The Science of Shadowing
The goaltender’s evolution is a continuous progression of their vision.
Regardless of when or where, an NHL goaltender always has crystal clear picture of their short and long-term goals. Whether it is practicing and then studying video with the goalie coach, personally reflecting on past performances or just discussing things with their counterpart, improvements on a macro and micro level are constantly being made.
As time goes on, the more games a goalie plays, the more inclined they are to tinker and tweak their game. At the same time, the older they get, the better they are at knowing when to make those adjustments and when to store it in their memory bank. As such, goalies don’t just learn from their own experiences, but also from the experiences of another.
More than two years and one month ago, I wrote a School of Block fantasy goalie article called Of Slumps and Shadowers. It briefly discussed the term “Shadowers” and the dynamic of how a backup goalie will often mimic different aspects of their counterpart’s game. Sometimes this is done intentionally, but other times it is done as second nature.
Although this dynamic of goaltending has been around for ages, the term Shadowing was my own creative way of reflecting this ideal. But after seeing this dynamic pop up a few times in the last week, I decided it was time to get some insight from pro goalie coaches and explain in greater detail how Shadowing is revealed on a daily basis.
1. POSTURE AND POSITIONING
A goalie’s posture and positioning is completely their own. As such, no two goalies have the exact same set of movements. But over time, a goalie is capable of morphing certain aspects of their positioning to match their more experienced counterparts.
“When I go out with the goalies before practice, I notice that [Andrew] Raycroft will naturally pick up on tendencies by watching Kari [Lehtonen] do certain drills,” Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley explained. “Recently, he has mimicked a lot of Kari’s hand placement and now he’s starting to really push into pucks.”
Although it is only December, this is a clearly defined adjustment to Raycroft’s game. In Vancouver, Raycroft’s footwork was much quieter. He would square up, set his feet and drop into the butterfly, regardless of his depth in the net. But this season, Raycroft is being more active and eliminating space by stepping out towards the puck on a much more consistent basis.
“Lehtonen is probably one of the best in the NHL at shifting his weight and moving into pucks, especially with his upper body,” Valley added. “That’s something I now see appearing in Rayzor’s game and I think this is because he sees Kari is effective at it.”
Another current Shadowing dynamic taking place in the NHL right now is found in St. Louis with Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin. Halak, who has a very distinctive style, likes to hold his glove tight to his left hip, with the wrist in line with his arm, which keeps the glove turned or tucked into his body. In just his past few starts, Conklin has started to mimic that distinct hand positioning.
Again, this sort of thing has been going on for decades, but those are just two of the most recent situations to watch for when looking at a goalie’s posture and positioning.
2. BODY STRUCTURE AND BIOMETRICS
Simply put, when body structure and biometrics are similar between two goalies on the same team, the backup can apply Shadowing effects with ease. And we need to look no further than Nashville to see this dynamic happening right now.
Many of you know that Anders Lindback is slowly starting to look like a Pekka Rinne clone. More specifically, when Lindback sees Rinne’s active hands on a daily basis, it’s no surprise that he’s starting to follow suit. In fact, both goalies rely on very quick hands and feet to stop pucks and they both have an energetic demeanor in the crease.
Since their body size and biometrics are nearly identical, Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn might stress some of the same things during their practices and video sessions. A consistent coaching philosophy will not only act as a catalyst for Shadowing, it can also lead to a coaching benefit.
“No matter who the goalie coach is, goalies learn from goalies,” Korn said. “Just like a dog starts to look like his owner, so too do goaltenders begin to look alike.”
When two goalies have similar biometrics, it’s almost like they are staring at a mirror when watching the other execute practice drills. Coincidentally, one of Korn’s most popular summer camp props is a mirror that is slid onto the ice in order for goalies to view their various moves, save selections and mechanics. So as someone who has been a big believer in goalies mimicking each other for many years, Korn provided some great insight on this subject in relation to Nashville’s current goalies.
“It’s amazing how much they look alike,” Korn said. “Rinne is lower at the core and leg area, while Lindback is more bent over in the shoulders. But Lindback is now starting to catch more pucks than he’s blocking. Having watched Pekka, his glove is becoming more active.”
As we continued our discussion, I realized that there’s a very fine line that younger goalies must walk when mimicking their counterparts. They must have sharp mental skills and a strong sense of situational awareness in order to discern when to mimic and when to stay true to their style.
“There’s a real balancing act though,” Korn added, “because there are times when Lindy tries to catch pucks instead of letting the puck hit him, and that has resulted in some goals.”
3. SEERS AND STUDENTS
When I first wrote about the Shadowing dynamic over two years ago, it stemmed from what I saw in Mathieu Garon and Jeff Deslauriers while they played together in Edmonton. Both had similar body structure, both caught with their right hand and both relied on terrific footwork to establish solid positioning in the crease. The same thing seems to be happening with Garon and Steve Mason in Columbus. They both catch with the right hand and play a similar butterfly dominant style.
With both goalies playing well in the past few weeks, I get the sense that the more Garon plays, the more Mason improves. I spoke with Garon following a game against the Avalanche on Friday, Nov. 12 and inquired about his role as a mentor for the younger Mason.
“We talk a lot and he’s always open to everything,” Garon said. “Sometimes he asks me questions and that makes me feel good. One of the reasons I’m here is because I have experience and I’m always there to help him out whenever he needs it.”
Think about Thomas Greiss playing behind Evgeni Nabokov last season in San Jose. Because Nabokov was a true wizard of the position, it was clear that Greiss was Shadowing Nabokov with a narrower stance and a more patient demeanor. The more games he played, the more he stayed on his skates to make saves.
Another example of this is the development of Justin Peters as he plays behind an elite goalie in Cam Ward. Case in point, goalies that work extremely hard to break into the NHL always do a great job of discerning small subtleties of their counterpart’s name. And if it feels good, they will incorporate it into their game.
Looking back at Nashville’s goaltending history, Korn discussed how Tomas Vokoun and Mike Dunham were very different goalies when they first started playing together. Dunham was close to a pure “stand-up” goalie, while Vokoun employed a pure butterfly style. The more they worked together, the more they started incorporating different elements of each other’s style.
“Over time, Vokoun was no longer a pure butterfly goalie and was starting to stay up more, displaying more patience, and reacting to and saving pucks rather than just blocking,” Korn explained. “And even though Dunham never became a true butterfly goalie, he was willing to leave his feet more and use the butterfly as a save selection.”
Korn also pointed out six different clear-cut tandems in which this Shadowing effect took place in the past 20 years. They included Ilya Bryzgalov behind J-S Giguere, Jason LaBarbera behind Bryzgalov, David Aebischer behind Patrick Roy, Vesa Toskala behind Evgeni Nabokov, Mike Richter behind John Vanbiesbrouck, and finally, Dan Ellis behind Marty Turco.
4. HANDLING THE PUCK
As you know, when a goaltender ventures out of the net to handle the puck, much more movement takes place compared to their simple in-crease movements. Things like their skating stride, upper body, arms and follow through, and most importantly their decision making, are all exposed. Because of this, it’s easy to see one goaltender mimic another that has more experience and skill in this area.
A great example of this took place last season when Alex Auld backed up Marty Turco in Dallas.
“Alex changed his stickhandling style to the over-hand grip last year due in large part to Turco’s use of it on a daily basis,” Valley said. “Because Alex saw Marty successfully handle the puck with the over-hand technique, as well as seeing the great decisions he made in every game, he knew there were certain options available to him.”
Today, the over-hand grip dominates the NHL, so Shadowing is more visible in a goalie’s decision making and skating ability.
“Auld started bending his knees more and got his butt lower to the ice so that he had better balance and more control,” Valley added. “Marty gets lower to the ice and bends his knees as well, and also does an excellent job of getting his head up in order to read plays and improve his vision.”
Clearly, Auld picked up on all of these effective aspects of moving the puck. After a while, he slowly started to look like a bigger version of Turco when handling the puck. And regardless of whether or not it was always on purpose or partially due to second nature, it was happening because of what Auld was seeing from his counterpart.
A few other ways to extract Shadowing effects includes how a goalie seals the boards and glass with their hands and legs, whether or not they use the backhand pass on a consistent basis and how they stop pucks in front of the goal line.
5. MEANINGLESS MANNERISMS
A big part of what makes a goalie so unique is the numerous mannerisms that complete the finer points of their game. Aside from being confident and in a good rhythm, these have little bearing on their ability to stop pucks, yet still reveal the Shadowing effects described above.
Some goalies will bring their stick blade up and quickly thrust it into their glove’s pocket while the puck casually moves around the zone. Some love to bang their stick against the posts. Some will tap the back of their glove against the crossbar. And some goalies will play a quick catch-and-release game with the puck before the referee takes it out of their glove for the next faceoff.
Some of the most unique mannerisms I’ve seen just in the last year would be Garon placing a frozen puck on the blade of his stick and then lifting it up for the referee, like a tasty biscuit on a silver platter. Craig Anderson will go behind the net to play the puck, but before it arrives, he slams his stick on the ice in order to prepare for a hard pass along the boards. And this section could never be complete without mentioning Braden Holtby and his many “Holtbyisms” which are found all over Youtube.
—-[ TGG ]—-
In conclusion, of all the dynamics that makes up a goalie’s relationship with their counterpart, none is more intriguing than Shadowing. It happens over time and in subtle ways, but for many decades, this has been a fairly influential aspect of hundreds of pro goalies, young and old alike. And whether or not it is a positive or negative thing is always up to the individual goaltender.
When looking at this dynamic in our own game, there will be many times when staying true to your own style is more beneficial, while Shadowing another goalie’s style will be a key adjustment that makes you a better puck stopper. Ultimately, it comes down to making good decisions and doing what you feel makes you more effective.
Staying on a personal level, it is fun to discuss some our own goalie idols. For me, it was Chris Osgood and Felix Potvin. Think about your idols. Do you purposefully mimic them in certain ways? How often do you visualize their movements in your head and then find yourself naturally matching that on the ice? More often than not, this is something you do because you have a passion for the position and you have a respect for the abilities of your favorite goalie.
I asked Valley about his goalie idol growing up, and it happened to be one I watched win a Stanley Cup in 1999 – Ed Belfour.
“I put together over one hundred clips of Belfour on video and then watched it every single day,” Valley reflected. “Because I saw it so many times, I naturally started mimicking what I saw and it was a big part of how I learned when I was younger.”
It should also be pointed out that the science of Shadowing can be somewhat superstitious and experimental. Goalies love to try different things, and if it works, it can be very tough to change. Ultimately, it’s all about winning, so a goalie will constantly add and drop tiny aspects of their game depending on their success.
“You mimic and you learn, and most goalies aren’t doing it accidentally,” Valley concluded. “They see something the starter does that might help their game, so by watching them every day, they naturally pick up on those tendencies and movements.”
Because this ability to mimic a similar organism happens in many walks of life, including animals and humans, it’s something that will always be deeply rooted in every goaltender’s evolution.