semyon Varlamov of Colorado, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Carolina's Cam Ward, Brian Elliott in St. Louis, New Jersey's Cory Schneider, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller of the Canucks and Minnesota's Darcy Kuemper.
THE MINIMAL TOUCH: These goaltenders have limited puckhandling skills, as their focus is on stopping the puck and not handling it outside the net. It's just not a strength of their game.
Starters under this category include Florida's Roberto Luongo, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Ben Scrivens of the Oilers, Islanders netminder Jaroslav Halak, San Jose's Antti Niemi, Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary's Jonas Hiller and Buffalo's Michael Neuvirth.
Once again, this is one of the most important team skills that doesn't get enough attention consistently.