Corey Crawford (Getty Images)
Goalies from the province of Quebec ruled NHL creases in the recent past. Not so now. And the butterfly style could be to blame for the shift.
A popular notion is the impact of Quebec on goaltending has diminished significantly. That’s not true, not at all. After all, almost a third of NHL teams – eight to be exact – employ Quebec-born goaltending coaches. The shocking, and blasphemous if you’re from La Belle Province, fact is that total represents double the number of goalies from Quebec who are actually playing in the NHL.
Not including Martin Brodeur, who may or may not find NHL employment, the NHL’s Quebec goaltending fraternity could easily hold its meetings in a Mini Cooper. There was a time, when Patrick Roy made goaltending cool and the position attracted the province’s best athletes, when half the league had a starter or backup goalie from Quebec on its roster. Of the 60 possible goaltenders in the NHL in 2014-15, that number will have likely dwindled to four: Chicago’s Corey Crawford, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier and Florida’s Roberto Luongo.
Sacre bleu. That’s fewer goalies than there are from Saskatchewan and three fewer than from Ontario. But let’s compare apples to apples here. In terms of general population and the number of players registered in youth hockey, the most accurate comparisons for Quebec are Sweden and Finland. And, surprisingly, Quebec finishes behind both Scandinavian countries when it comes to producing goalies, reinforcing the notion other places have discovered Quebec’s secret and have caught up or passed it. “If you notice, there are goalie coaches and goalie camps all across Europe now,” Luongo said. “All these goalie coaches there are teaching kids all summer. And the game has evolved to where they’ve caught up to us.”
Former NHLer Martin Biron, who has settled in Buffalo and is now helping to develop a future generation of American goalies, agrees with that assessment. “I had a goalie coach when I was 12,” Biron said. “That was unheard of then. Now everyone has them.”
Quebec has a population of about 8.2 million and is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada where youth hockey is growing in numbers. It has about 73,000 registered players. Sweden, by contrast, has a population of 9.6 million, but has only about 57,000 boys registered in youth hockey. But it will likely have eight NHL goalies this season. Finland, on the other hand, has a population of just 5.4 million and has about the same numbers in youth hockey participation as Quebec, but it will likely have six NHL keepers.
Back at home, the Quebec pipeline is drying up compared to the rest of the country. For example, in eight of the first 11 seasons the Canadian Hockey League gave out its goaltender of the year award, a Quebec-born player won it. But no goalie from the province has taken the award since Adam Russo – who has spent his pro career playing in Italy and the low minor leagues – did in 2002-03. But it’s at the World Junior Championship level that the dearth has been most felt. There was a time when that position was where Quebec made its most significant contribution to the program, but those days are gone, at least for now.
There’s a very good chance Zach Fucale will return as Canada’s No. 1 goaltender in 2015. Last year, when he started, it was the first time in a decade – since Fleury backstopped Canada to a silver medal in 2004 – that a Quebecer was Canada’s main man in goal. Since then, 21 teenagers have been on Canada’s rosters, and you can literally count the ones from Quebec on one hand: Bernier (2008), Olivier Roy (2011) and Fucale (2014).
Considering Quebec perfected the butterfly and revolutionized the position, this is shocking. Brothers Benoit and Francois Allaire were at the forefront of the movement and now, instead of imparting their wisdom on young goalies, they’re now working for NHL teams. The Patrick Roy factor has faded and, according to observers such as Gilles Moffet, who once was the publisher of a magazine devoted to goalies, the netminders in Quebec have become too robotic and have relied on fundamentals over instincts while the speed of the game has increased.
It’s interesting a game seemingly dominated by analytics for skaters has gone back to the basics for goaltending. The Quebec butterfly was once the go-to tactic for goalies, but now people are starting to punch holes in it. “The butterfly is a safe skill, not a reactive one,” Biron said. “When I was in junior, one of my assistant coaches came to me one day and said, ‘You know, you have to start reacting to the puck. Stop always going butterfly.’ ”