The request for this post came from reader Max Steuer. Keep those suggestions coming! If you have a post idea you’d like one of us to run with, make sure to reach out to your desired author via email or twitter.
Throughout Henrik Lundqvist’s stellar career to date, one of the common detractions from his game has always been his inability to play the puck effectively. The past couple years have highlighted this weakness in his game, as Marty Biron, and now, Cam Talbot have been effective and capable puck handlers. This skill has been somewhat anecdotal (though, I have always included it in my style analyses) throughout the evolution of goalie development.
It’s nearly impossible to quantify in any meaningful way, and was always viewed as a bonus when a goaltender was blessed with strong stick skills. After a quick Google search for the purposes of researching this post, this was all but confirmed. Many instructors and YouTube aficionados have drills and technique suggestions and the like, but no one out there seems to have a handle on how to quantify it.
Let’s start with the basics. The main reason why goaltenders have to handle the puck is for the purposes of fielding a dump in. This can usually take two forms, a line-change dump in, where there is typically a very light forecheck, and the goalie’s main function is to corral the puck into a playable area for his defender to reset the breakout. The second is when the puck is dumped for the purpose of establishing a forecheck and setting the puck up to cycle in the offensive zone.
Generally, the player dumping the puck will be cognizant of the location of his nearest forechecker, which leads to the velocity in which the puck is dumped into the zone. The goaltender’s role here is to cut off the dump in from the weak side forechecker, and give his defense some time and space to make a first pass the other way. The more skilled puck handling goaltenders can sometimes use these instances as an opportunity to create offense. When there is a line-change dump in, the tender might be able to hit a teammate from long range and catch the dumping team in a bad change. In the case of the forecheck starting dump-in, the goaltender could catch the dumping team in transition and move the puck up ice for an odd-man rush.
There are many ancillary situations in which goaltender puck handling may become relevant, but it’s all so situational, it’s incredibly difficult to create a metric for it, or even gauge it’s significance on a game-by-game basis. Think of the stickhandling skills of NHL goalies as a bell curve. Most possess a baseline skillset that is competent enough for the NHL level (Talbot), but is never really an asset unless the player is operating at an elite level (see Smith, Mike and Brodeur, Martin). The same goes for the worst puck handlers.
Unfortunately for Ranger fans, Hank is well below-average in this category. Fortunately, almost all of Hank’s other skills more than make up for a relative deficiency in his stickhandling. I suppose the best analogy I can come up with is a pitcher’s pick-off move in baseball. If you’re Andy Pettitte, it’s a phenomenal skill to have. If your brutal at it, it might result in some irritating extra stolen bases. It absolutely can contribute to a win or loss in a meaningful way, but as a general rule, the other skills (e.g., how good of a puck stopper you are) will and should overshadow its overall importance.
Maybe at some point, a brilliant MIT mathematician will come up with a metric to quantify the importance of goalie stickhandling. Since we are yet to come up with an equivalent stat to marginalize GAA and Sv%, I’d say that day is a little ways off. While a useful skill, I don’t think it really factors in if the goaltender is a skilled enough puck stopper. Coaches would rather a guy who can stop the puck, but not play the puck as opposed to the other way around every day of the week.