Martin Brodeur was so effective at corralling dump-ins and setting up the New Jersey Devils breakout the NHL decided it needed to stop the plague of goaltenders breaking up forechecks and instituted the trapezoid to limit their ability to handle the puck.
Those days seem almost ancient today — and instead of goalies being seen as breakout engineers who stop forechecks, you see more folks complaining about over-adventurous goaltenders who don’t accomplish nearly as much as they think they do and end up getting themselves caught out of position a fair amount of the time.
Mike Smith, for example, is seen by many as one of the better puckhandlers in the game, but the risks inherent in his daring play have led to quite a few goals against.
Is it actually worth risking those extra goals against for goalies to play pucks? Do they have a discernible impact on breakouts? Is it safer to just stay in the net and let defencemen handle it all?
Let’s attempt to answer these questions.
The over-arching theme is going to be whether it’s better for a defenceman or a goaltender to handle a puck, and we’re going to look at this season combined with the last two seasons in order to amass a sizable sample.
For starters, we’ll look at the risk involved in goaltenders handling the puck; how well do they manage pucks? Over the last three seasons, defencemen have succeeded on 68.9 per cent of their attempted plays with the puck in the defensive zone, while goaltenders have succeeded on 65.8 per cent. That’s not a promising start for goaltenders, but it also makes sense. Goalie equipment is bulky, leading to slower movement and more clunky plays.
But more than just failing on plays, what about turnovers?
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, defencemen have turned the puck over in the defensive zone on 13.7 per cent of their attempt plays with the puck, while goaltenders over the same period of time have turned the puck over just 9.3 per cent of the time.
For some, that might dispel the notion that goaltenders playing the puck is risky at all, but consider how much worse it is for a goaltender to commit a turnover, how much worse it is for them to be caught out of position, and then on top of that, we have to consider the types of plays being made.
A lateral pass along the boards to a waiting defenceman is far easier to complete than a stretch pass, for example, so how much more difficult is the job of the defenceman moving the puck?
Clearly when you look at the what kinds of passes each group of players is making, goalies are mostly making easy passes to defencemen along the boards to disrupt dump-ins and opposing forechecks. There's a sizable number of goaltenders that like to go for it with outlet passes to move the puck forward and out of the defensive zone themselves, but while defencemen attempt that with 56.4 per cent of their passes, goalies are only able to attempt it 22.2 per cent of the time.
Stretch passes might be even crazier; accounting for 12.9 per cent of all pass attempts by defencemen, and just 0.7 per cent of all passes by goaltenders. So primarily, goaltenders are playing a support role in moving the puck within the defensive zone, not a direct role in the breakouts. In fact, over this three-season sample, only 429 stretch passes by goalies were even attempted, as opposed to 76,817 by defencemen.
That’s probably a good thing, when we look at pass-success rates.
The surprise here is that goalies have succeeded on stretch passes more often than defencemen have, but as we mentioned, their sample size there is minuscule by comparison, so most likely those are going to be situations like line changes where there’s no pressure applied and no chance to be intercepted.
What’s important here are two areas; the fact that goaltenders have just a 57.1 per cent success rate on completing their attempted outlet passes, over 10 percentage points lower than defencemen, and that they’re actually slightly better at completing those D-to-D passes.
Like with stretch passes, the difference in D-to-D passes for goaltenders mostly comes down to timing. They have a spatial advantage on the ice to recover dump-ins and set plays; defencemen have to skate to an area and are more likely to be under pressure.
On the other side of the ledger you have outlet passes which, for a goalie who is mostly playing the puck from behind his own net, are going to be more difficult to make on average anyway, due to the extra distance to clear the zone and the risk of a failed pass is also much greater with the net being empty.
Beyond just passing, what about goalies trying to clear the zone without an intended target to relieve pressure? On average, an attempted dump-out by a defenceman works 60 per cent of the time. For goaltenders, it’s just 28 per cent of the time. Most goalies just can’t get the power and accuracy necessary from a goalie stick, blocker and catcher that a defenceman can with a regular stick and gloves.
So what’s the conclusion here? Goaltenders can and do help stop forechecks by leaving their nets to intercept dump-ins and set up breakouts for their teammates, but as soon as they start trying to do too much, things work against them.
This isn’t just for the average goaltender, either. Whether it’s Mike Smith, Carey Price or Ben Bishop, when they start trying to play like a puck-moving defenceman, things get out of control quickly. Keeping it simple is easily the best strategy here.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.