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WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
E.M. Swift
October 06, 1997
As in the late 1950s and early '60s, when almost every team had a Hall of Famer in the nets, goaltenders are dominating the game. Here's why
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October 06, 1997

What's Old Is New Again

As in the late 1950s and early '60s, when almost every team had a Hall of Famer in the nets, goaltenders are dominating the game. Here's why

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The Upswing in Goaltending

Since the first season that save-percentage statistics were kept, in 1983-84, those numbers have risen steadily, while over the same span goals per game have fallen. Here's a season-by-season look at those two figures.

NHL Season

Goals-per-game average

Save percentage

'83-84

.7.89

.871

'84-85

7.77

.873

'85-86

7.94

.872

'86-87

7.34

.877

'87-88

7.43

.878

'88-89

7.48

.876

'89-90

7.37

.878

'90-91

6.91

.884

'91-92

6.96

.886

'92-93

7.25

.883

'93-94

6.48

.893

'94-95

5.97

.898

'95-96

6.29

.896

'96-97

5.83

.902

[Red Dash]Goals-per-game average
[Green Dash]Save percentage

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Goaltending in the NHL is undergoing a revolution, one that almost seamlessly is changing the way the position is played and heralds a new golden age of goaltenders, one that harkens back to the late 1950s and early '60s when Hall of Famers Johnny Bower, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and Gump Worsley so gloriously minded the nets. Any way you cut down the angle, last season the masked bandits between the pipes dominated the game. Consider the following from 1996-97:

•The Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek, who stopped 93% of the shots fired at him, became the first goalie to be named the league's MVP since Plante earned that honor in 1961—62.

•Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils allowed a stingy 1.88 goals per game, the lowest average since Tony Esposito's 1.77 in 1971-72. Brodeur's 10 shutouts were the most in 20 years.

•As the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years, Mike Vernon, who was traded to the San Jose Sharks in August, stopped 102 of 108 shots by the Philadelphia Flyers in the Cup finals to sew up the postseason MVP award.

•As a group NHL goalies had a record 127 shutouts in 1,066 games, an average of one every 16.79 chances. Compare that with Worsley, who had 43 shutouts in 851 career games, or one every 19.79 chances.

•Save percentages, which have been climbing in recent years, reached the stratosphere. In 1983-84, the first season during which the NHL kept that statistic, only one goalie who played 20 or more games had a .900 or better save percentage. In 1988-89 just two goalies reached that plateau. In 1992-93 only five attained it. Last year? Thirty-one of the 47 goalies who played at least 20 games met that standard, led by Hasek and his record .930. Brodeur and the Chicago Blackhawks' Jeff Hackett tied at .927, followed by the Colorado Avalanche's Patrick Roy at .923.

•Andy Moog, the 37-year-old goalie for the Dallas Stars who signed as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens in July, had the NHL's second-best goals-against average of 2.15, a number that was more than a goal less than the 3.25 he averaged in his previous 16 NHL seasons. He was one of several veteran goal-tenders who had career years. Roy, playing in his 13th NHL season, had his lowest goals-against average (2.32), as did the St. Louis Blues' Grant Fuhr (2.72) and the Florida Panthers' John Vanbiesbrouck (2.29), who played in their 16th and 15th seasons, respectively.

There are a number of reasons for the spike in save percentages. Referees' increased tolerance of interference by skaters—a trend that saw power-play chances drop about 25% from 1995-96 to 1996-97 and that effectively drove Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux into early retirement—has led to scorers being smothered before they even touch the puck. The defensive strategy known as the neutral-zone trap has rendered odd-man rushes a rarity. Finally, hockey may be going through what future generations will refer to as the Dead Puck era, an offensive Stone Age brought on by a dilution of talent wrought of overexpansion. (Since 1990-91 the NHL has gone from 21 to 26 teams.) The goalies, clearly, have benefited.

"The save percentages are great these days, but the quality of the saves isn't," says Jacques Caron, the goalie coach of the Devils. "You don't see as many two-on-ones or three-on-ones. We track great scoring chances, and the Devils [the NHL's best defensive team] allow an average of only about four great chances a game."

"Save percentages are high because guys are firing the puck from everywhere," says Hall of Famer Billy Smith, who is the goaltending coach for the Panthers. "Defenses have the middle [neutral zone] blocked off. Teams are more defensive-minded, and the Panthers are a prime example. When Roger Neilson coached them their first year [1993-94], his philosophy was, Let's keep the puck out of our net and win 1-0 or 2-1. [Current coach] Doug MacLean has continued that approach. We've had games in which we haven't allowed more than two or three good scoring chances, but the goalie has [faced] 30 shots."

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