NHL's best and worst this week: Why goalies are struggling so far in 2021

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On Feb. 28, Maddie Rooney will play at Madison Square Garden as part of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association Dream Gap Tour.

For the 23-year-old goalie, it's "an incredible opportunity" to play in New York City at the world's most famous arena. Unfortunately, her preparation for the game hasn't exactly been ideal. Since the pandemic wreaked havoc on our daily routines in March 2020, competitive action has been scarce. "To be exact," Rooney says, "since March 2020, I have played exactly seven periods of hockey. Those were at PWHPA scrimmages against local boys teams, high school teams and junior teams. Then at [national team] camp we played six games, but as a goalie I had to split that."

Compare that to the season prior when, as a senior at Minnesota-Duluth, Rooney was typically playing two games per weekend. The women's hockey landscape presents an exaggerated case, but lack of proper ramp-up time for goalies is a theme we're seeing across hockey, including the NHL in the 2021 season.

It's one of the reasons that explains why through the first month of the season, the leaguewide save percentage has been hovering around .900; excluding the lockout-shortened seasons in 1995 and 2013, the last time a save percentage was below .900 for the month of October (typically the season's first month) was 2005-06, when it was .894 while coming out of a season-long lockout.

A couple of stats help explain the slow goalie starts. Penalty kills are struggling (tracking for a league-wide worst first month total since 1985-86), and according to Evolving Hockey, shooting percentages are abnormally high (at around 8.5% at even strength, we're trending for the highest-single season rate since 2007-08). All of this comes after a significantly truncated training camp and the cancellation of all preseason games.

"The usual smoothness of getting into the game, just from my perspective watching the league, has been a little slower," says Jim Corsi, the longtime NHL goaltending coach who now oversees goaltending development for the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.

It's important to understand why live action is so critical to goalies as part of their training. "Game timing is a very different thing than practice or shinny hockey," says Ryan Miller, the veteran Anaheim Ducks goaltender. "In shinny hockey, guys are trying goofy plays, holding on to it, making extra passes. An NHL game tends to be more direct, more congested. Obviously there's great playmaking, but as a goaltender you have to stay inside of play, where you can reach some of those plays, make it challenging on a guy. You can't commit to the first situation so hard and give them something else."

Corsi said the hardest part of the game to adjust to after long layoff periods are "non-puck play."

"In a penalty kill for example, you're supposed to take a certain position if you're in the bottom of the circle and cut off a certain access portion of the net," Corsi says. "If you're just 6 inches off, guys will put that in."

In explaining why New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin was uncharacteristically struggling to begin the season, longtime NHL goalie and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes found some flaws in his positioning. "One thing that is different right now is he's allowing goals through his body," Weekes says. "Like [opponents are] finding holes, which most goalies in the NHL don't do -- unless you're going through a rough patch. But everyday NHL goalies don't allow them very often. For that reason, he looks smaller in the net, even though he's not a small guy. I think it's a confidence thing.

"I know from putting myself in the spot in terms of positioning, and you know you're in the right spot, and somehow the puck can find a hole. If that happens once, you shrug it off. If it happens two, three times, you start second-guessing yourself, and the next thing you know you're misplaying pucks that would hit you routinely in your body."

To compensate for the lack of proper preparations, goalies have been scrambling for extra practice time through the pandemic, which proved difficult amid sweeping lockdowns. "Some goalies can't find shooters because they are only allowed two people on the ice," Corsi says. "If you get one goalie, one shooter, after 15 minutes, the shooter is drained. And I have to stay on the bench, because there's only two people allowed on the ice."

Corsi has recommended some of his players to try to find outdoor ice. Recently, Corsi sent one of his pupils, a 17-year-old goalie, and his dad, to a local rink to practice. The police came by and shut them down. In that jurisdiction, wearing hockey equipment on the ice was banned, as a measure to prevent games.

Rooney lives in Minnesota where rinks were closed for a while during the pandemic; during the second half of the summer, fellow Team USA goalie Nicole Hensley flew out, and the two were able to split on-ice sessions with a goalie coach.

Because the Ducks were one of seven teams that didn't participate in the bubble, Miller last played an NHL game in March -- meaning his first game action this season came after a nearly 10 and a half-month layoff. The 40-year-old says he has tried "to find game simulation in practice" the best he can. "We have such a limited amount of practice, so you're just trying to find situations and take advantage of," Miller says. "Get on the ice early, be on the ice late. If the penalty killer or power play is doing something that would typically be kind of tedious, I stay around and take the reps."

Corsi saw the pandemic as an opportunity for goalies to embrace more visualization work. This is something he has believed in for a while, and something he thinks "should be a bigger part of what we've been doing."

In the Blue Jackets organization, they have challenged goaltenders to watch their own video of making a good or bad play and questioning, "Can you do something better?"

"A big part of it is to visualize, with imagery, and seeing yourself doing something; that can be really helpful," Corsi says. " Psychologists have shown you can go through this visualization and see yourself succeed; that's really valuable. That can get you less body stress and more mentally prepared so when the situation occurs on the ice, your head has already seen it, so your body will react without having to process it."

That's something Rooney has begun to embrace, too. In 2018, she helped Team USA to its first Olympic gold medal in 20 years. It was disappointing that last year's Women's World Championships were canceled, and the women are hoping the event will be staged again in March 2021. However, as Rooney enters her prime athletic years, she is doing her best to continue her growth, fighting off having the pandemic halt all her momentum.

She follows a lot of goalie schools on Instagram, where she finds new speed and agility drills. Although Minnesota gyms have been closed for long stretches during the pandemic, Rooney's boyfriend owns a gym, so she's been able to get in a decent amount of strength, flexibility and rehab training.

"I also incorporate three hand-eye coordination drills, with three racquet balls, and I got through a set of drills that I acquired from other goalies over the years -- through what they've posted on social media," Rooney says. "But a really big thing has been Vizual Edge, which is vision training. You wear these red and blue glasses, which mess up your typical vision, and it helps your tracking and overall vision."

Rooney has spent more time doing vision training than ever before. "COVID definitely allowed me to branch out to resources available to me that I wouldn't have necessarily put time toward in the past," Rooney says. "I'm interested to see if it will help with actual performance."

In this month's game at MSG -- which will pit Rooney's Minnesota PWHPA chapter against New Hampshire -- she knows it will take an adjustment to the game intensity. She's traveling to Florida before arriving in New York, where the PWHPA has arranged scrimmages against local boys teams (although Rooney is one of four PWHPA goalies in Florida for five scheduled games, so "who knows how much game action I will actually get," she says.)

"The U.S. team, and the PWHPA rely on a lot of behind-the-net play from goalies, and playing the puck," Rooney says. "I haven't been in those pressure situations with forecheckers on me in a long time. So making those quick decisions, that could be an area that might be challenging at first."

She's hoping the lag time won't be too bad.

"Honestly," she says. "I'm really excited just to play in a competitive game again. It's going to feel so good to be out there."

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week


Emptying the notebook

1. Miller, whose contract with the Ducks expired this past summer, wasn't sure what his future held when the 2019-20 season was paused in March, 2020. He decided to treat that pause as a recovery. "I tracked down a bike," he said. "I rode along the trails and boardwalks in the area; I tried to stay active, but I also really tried to do minimal stuff. I had gone through so many years of little things popping up, I wanted to see how I would recover. I stayed away from the ice for about five months, which is the longest I've gone since I learned how to skate."

2. Miller ended up returning to the Ducks on a one-year, $1 million deal. I asked him if he had considered retirement. "For sure," Miller said. "The nature of what the league is like now, and that abrupt ending with no clear path forward, I didn't know how it would work out. I was trying to think about what else could happen. But after spending some time and reflecting, I wanted to give myself an opportunity to keep going if I could, and it worked out."

3. The 2020-21 Ducks season is all about transitioning to the youth. And so fans are getting a little impatient that 2019 first-round pick Trevor Zegras, a hero for the gold-medal-winning U.S. at this winter's World Juniors Championships, hasn't gotten an NHL opportunity yet. The 19-year-old Zegras shined in his AHL debut this week, scoring a goal and two assists.

Miller said Zegras came to Anaheim early this summer, and the two skated together for a few months. I asked Miller for his impression of the prized Ducks prospect. "Talented player; easy-going demeanor where he wants to try anything, and he's not afraid to try anything," Miller said. "I think early on, he was trying to size me up, try to figure out how to score at a different level. He was definitely creative, he did a few things that were unexpected. But it was also fun to show him some of the things that came a little easy are not easy."

4. Auston Matthews has entered the MVP conversation. It's been a blazing hot start for the 23-year-old American, who has a league-high 10 goals in 11 games.

A couple of interesting notes on Matthews entering this season. First, it really feels like he's on the cusp of superstardom (which probably would have been achieved in the U.S. by now, if he were playing on an American team). This year, Forbes has Matthews topping the list of highest-earning hockey players, with a salary of roughly $13 millions and endorsements of $3 million. I asked around to a couple of people in the know, and folks found this list generally accurate, with some slight inflation or estimations here or there. There's plenty of room for Matthews to grow; Alex Ovechkin leads all hockey players, per Forbes, with $5 million in endorsements, a number which still pales to athletes in the NBA and NFL. The key for Matthews in 2022 will be how much he wants to put himself out there, because the marketing potential is there.

Another thing on Matthews: People keep discussing how quick he looks on the ice. This offseason, Matthews began working with Chicago-based trainer Ian Mack, whose workouts are body-movement based and focus on muscle elasticity and getting the body to move in concert. Patrick Kane began working with Mack ahead of the 2018-19 season -- and went on to score a career-high 110 points. That was Kane's age-30 season, and he also averaged a career high in ice time per game (22:29).

"I'm playing a lot more, but I feel pretty fresh every night," Kane told me in 2019, about his work with Mack. "I honestly think I feel better now than I did in my 20s. I really do."


Three stars of the week

David Pastrnak, RW, Boston Bruins

Pastrnak surprised many by tying Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring lead last season. But after hip surgery this offseason, some people were suggesting the 24-year-old was a prime candidate for regression in 2021. It doesn't look that way, after he scored five goals (including a hat trick against Philly) in just three games this week.

Jeff Petry, D, Montreal Canadiens

He's been an underrated breakout star of the Canadiens' sizzling hot start. Petry has six goals in 12 games this season -- including four goals in four games this week -- which is tied for the most by any defenseman through 12 games over the last 20 seasons. That's all the more impressive considering Petry didn't score his sixth goal until Game 41 of the 2019-20 campaign.

Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have been more competitive than expected, and boast three legitimate Calder Trophy candidates. But it's still Kane leading the way. He had a terrific week, scoring three goals and six assists for nine points in three games (while averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time per game). That includes this assist on Sunday's overtime winner:


What we liked this week

1. In his age-37 season, Duncan Keith is proving he's still elite in sass. After a two-game stretch this week where he recorded 10 shots (he typically averages only two per game) the defenseman told reporters: "Getting the Corsi up so you guys think I'm good."

2. It's been a strange start to the Pittsburgh Penguins' season, but a bright spot has been rookie defenseman Pierre-Oliver Joseph, who is making the most of a larger opportunity, thanks to a rash of blue-line injuries. Joseph -- whose older brother, Mathieu, is also getting a larger role in Tampa Bay this season -- has the highest plus-minus of any Penguins player this season (plus-5) and scored his first NHL goal on Saturday.

"He's been excellent," teammate Jake Guentzel said. "It's been fun to watch, to be honest with you. His poise and how he handles himself -- how much confidence he has with the puck. That was a goal scorer's shot. ... To be part of a first goal is pretty cool."

3. I honestly did not know Justin Faulk had this in him. The former Hurricanes defenseman is off to a great start in his second season St. Louis, looking more confident now that he has a better defined role.

4. According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, the Senators are shopping veteran Derek Stepan. While he was brought over (as part of a salary dump trade in Arizona) to be a veteran presence for a rebuilding team, I have total respect for management for understanding what is truly in the player's best interest. Hopefully they can work something out.


What we didn't like this week

1. The Buffalo Sabres were forced to temporarily shut down their season due to a cluster of COVID-19 cases and exposures -- including coach Ralph Krueger -- and they were quite upset about it. The issue is mostly with the NHL league office and the New Jersey Devils and surrounds the topic of transparency.

According to Bob McKenzie, Sabres players contacted the NHLPA with concerns ahead of a game against the Devils on Jan. 30, where several New Jersey players had been put on the COVID-restricted list. Kyle Palmieri played on Jan. 30, then was added to the list the next day. It was an inflection point for the league, which has already seen Dallas and Carolina weather early-season outbreaks. Vegas has also had issues, while Minnesota and Colorado were forced to pause this week. The NFL's doctors reported they don't believe the coronavirus "crossed the line of scrimmage" this season, but it's unclear if that's the case in hockey -- which is inherently different because it is played indoors, with less ventilation. Detroit coach Jeff Blashill suggested this week he believes his team was infected by playing Carolina earlier this season.

The NHL will continue to follow the advice of its medical advisors. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me this week the league plans to layer in more rapid testing "as we go forward," which will help with the game-day lag we've been seeing in the PCR testing that manifested with the Devils-Sabres fiasco. The NHL and NHLPA have been working on securing more rapid tests -- with the understanding that even though the results are available in 15 minutes, which is great, there is a higher probability for false positives.

I've been told that several teams have had talks with their players to please continue to exercise caution. Even if bars or indoor dining are open in a team's home market, players are being advised to stay away, as well as to continue to limit social interactions. We'll see how this all shakes out.

The league has been committed to being adaptable. As many front office folks have mentioned over the past few days, pay more attention to team's points percentage, as well as teams in the same division completing around the same number of games, with the understanding that maybe not everyone is going to be able to complete the full 56.

2. This is a sad, sad stat:

3. As Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl go, so do the Oilers. While it's been incredibly fun to see them dominate (McDavid has two or more points in seven straight games) it's concerning how much the Oilers rely upon them. For example, the duo played the final 5:45 of Saturday night's game against Calgary. Yes, there were some stoppages baked in there. But 5:45! That's Alex-Kovalev-five-minute-shift vibes. Just insane.


Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Thursday, Feb. 11: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

New Jersey gets back in action following its COVID-induced pause. Philadelphia, meanwhile, welcomes back Sean Couturier, the reigning Selke Trophy winner, back any game now. The No. 1 center had been out since he suffered a costochondral separation on Jan. 15, the second game of the season, but was activated off injured reserve on Sunday.

Saturday, Feb. 13: Carolina Hurricanes at Dallas Stars, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

The Central Division has been unexpectedly competitive, especially at the top of the standings. In this two-game set, both playoff hopeful teams are jockeying for position in the standings.

Sunday, Feb. 14: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3 p.m.

It's the nationally televised game of the week. It's fitting this game is on Valentines Day, because there's nothing NBC loves more than playing up the battle between Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin.


Social media post of the week

This is the type of roast only a veteran coach could pull off. Lindy Ruff is a legend.