I chuckled when Japer’s Rink chirped me on Twitter with his cute “TheVarlyGuild” nickname. It was totally warranted though, as I was clearly basking in the warm glow of the best goaltending talent I have ever seen at a Colorado Avalanche training camp (my first camp as a pro was in 2006).
Thanks to yesterday’s camp, I was able to confirm a notion I had personally believed for two years – Varlamov has a visible Finnish influence in his game.
The obvious part of my assertion is rooted in Varlamov’s long-time goalie coach and mentor, Jussi Parkkila. A native of Tampere, Finland and the current goalie coach for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, Parkkila is responsible for the improvement and development of numerous European netminders.
Jussi spent three seasons coaching Ilves’ J20 goalies (2003-2007), one season coaching for Lokomotiv, two more years with Tappara (SM-liiga) and then last season with Atlant in the KHL. His network of influence is large and effective, making him one of the more accomplished and intelligent goalie coaches in Europe.
Aittokallio’s goalie coach is Markus Korhonen, a former Ilves goaltender that retired on April 23, 2010. Korhonen is also a native of Tampere and was born in 1975, while Parkkila was born in 1977. I have tried to search for a link between Korhonen and Parkkila to further reinforce this notion of Varlamov and Aittokallio having some similar coaching influences, but I haven’t found anything yet.
Either way, we all know that young, enthusiastic goalies like Varlamov and Aittokallio are heavily influenced by their private and team-based goalie coaches. This makes it easy to understand why Varlamov might reveal shades of the Finnish goaltending style in his own game.
But what do I mean when I say “Finnish goaltending style” and how is it applicable when watching this high-skilled Russian netminder? Well, in order to explain it in a visual manner, I had to be in the right place at the right time. It would take a little luck, but this was my goal for the final day of Colorado’s three-day camp.
My chance came to fruition when both Varlamov and Aittokallio played on my end during two different scrimmages on Monday. It gave me the perfect opportunity to compare and contrast their stance and biomechanics, especially on faceoffs. Out of all the photos and videos I edited today, I came up with this enlightening image:
Take a good look at this photo above, then follow along with my full-blown breakdown below. Then watch the short video with clips of both goalies and you’ll have a good understanding of what I’m seeing. Before I get started, however, I wanted to make a few things clear:
Every single goaltender is different. There is no textbook called “The Finnish Stance” to be found. But when it comes to overall positioning and style, it’s easy to see where Finnish goalies (and Varlamov) have some similarities. This is rooted in the fact that Finnish coaches are inevitably going to teach goalies similar things, just like you will find with Swedish, Canadian and American goalie coaches.
Regardless of coaching influence, every goalie still has their own unique blueprint, no matter where they’re from or who they train with. Pro goalies go through their career working and training with numerous coaches, so the influences are endless and intricate. So please note that I’m only explaining what I see from this training camp, in these photos, at this moment in time. It is not a general explanation of how these two goalies will always play. Stance and style is consistent, but still dynamic and ever-changing.
First off, let’s look at height. It sure doesn’t seem like it, but both goalies are listed at 6-foot-2. I’ve learned to always take a goalie’s listed height with a grain of salt since it’s never really clear when that height was recorded. Varlamov could be closer to 6-foot-1, while Aittokallio could be closer to 6-foot-3, but I just don’t know for sure without measuring them myself.
When they’re at a normal stand-still on the ice, Sami appears much taller. I have to consider factors such as the height of their skate blades, the type of skates and mask they wear, plus anything else that can influence their height. But regardless of those factors, Varlamov’s stance in the photo above makes him wider and shorter, while Sami’s stance makes him taller and more narrow.
For Varlamov’s faceoff stance, not only are his feet wider than Sami’s, but his rear end sits slightly lower to the ice and his chest is leaning forward at a more prominent angle. If Varlamov were to bring his skates together by just a few inches, he would appear that much taller in the net. It is also important to note that since Sami wears bigger pants, it’s tough to know how much bend he has at the waist.
Next on the list is their upper body. Both goalies (from the hips to the shoulders) are leaning considerably forward. Aittokallio has less of a crouch, so his chest appears more upright compared to Varlamov’s. It is also important to note how both goalies’ upper bodies move just as the puck is dropped. Sami’s movement is much more exaggerated compared to Varlamov, who stands perfectly still.
Finally, we have hand placement. I’ve discussed Varlamov’s improved glove hand positioning already, but this photo is another piece of visual proof that he’s evolving and refining in that area. A few years back, that glove was way up by his ear, with the palm out and the fingers up.
When compared to Aittokallio’s glove hand placement, it’s easy to see the differences in terms of positioning, but I can also see the similarities. Varlamov has more of a bend at the elbow, his upper arm is tighter to his side and the hand is held higher in relation to his body. You can also tell the wrist is slightly supinated compared to Aittokallio’s.
Aittokallio’s hand is held lower and closer to his pad, the elbow has less bend and the upper arm is held slightly further away from the body. You can see Varlamov’s left elbow nearly touching the top of his pad, while Sami’s is a good couple of inches away.
Much of this difference could be related to the way in which the pad sits on the leg, and how the pad is rotated toward their core. But you can still see how Varly’s arm is held slightly further back and tighter to his body, while Sami’s arm appears to “dangle” by having his hand positioned lower.
In conclusion, despite the noticeable differences in the photo above in terms of foot and hand placement, elbow bend and upper body positioning, the similarities in how they set up for a faceoff are pretty striking. Overall, this whole exercise was a lot of fun and very educational. I have learned a ton about both goalies, which will go a long way when it comes time for me to evaluate them throughout their careers.
—[ MORE THOUGHTS ON STANCE AND POSTURE ]—
+ To me, this “compare and contrast” exercise reinforced the importance of a goalie’s footwork. So much of stopping the puck is about having the natural ability to move your feet from one spot to the next, but with as much control and precision and speed as possible. When standing still, as the distance between your feet changes, so too does the way your body disperses weight and the way pressure is applied to certain muscles.
+ When it comes to a goalie’s upper body positioning, you enter the realm of back posture. Some of the most common back posture mistakes include the head being too far forward, the shoulders being too rounded or hunched over, the lower back being too arched, or an excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt. These are just a few of the things a goalie scout tries to decipher and evaluate when watching talent.
+ Posture, stance and overall body positioning is unique to each and every goalie. In order to improve your stance, don’t look at mirroring another goalie, but rather look at ways to improve your own body’s alignment. And in order to improve your own body’s alignment, you should take some Pilates lessons.
+ I am a major advocate of Pilates because of what it does for your body AND your mind. It has made me a much better goaltender because I have trained my mind to be much more aware of what my body is doing in my pads. Goaltenders are natural beings – we go out on the ice and we don’t necessarily think about the exact way our muscles are engaged…we just read and react and have fun.
+ But the sooner you realize that your posture, stance, mechanics and overall execution could be improved by taking stress off certain muscles, then better balancing them by using other muscles we’ve never really activated or used before, the sooner you will be able to improve your natural skills like reactions, reflexes, flexibility and agility. By taking Pilates lessons, I have become much more aware of my body’s posture and stance, thus allowing me to be more aware of my biomechanics, kinesthetics and reflexes.
+ Even though I’ve never played at the pro level before, I have experienced tremendous durability for my size. I barely break 150 pounds and stand six feet tall. But because I have such balanced muscles and such a good understanding of what my body is doing, I stay completely injury free. Stretching and staying in shape is crucial, but being mentally attuned and alert to what muscles I’m moving, how I move them and how much pressure I put on them is what makes me so durable for my size.
+ Improving your own goalie stance and posture involves aligning your body so that the pull of gravity is evenly distributed throughout your core and appendages. Center your head. Keep a straight and relaxed and balanced (don’t lean) body when dropping into the butterfly. Square up your hips. Keep your shoulders parallel to the crossbar. Be aware of the strain and stress you’re putting on your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. Move naturally and become more aware of what your body is doing.
+ Most importantly, breathe deeply. Relax your muscles. Oftentimes we run on such high levels of adrenaline that we don’t even realize how tense we are. Drop your shoulders and relax them. Bend your knees and take advantage of being able to locate the most natural and stress-free angle you can find. Do what feels most comfortable. But being able to breathe freely and control your breathing will make a big difference in your focus, your stamina and your overall game.