Ever since the introduction of the butterfly play style more than twenty years ago, the average height of NHL goaltenders has trended consistently upward. There is a massive difference in measurements of today’s goalies, with the average NHL goalie standing at just over 6-foot-2, compared to twenty years ago, when the average goalie measured at just under 5-foot-11. This trend has affected drafting strategy, scouting, and numerous careers— but is height truly the biggest factor in a goalie’s ability to stop pucks?
In today’s NHL, there are more tall goaltenders than there are short. The tallest goalie in the league, Ben Bishop (6-foot-7), is the tallest goalie in NHL history. There are two goalies who are 6-foot-6 in Devan Dubnyk and Scott Darling, three who are 6-foot-5 in Pekka Rinne, Darcy Kuemper and Robin Lehner, and then six who are 6-foot-4, including Martin Jones and Mike Smith. Overall, there are more than 40 goalies out of the 60 in the league who are 6-foot-2 or taller. Many more are over 6-foot-0, as well. The numbers don’t lie— so why is it that teams seem to be after the tallest goalie they can find?
When the butterfly play style was introduced, there was a steep learning curve for smaller goaltenders. When down on your knees, you cover less of the net. If one goalie is bigger than another, they’ll naturally cover more of the top area of the net. When Ben Bishop drops to his knees, his shoulders hit the cross bar, whereas Jhonas Enroth (5-foot-10), would leave room at the top of the cage for shooters to pick corners. In blocking-style save situations, a behemoth of a goalie has the inherent upper hand. Even so, many people are beginning to think that there are more important factors in a goalie’s game than height.
In recent years, smaller goalies have been given more thought because they have been coached on how to “appear” bigger. Since there is less leeway to make mistakes, as them moving one way or another or dropping to their knees prematurely hurts them more than taller goalies, small goalies have practiced having active hands. This is called projectioning: using your hands to cut off a shot before it rises too much, by reading the shot from the puck’s eye view. Instead of falling victim to the tendency to close yourself up and block the puck, as a smaller goalie, you can be ahead of the shot by keeping your hands in front of your body, playing the angle of the puck and actively tracking its release. Using this technique, a small goalie can make themselves appear bigger, by cutting off the high shooting angles.
Another tool that can help smaller goalies more than bigger ones is Head Trajectory, on which I previously wrote an instructive break-down. You can read it here to learn more. Head Trajectory involves locking your eyes in place and using your whole head to track the puck, and in turn, following with your body to meet the shot. Since a smaller goaltender has more crease to cover on lateral plays and when facing players with a longer reach, they can benefit from using Head Trajectory, as it allows for improved puck-tracking.
Another area in which small goalies actually have an advantage is on plays where shooters can “open up” the goalie. Since smaller goalies have shorter arms and legs, there is less room exposed on lateral plays and other situations that require the goalie to reach. A bigger goalie might be able to slide and get more of their body over, but in doing so, actually leave more exposed, from their five-hole, to under their arms, to the far side of the net. Smaller goalies can stay tighter easily, and leave less to shoot at when players open them up.
Vegas Golden Knights Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Luce said that scouting and drafting bigger goaltenders “has been a trend, but [he] think[s] it has peaked and there will be a settling-in process over the next five years.” Maybe newfound attention to goalies of all shapes and sizes and the emergence of new puck-tracking and active hand techniques will lead the charge for small goalies to find their way back into the NHL.