The risk/reward dynamic of when a goalie plays the puck is not usually hotly debated by fans. It is only when the playoffs roll around that fans, writers, analysts and the like all start to put these types of plays under a microscope. They tend to have a polarizing effect and when I was asked by a buddy of mine whether Hank should ever leave the net ever again, I realized a primer was necessary on how and why playing the puck from a goalie’s perspective is a necessary evil.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Hank is not particularly adept at playing the puck. We all know this. However, Hank is generally very functional back there. He’s not going to ever act as a third defenseman like Marty is so famous for, but he generally does not hurt the bottom line with his puck playing. Let’s go through the three main functions that the goaltender playing the puck can accomplish, and we will see if folks still want Hank glued to his crease…
Breakout: When a puck is dumped in by a forechecking winger, the goaltender playing the puck does not allow the forechecker to isolate one of the defensemen. Each can play out and receive the pass from the tender, they can criss-cross behind the net and begin the breakout, or one can run a variation of a pick on the forechecker to allow space for first pass out of the zone.
The play looks incredibly innocuous when we watch from afar because the value is only seen if the goalie does not play the puck. If the tender lets the puck go, it forces the d-man to chase it, usually into the far part of the corner, which takes the clean passing lane to the other d-man away. It also can force the winger, who would normally be drifting high to accept a breakout pass, to drop down low to support the play. It’s a quick recipe for getting pinned in your own zone by the opposing forecheck. Especially if they are dropping two into the zone.
Stymieing the forecheck: Getting the puck deep is a timeless objective in our great game. It allows for a safe change and for teams not to get caught in transition if they turn the puck over. It is also the cornerstone for aggressive forechecking teams like the Rangers. If you can get the puck into an area where the defensemen must take a long route to the puck, your forechecking wingers can force them into battles for the puck, create a cycle and press for giveaways that can lead to quality offensive chances.
If the goalie swings around on dump-ins to stop the puck, it gives the d-man a direct path to the puck with space and options upon possession. This way the d-man does not have to chase the puck into the corner. It also gives the defensemen more time to make a decision with the puck because they aren’t spending their time in pursuit, often with only one viable option. This benefit the goalie provides is seldom seen directly, but evidenced every time you see a team dump the puck in hard to keep the goalie from stopping it on them.
In transition: This is an instance where more adept puck handling goalies can excel. Marty Brodeur, Mike Smith and their ilk can take advantage of teams changing, catching wingers down low and on the power play by utilizing their puck moving skills to stretch the rink out north/south. The trapezoid has severely hampered the goalie’s ability to do this, however, most of the better ones now just make sure to get to the puck before it crosses the goal line.
If your goalie can take advantage of this type of situation, it becomes something the opposing coach must plan for. Penalty killers against NJ’s power play knows that if they want to make a clean change, they have to get the puck around Marty, or he will spring a winger up ice and put pressure on the changing team.
The benefits of a quality puck playing goaltender are seldom seen, but can change the landscape of a game. For those who aren’t as gifted, their contributions on the breakout and against the opposition’s forecheck cannot be understated. While I know that playing the puck is not Hank’s forte, he is usually pretty competent at the basic functions which are very necessary to the overall system that the club plays. If we think they spend too much time pinned in their own zone now, imagine if Hank never left his crease again…