Bigger wasn’t always better.
But somewhere along the way, starting in the mid-1990s, NHL goaltenders began to grow, filling hockey’s standard four-by-six-foot goal more and more every year.
This season, netminders are bigger than ever, averaging just under 6 foot 2 and 198 pounds, an increase of roughly three inches and 16 pounds over the past 20 years.
It’s a phenomenon that has culminated in the Nashville Predators boasting the largest tandem in league history, with 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne backed up by 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback, who have combined to give the Preds a .923 save percentage, second best in the NHL.
Nashville goaltending coach Mitch Korn believes this is the way of the future.
“When I’m choosing a goalie, the first thing I want is skill,” Korn said. “Now, in the good old days, it seemed that smaller goalies were more skilled, they were quicker, they were agile and bigger goalies were less skilled, they were more cumbersome, they were slower. And bigger guys had bigger holes.
“But now what’s happening is there are big guys as skilled as little guys. As well trained as little guys. And honestly, as quick as little guys. Given the choice of two equally skilled guys, do you go bigger or do you go smaller?”
The answer, for many NHL teams, is easy.
While the average height of forwards and defencemen has remained relatively stable, increasing only about an inch in the past 30 years, goaltenders have gained that in the past six or seven seasons alone.
The average netminder is now slightly taller than the average skater, with only eight goalies under six feet tall and more than 30 per cent listed at 6 foot 3 or taller. The trend has also begun to show up at the junior level and in the draft as scouts try to find the next great big man in goal.
One of the more egregious recent examples involved Spokane Chiefs netminder Dustin Tokarski, fresh off winning the Memorial Cup as the tournament’s most valuable player. He fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the fifth round of the 2008 NHL draft.
Taken six spots ahead of him was Jason Missiaen, who the Montreal Canadiens’ scouting staff admitted was a long-term project given his modest numbers with the Peterborough Petes.
At 6 foot 8, however, he was more of a can’t-miss pick than the 5-foot-11 Tokarski, who might as well be Martin St. Louis the way things are trending at his position.
“It’s something that’s been brought up so many times,” Tokarski said of his size, which contributed to his being passed over by every Western Hockey League team in the junior draft.
“It’s definitely harder to make it to the top,” Tokarski added. “There are more excuses to put you down. They say you’re not ready. The only thing you’ve really got going for you is your play and whether you’re winning. If a bigger guy’s having a bit of a rough year, oh well, at least he’s got a lot of upside and he’s big. If a goalie’s smaller and not having a good year, he’s just smaller. He’s not doing well.”
The technical reasons why a bigger netminder has become a better choice in the NHL have only become part of the equation since goaltenders switched to the butterfly style, which originated with Patrick Roy in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Suddenly, playing goal was more about taking up space while on your knees and less about athleticism. The bigger you were, the more net you could take up, sometimes even stopping pucks you didn’t see.
So while the league began to scrimp on equipment, shaving a half inch here or there off to combat the fact goal scoring was declining at an alarming rate, the body under the gear continued to grow.
“It’s still a game of square footage,” Korn said. “We have 24 square feet to cover. If you can meet the skill component and maximize your square footage, you do.”
Korn adds that tall, long-limbed goalies have the advantage of being able to see over traffic in front of them, an increasing concern as teams bunch up in front of the net.
Tall goaltenders this year have also posted slightly better numbers, with those 6 foot 2 and over having a combined 2.59 goals-against average and .915 save percentage compared to 2.70 and .910 for everyone else.
If that proves a long-term trend and Rinne and Lindback become the norm, it could be bad news for players like Tokarski, who may be pushed out of the crease altogether.
“I have made the prediction that within the next five years, I bet you we don’t see any goalies under six feet,” Korn said. “And we might not see very many under six one or two.”