Last week, I was chatting with former goaltender Greg Millen about the goaltending fraternity at large, and how not everybody understands how tight it really is inside the dressing rooms, where the goalies – in 99 per cent of the cases - work so well together.
Every team carries 18 position players, so when somebody needs a sounding board, they generally have multiple options. Usually there are only two goalies, and one coach assigned to their care and feeding. So it’s a small exclusive group, that requires a narrow specific expertise and thus its practitioners gravitate towards one another.
The one thing that never changes in the goaltending fraternity is that there’s a rotation. Every night, one starts and the other sits. And, according to Millen, if you happen to be the one sitting at the end of the bench, with the ball-cap on, and the towel draped around your neck, you cannot make that a distraction.
“You’re in a group that’s trying to win games as a team,” explained Millen, “and you have to be a big part of the team, whether you’re playing or not. If you don’t have that team-first attitude, you don’t hang around – because your teammates know it, your coaches know and everybody knows it. So unless you’re a goalie who is an elite, elite guy that people shake their heads at and put up with, because they’re just so good – and there have been a couple of those, not many – then you have to make sure you’re a team player. If you do that, you normally find success goes with it.
“Because that’s the other part of this puzzle that’s extremely important for a goalie - you need your teammates fighting for you. As a goalie, you rely heavily on the guys in front of you. You need their trust and you need them to want to play for you. If you’re a selfish person and not a team player, they’re not going to play for you – and then you’re not going to succeed as a goalie because I don’t care if you’re Jacques Plante, if you don’t have a team playing in front of you, you’re in trouble.”
Millen believes that the pressure on goaltenders may be greater than every these days, in part because scoring, across-the-board, was down again in the NHL this year. Five goalies, including two involved in the Kings-Canucks series (L.A.’s Jonathan Quick and Vancouver’s Cory Schneider) had goals-against average’s under 2.00, numbers associated with the various dead-puck eras of the past. There’s an irony at work here too – as scoring drops off, pressure on goaltenders heightens even further. The line is so fine, and the margins of victory so narrow that you’d think goalies would be celebrated for their collective achievements. Instead, it’s just the opposite, Millen maintained.
“We have put so much emphasis on goaltending in this day and age, and I understand it, because the league is so close now,” said Millen, “but it’s almost as if the goalies aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore. It’s a bit unfortunate because goalies make mistakes just like forwards and coaches and managers and everybody else in the game.
“But the nice crutch for everybody on the managerial side is, ‘oh, we didn’t get the goaltending.’ That’s often a situation that could be part of the puzzle, but nine times out of 10, it’s not all of it.
Millen played in an era when GAAs in the 4.00 range were not uncommon. Sometimes, they even drifted into the 5.00s. Nowadays, even the statistically worst goalies, are still not giving up many goals.
“I can tell you, as a former goalie, that the goalies now are better than they’ve ever been. No question about it. The guys shoot the puck harder, they’re quicker, the game is faster, and they are better athletes than we ever were.
“The position is just fun to watch right now. It’s amazing. These guys are amazing.”
MILLEN ON VANCOUVER: So does Millen have any thoughts specific to Luongo and Schneider, the Canucks’ goaltending duo? Do you need to be part Sigmund Freud to play goal in Vancouver these days?