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Top Shelf: Joseph gives way to Joe Save

Curtis Joseph of the Toronto Maple Leafs had a career record of 454-352-90-6. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Curtis Joseph of the Toronto Maple Leafs had a career record of 454-352-90-6. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

It was great to see one last wave from Curtis Joseph.

The 42-year-old Keswick, Ont., native officially said goodbye to the hockey world – at least, the professional ranks – on Tuesday, noting he’d still be at the rink most days of the week watching his boys play the game he excelled at for so long.

Joseph’s retirement comes as no surprise, but still represented a spot of bad news for road hockey goalies everywhere. That’s because Joseph’s exodus expedites the extinction of a dying phenomenon: goalies who rely on instinct over instruction to make saves.

Sure, we’ve still got Tim Thomas flopping out there and Marty Brodeur has always employed an unpredictable hybrid style all his own. But the majority of puckstoppers in the league – and, I have to believe, all of them coming up through the lower ranks – now rely on rigid movements and perfectly honed positioning to fend off pucks.

It’s a completely understandable approach, as Joseph himself acknowledged.

“The coaching is spectacular in the NHL as far as where goalies were and where they’re going,” he said. “It makes sense how to play now, especially with the equipment, it just makes a lot of sense.”

True, but the inherent danger in employing logic to things is it often comes at the expense of fun. Certainly there’s a measure of enjoyment in watching someone who’s mastered his craft the way Buffalo Sabres prospective MVP Ryan Miller has. But can the fan experience now really match what it was like watching the last Sabres superstar, Dominik Hasek, fling his way to glory while foiling shooters?

In some ways, the rabid schooling of goalies is comparable to the approach coaches took in the mid-‘90s when they figured out you would smash a lot of whiteboards trying to soften stone hands, but you could teach defense to a rock.  

I’m not suggesting goalies are any less able-bodied now than they were in eras past; athletes continue to get bigger, faster, stronger and stoppers are no exception.

What I am saying, from a selfish third-party observer standpoint, is guys like Joseph were more entertaining to watch than the over-padded robotic crease-roamers we have now.

“The goaltenders these days – and there’s some really good ones – if you take four shots at these guys from the same spot, they’re going to stop it the exact same way every time,” said Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “He would be creative. He was a creative goaltender, he stopped the puck in different manners and he used his athleticism to get across. And it wasn’t always slide across with the glove save, he’d stack the pads sometimes, he’d roll over. I think he really felt the game and was really good at that.

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“When we do our pre-game prep on a goalie you’re looking for a consistent weakness. You couldn’t really find one on him because he wouldn’t necessarily stop the puck the same way every time.”

It seems to me if the world took the same approach to teaching music as hockey has to tutoring goalies, we’d get an orchestra hall full of classical guitarists, but no more Eric Claptons. I fear the day isn’t far off that we hear proud parents yelling out, “Great T-push!” to their little masked munchkins.

There’s no going back on the way goalies are trained now, nor should there be given the results. Across the board, the position is played more effectively than ever, thanks largely to the efficiency of the techniques ‘tenders use. The fast-paced nature of the game is such that we will always get our share of those reactionary saves that produce protruding veins on play-by-play men across the league.

Still, the loss of a true soloist means a note or two less inspiration for the next generation.

“Before me was Mike Palmateer,” said Joseph in reference to the Leafs goalie lineage. “I got excited about watching him, he was very athletic and very exciting and very showy.

“I tried to be a lot along those lines and make sure I never gave up on a puck, just have a great work ethic and try and make those saves, whether they were spectacular or not.”

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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