Steve Valiquette’s NHL playing career was over. But it didn’t feel that way. Not according to the pain shooting through his body one day nine years ago when he was walking down the stairs at his house. All that coaching was doing a number on his body. All because of one particular technique he had to demo again and again.
Maybe it was all Sergei Bobrovsky’s fault.
Just kidding. He did nothing wrong in the 2012-13 season. Quite the opposite. He was so incredibly good for the Columbus Blue Jackets that he won the Vezina Trophy. One of the primary techniques behind the .932 save percentage he posted that season: the reverse VH, which he added to his game with help from Blue Jackets goalie coach Ian Clark. Whereas the traditional ‘VH’ technique had the goalie’s short-side pad and skate vertical when pressed up against the post on side-door plays, the reverse VH had the pad closest to the post flat and horizontal along the ice. The reverse VH rose in popularity after Bobrovsky was credited with executing it to perfection. It became a teaching craze at every level.
So there Valiquette was, teaching the reverse VH over and over in practices when he was working as the goaltending coach for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“I’m coaching it, and I’m wearing knee pads under my track suit, and I’m getting into that move every day, and now I’m walking down the stairs in my house sideways,” said Valiquette, now a New York Rangers analyst for MSG. “Because walking down the natural way, I felt a real impingement under my kneecaps, like my patellas were on fire.”
It was then that he realized innovation sometimes brought sacrifice along with it. The modern goaltender, armed with more access to research and analytics and data than any other generation ever had, has found the most effective ways to stop pucks. Techniques like the reverse VH are among several necessary strategies goalies use to adapt to an ever-changing game, which is faster than ever. But it’s also more gruelling than ever, and every portion of a netminder’s daily workload, from the drills to the techniques to the games, is taking a toll.
Just look at the NHL infirmary this season alone. Robin Lehner, Carey Price and Chris Driedger are sitting out altogether. Matt Murray went down after a single game. Then his new Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Ilya Samsonov did. The New Jersey Devils lost their full tandem in Mackenzie Blackwood and (briefly) Vitek Vanecek while third-string Jonathan Bernier is still working his way back from hip surgery and hasn’t played since December 2021. The Ottawa Senators had to use a waiver claim on Magnus Hellberg at one point with Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg both hurt.
Don’t forget about Jake Oettinger, too. Or Jeremy Swayman. Or Frederik Andersen. Oh, Elvis Merzlikins just got hurt while I was working on this story. Can’t put any weight on his leg. While reviewing the final draft for this story the next morning? News drops that Marc-Andre Fleury has an upper-body injury. You can’t make this stuff up.
The casualties continue to accumulate in the blue paint. And…it’s only November. The season is roughly a month old and we’ve seen 73 goaltenders log NHL action among 32 NHL teams already. Twenty years ago, the NHL’s 30 teams used 76 goalies for the entire season. Thirty years ago: 56 goalies all year for the NHL’s 24 teams.
What’s happening to our goaltenders? Injuries among them are seemingly becoming an epidemic. Is it the techniques? The speed of the game? Are they simply less tolerant of pain than generations past? We may have to combine several theories to explain what’s happening.