When Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is in a ruminative frame of mind – this happened often earlier in his career – he'll don a tracksuit and glide around a rink, alone, ripping off wrist shots.
Athleticism is an overused and unsatisfyingly vague word, but to witness the quality of Price's skating and shot is to realize he has oodles of it. Teammates will tell you he could easily have reached the pro ranks as a defenceman or a forward.
Playing net in the NHL is a hard ticket; doing it the way Price does – coiled in a crouch that's halfway between the position of a baseball catcher and an Olympic wrestler – requires uncommon gifts.
As the anniversary of his greatest professional triumph heaves into view – Feb. 23 will mark the first anniversary of Team Canada's gold medal at the Sochi Olympics – the 27-year-old netminder is wringing the most out of his considerable talents.
There is Vézina Trophy buzz, there is Hart Trophy speculation; there is recognition from opposing players and coaches that he is the best goaltender in the game (pace, Pekka Rinne).
So what makes him so good?
The short answer is it's the innate ability that prompted the Habs to draft him fifth overall in 2005 – when Montreal already had a Hart-winning goalie in José Théodore – and led former general manager Bob Gainey to dub him "a thoroughbred."
It helps to be 6 foot 3 and have thighs as stout as 50-year-old timber, but beyond genetics, Price's competitiveness and technical qualities are what distinguish him from his peers.
As stats expert and goalie-watcher Chris Boyle puts it, Price has "probably the greatest set of weapons in the NHL."
Among them: a preternatural ability to read the game; quick, precise footwork; puck-handling savvy; the strength to hold off onrushing forwards; and the placid temperament to handle the crushing pressure of what ESPN magazine memorably dubbed the loneliest job in sports.
"There are literally hundreds of goalies who can come in and be the first star in an NHL game – look at [Arizona's] Louis Domingue and [Ottawa's] Andrew Hammond," said retired NHL goalie Marc Denis, a former Price teammate. "Becoming a real No. 1 is much harder."
Among Price's underappreciated abilities is his adaptability.
"The game changes; so do the top goalies," said Eli Wilson, a Vancouver-based goalie coach who worked with Price intermittently from the time he was in junior. "If this was still the day of Bill Ranford skate saves, he would do that and be the best at it. Whatever you want him to do, he can do it. Patient? He can do that. Aggressive? He can do that."
When Price came into the league, he typically stood tall to see over the traffic and relied on his reflexes and powerful lateral movement to react.
An ankle injury suffered not long before his first all-star berth in 2009 signalled the beginning of a fallow period – he would lose the starting job to Jaroslav Halak the following season – and when position coach Roland Melanson was replaced by Pierre Groulx, he began using elements of the technique that helped carry L.A. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick to the Conn Smythe Trophy (one of the style's signatures is the reverse VH, a pad-down manoeuvre to seal off the post from sharp-angle shots and wraparounds).
Since Stéphane Waite replaced Groulx in 2012, Price has evolved yet again – and the same can't be said of Quick, among others.
There's a popular perception Price has only really come into his own since Sochi, but that elides the form he began displaying in 2010-11, when he won 38 games and put together a career year.
Absent a six-week blip in 2013 – it's Price's bad luck that it coincided with the end of the lockout-shortened season and playoffs – he has been on a sharp upward trajectory.
By now, his stats for this season are well known: first in the NHL in save percentage, second in wins, 32 starts where he has allowed two goals or fewer – all this on a team that allows more shots than any other team currently in a playoff position and is in the bottom third of the league in run support.
It's true Price has reached new heights since he started working with Waite (who has groomed two Stanley Cup-winning goalies), but this is a player who managed to surpass his career average stats in 2011-12, a season in which the Habs finished dead last in the East.
Waite's advice has been both simple and transformative.
Price has frequently alluded to his coach's injunction to be more "quiet," but Waite has also brought innovations to his style: the crouch, higher glove positioning and staying on his feet as long as possible while tracking pucks.
"You never see him trail the play. His patience is phenomenal. This patience allows him to maintain his skates longer than most goaltenders," said Boyle, whose work regularly appears on Sportsnet.ca.
"What we are seeing is a guy in his prime whose mind has caught up to the technical phenom that burst onto the scene at 20."
Wilson said Waite's philosophy – the former calls it "the lower approach to hockey" – has allowed Price to better navigate the thicket of bodies that is inevitably placed in front of him by opponents.
"It's also unleashed his athletic ability, which has always been there," Wilson said – it's easier to spring upward and sideways from a crouch than a more upright stance.
Denis, who now works as an RDS analyst on Habs broadcasts, said the technical evolution wouldn't matter as much if Price's understanding of the sport and knowledge of its players – he is an assiduous student of shooters' tendencies – hadn't also become more sophisticated.
"He's become aggressive at managing the game," he said.
Denis marvelled at how effortless Price made it look when the two did on-ice drills with Melanson, and said his ability to shake off mistakes – which Denis sees firsthand when broadcasting games from rinkside – has measurably improved.
"[Price] knows how to behave," Denis said.
Hark back for a minute to the late spring of 2010, when le tout Montreal was afroth over a divisive life-or-death question.
Jaro or Carey?
From today's vantage point, it seems quaint that it was ever an argument, but there it is.
Yes, Halak is having a fine season for a redoubtable New York Islanders squad, but anyone who would prefer him to Price today needs to re-evaluate their understanding of hockey.
True, he hasn't won anything yet for the Habs, but Price's erstwhile detractors in the fan base and commentariat owe him an apology; he doesn't care.
Nor is he preoccupied with individual honours.
A few weeks ago he eclipsed Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy on the Habs' career list for shutouts.
He greeted the landmark with his trademark imperturbability. Price's sights are firmly set on another of Roy's achievements.
You know, the one where the goalie gets to lift the big trophy on the last day of the season.