How Thomas Changed the Position
In Game 7 on Wednesday night in Vancouver, Tim Thomas made 37 saves and posted a 4-0 shutout to clinch the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy. With a million statistics and two shiny silver chalices to back up his awesome performance in this year’s playoffs, nothing was more inspiring to me than how he dominated Roberto Luongo in the mental toughness department.
As I discussed in my latest piece for NHL.com, Thomas’ cognitive skills are a thing to behold. What he encompasses doesn’t just include the visible traits of a strong work ethic, pure athleticism and an aggressive ”battle-fly” style, but also a keen and razor-sharp in-game intelligence. In my opinion, Thomas processes the game at a higher level than any other current NHL goaltender and is quickly changing the way goalies think.
By process, I mean Thomas’ ability to read situations - like the way a play develops around him, or the puck’s trajectory coming off a stick blade - and then react in a natural, effortless and calculated manner. He proved that, in Games 6 and 7 when his back was against the wall, he had the focus and mental clarity to execute with a tremendous amount of patience, but also with very explosive and sharp movements.
Outside of the actual game and underneath the surface of his visible technique, I think Thomas’ focus under pressure makes him the ultimate athlete and the toughest possible opponent to beat. He’s a perfect example of a goaltender that has the intense training of a martial artist, as his years of experience and mental discipline allow his body to do things that most goalies can’t.
It’s safe to say that in the Stanley Cup Finals, Thomas played on an entirely different level than everyone else out on the ice. He was in his own world, one where the only other thing that existed other than him was the puck.
—[ THOMAS' LONG-TERM IMPACT ]—
Thinking back to all of the goaltending duels I’ve ever witnessed in the Stanley Cup Finals, I can easily say that this was the most entertaining, dramatic and probably the most influential performance of them all. From start to finish, he just seemed to get better as time went on.
What Thomas proved to me is that goaltending, now more than ever before, goes well beyond the tangible aspects of fine positioning, angles and butterfly techniques. Instead of spending so much time honing and working on those things, coaches must pay closer attention to the mental approach of how each goaltender they work with makes saves.
As I sat back and absorbed all the post-game coverage on Versus and the NHL Network, I continued to ponder things from a wide perspective. What I came to learn was that Thomas, even long after he retires from the NHL, will single-handedly change the way millions of goaltenders embrace how they play the position.
Instead of molding their technique to what makes someone else successful, goaltenders will realize that they will be more successful by just being themselves and doing what feels most natural and comfortable. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift, one that I believe will ultimately make the collective world of goaltending more effective.
A mindset where the goaltender does not cling blindly to restrictive techniques, but rather relies on their instincts and ability to read plays to make certain saves, should start to quickly take over the way we approach, teach and play the position. In fact, many goalies could experience a seamless transition to this way of thinking since it doesn’t take away from the implementation of technique.
It’s more of a realization, an enlightenment, of sorts. Some goalies will realize it more than others. And many other goalies, especially the smaller-framed ones, have already come to realize it.
Of course goalie coaches around the world can still teach their techniques the same way, but hopefully now they will do so with the underlying premise that goalies must read a play first by engaging and activating their cognitive abilities. A goalie should never execute a technique unless the situation in front of them absolutely calls for it. So this is not a result of better technical training as much as seeing and thinking the game a slightly different way.
So again, what makes Thomas’ performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so influential, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the stats or accomplishments. It’s more about strong cognitive skills allowing him to read and react in a free-spirited, uninhibited manner. It’s about his ability to just go out there and play a pristine, unfettered style that is completely his own.
—[ THE TRANSCENDENT TRAITS OF THOMAS ]—
Ultimately, I’ve learned that Thomas encompasses four character traits that made him a transcendent goaltender in the Stanley Cup Finals.
1. AN EGO-LESS ATTITUDE: Similar to what you will find in the Elite Goalies philosophy, Thomas seems to play the position without any kind of an ego. He does not show any signs of caring about himself, his statistics, his style, how he looks, what people are saying about him or what happens if he gives up a bad goal.
There is no sense of entitlement and he understands, thanks in part to his storied past, how hard he must work in order to be successful. In fact, that work ethic is second nature. It’s just part of how he plays the game.
So whether you call it being humble or being unselfish, Thomas reflects the true essence of a great teammate. He enjoys the ride, he respects the process of doing what it takes to win a game, and he also appreciates and embraces the opportunity to play the game he loves.
2. PLAYING IN THE NOW: If you watch Thomas closely, you can see just how calculated, patient and sharp his movements are over the course of a game. There are many times where his aggressive nature does force him to scramble, but he still knows exactly when and how to scramble. He knows where the puck is going and can still stay in control of his pushes and slides and recoveries.
What makes Thomas’ ability to “play in the now” so intriguing to watch is that fact that he seems impervious to pressure. It’s as if that term does not exist in his dictionary because every moment is just as important as the last one. No game or moment, regardless of importance, is more influential than the last.
So whether it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals or the first game of the season, Thomas is able to handle the atmosphere and read the situation in the same fashion. He’s always comfortable in his own skin and reacts to things as if he’s seen them a million times before. There’s an omniscient undertone to it all, as if he already knows what is going to happen next.
3. FAKING CONFIDENCE: When Thomas is unable to naturally radiate confidence due to the inherent pressure that comes from a quality scoring chance or good puck possession in his end, he doesn’t lock up, shut down or wither away. Instead, he has the keen situational awareness to find ways to fake confidence. During Game 7′s post-game press conferences, Thomas even discussed a few moments in Game 6 where he was worried about giving up a goal after losing sight of the puck.
His ability to discuss this openly is essentially an admission of fear within a hockey game. It was proof of his high confidence, his open-mindedness and a very impressive ability to think the game inside the game.
As any goaltender will agree, playing the position wields tremendous power. Saves can influence your defensemen, spark your forwards and ignite everyone on the team. With that in mind, a goaltender must work hard to instill confidence in their teammates by making saves in a manner that radiates positive and confident energy. Since Thomas gushes aggressiveness and confidence, he’s constantly making saves that injects energy in his teammates.
With that being said, Thomas displayed terrific mental toughness when he was able to keep his body language and demeanor “confident” despite honestly feeling nervous or falling behind plays. This faking of confidence was just one way he was able to stay in the zone and get into the heads of the Vancouver Canucks.
4. FREE-SPIRITED STYLE: What truly amazes me about Thomas’ performance in the Stanley Cup Finals was his ability to continue to play in a free-spirited manner despite the mounting pressure. In a situation where most goaltenders are more prone to hesitate, over-think, over-react or lock up, Thomas was a pure flow of positive energy. As the pressure increased, that flow was more and more powerful.
And just like I said in my piece on NHL.com, Thomas plays as if nothing else exists except him and the puck. His mind is free of all distractions. He allows nothing to break through the invisible wall that keeps his mind clear from anything that takes his focus off the puck.
—[ HOW THOMAS CHANGED THE POSITION ]—
In conclusion, I think Thomas’ play in the Stanley Cup Finals acts as a moment where the evolution of the butterfly goaltender experiences a real-time shift. Instead of goalies transforming into robots, coaches might take a page from Thomas’ book and instill more elements of vision and cognitive training into their coaching philosophies, mainly in order to improve a goalie’s instincts and reactions.
If this happens, goaltenders will learn to embrace what makes them unique. I can only hope that will lead them to not necessarily re-learn how to play the position in a more comfortable manner, but to let go of certain fears and ultimately think less and react more. Instead of trying to move and execute in such a standardized or “popular” manner, goalies will learn to read plays and do whatever they need to do to make the save.
Personally speaking, I know that I often find myself thinking more about how I look when making a save instead of just making it in the most effective, confident or effortless manner. I’m worried about looking as pretty as possible, or as close as possible to an NHL goaltender, that I don’t play to my strengths or move in a manner that is most effective for my unique body.
To be honest, I could go on and on about how Thomas has influenced the current and future state of the goaltending position. There is no end to the way in which he showed how important it is to have good cognitive skills. It’s an aspect of the position that is not discussed nearly enough. This cognitive element of stopping pucks, along with more advanced vision and mental training techniques, is the new frontier of the goaltending position. This is the step we must take, the path we must travel, in order to continue evolving and improving.
As I drift into a gratified dream state, I’ll always remember Tim Thomas’ performance in the Stanley Cup Finals as one of the most remarkable displays of mental toughness. He was the goaltender that was totally impervious to pressure, who played his own way and in a manner that made it seem like he was always comfortable and confident.
Rage against the machine. Destroy the parts of your psyche that make you play like a robot. Block only when necessary and don’t be afraid to flop or scramble or dive when that’s what it takes to stop the puck. Eliminate the train of thought that says the butterfly position has this “perfect” platform in which goaltenders are trying to reach.
For the true essence of the hybrid goalie, and we are all hybrids, is knowing when to block and when to react.
Play with an open mind, with a humble and likable personality, without an ego, without fear, without worry, and without clinging blindly to just playing the percentages.