By: Norman Yallen
Why is Tim Thomas so good? I don’t mean this as a matter of being bitter over the Bruins winning (although I am); I mean that when you watch him play he logically should not be good. Any time a friend of mine watches him they remark that he flops around in the net and opine that he can’t be successful. I then look at him and say, yeah, he’s just lucky and snipe that I am sure his run of luck will end soon. Then I watched game after game, as Thomas stopped shot after shot, and during tonight’s Game 7 I began to think that perhaps this isn’t luck. Perhaps Tim Thomas knows something about playing goaltender that I, my friends, and hockey fans and experts do not know. In an age where almost every goalie plays a butterfly, or a systematic style, it is Thomas and his free-flowing style based on feel, that stands alone atop the hockey world.
In the early days of hockey playing goalie was a much different job than it is today. For starters, before Jacques Plante, no goalie used the facemask. Now, when I think about this I think that they must have gotten hit in the face very often. While that did sometimes happen, it did not happen as often as fans would think because as a result of not wanting their face knocked off goaltenders played differently. They played a standup style where they would never flop down on their pads to save the pucks. This was done because if a goalie were to go down to save the puck, he would get hit in the face. With the introduction of the facemask, the position changed. It now became logical to go down because without fear of a puck hitting your face, it increased the goalie’s chances of stopping a shot. Inherently today we know that a good goalie goes down to protect against most shots, since he is taller than the net and can now cover more ground.
After the popularization of the mask, it eventually became apparent that a good goalie had to go down on most shots. By the 1980’s, a young goalie named Patrick Roy was taking Montreal and hockey by storm. Besides talking to goalposts (look it up that actually happened) his other prime innovation was popularizing the modern pro butterfly style that goalies such as Roberto Luongo use today. Now, I don’t want this article to get bogged down by the finer points of the style, as I am no goaltending expert and am not trying to write as such. From what I gather, the major points of the butterfly are that the goalie plays low, and as stationary as possible. When they go down, they spread their legs with toes facing outward, and knees close together. This way they cover most of the net, and it logically seems like the way goaltending would most efficiently be done. However, when I watch Carey Price he does this perfectly, and when I watch Roberto Luongo he does this perfectly, yet they are not holding up the Conn Smythe Trophy and Tim Thomas is.
Tim Thomas could not get a starting job in the NHL until he was 31. He bounced around the minor leagues, and spent some time playing in Finland. He made the NCAA Frozen Four, and was a star in Finland winning a championship and an MVP, yet it took him years to find a job in the NHL. You and I know the reason for this, which is that Tim Thomas does not look like a good goalie, he looks like a man just guessing where the puck is. If he stops it then it must be luck. But once he stops it over and over it must not be luck. Finally the Boston Bruins figured this out and made him there starting goaltender. He had a form and a style that made a goaltending coach cringe, which is to say a lack of a set system, but that style is the reason why he is the goalie he is today. After watching him tonight, and throughout these playoffs fans are acknowledging it is not a fluke. What is it that Tim Thomas has that his peers, who logically should be stopping more shots than him, do not have?
If I were to go to a goalie coach and offer him a lot of money to be a great goalie here is what he would and should do. He will assume that I have no inherent gift of recognizing where the puck will go. He will probably play me in a butterfly, or a hybrid style like Martin Brodeur’s that also has sound, consistent positioning. Now we know I am covering the most net by going down into the same position. We have recognized I am a fallible human being who cannot stop every shot so we have put me in a situation where I have stopped the most shots possible. However, Tim Thomas is not like me because Tim Thomas has a gift for assessing where the puck is going to go. Wayne Gretzky had a gift for assessing where the play would be at the forward position, and Tim Thomas has it at goaltender. If you don’t believe me I suggest you put on the tape of Game 7 (unless you are a Canucks fan, although I’m sure if you are then you already believe me). These goalies that consistently go in a similar position are putting themselves in a place where they believe they can stop the most shots possible, although some are bound to go in. What Tim Thomas is trying to do is unique, because he will go into a different position on every shot with no set method because his goal isn’t to stop as many shots as possible; his goal is to stop every shot.
Say you and me are writing a science pop quiz, and there are 4 true or false questions. We do not know the answers but we do know 2 will be true and 2 will be false. The logical butterfly approach to this problem would be to write 4 true or 4 false, because that way we know we will get 2 correct. Tim Thomas would try to answer based on feel, so he would risk getting all 4 wrong for the chance to get all 4 right. For most kids that would be dumb, but I have a friend who is brilliant at science. Why should he confine himself to this system that limits his potential? Even if he is not sure, he should trust his logic and scientific sense and believe they will guide him for 4 answers. Because 2 answers right will be a 50 percent, and my friend should want to get it perfect. Tim Thomas is to goaltending what my friend is to science. The goal of a goaltender should not be to stop as many shots as possible; the goal should be to stop every shot. That is why you will see Tim Thomas risking a goal by coming out of the net to challenge the shooter, because his goal is simply to stop every shot. He does this on feel and feel alone, because if you have a knack for knowing where shots would be, you should not guess on probabilities, you should answer with what that gifted science student just knows.
Tim Thomas has bettered Roberto Luongo in this series because playing by feel, if you are able to do it, is better than playing by a set system. For a goaltending of limited ability, the butterfly is the system that allows them to stop the most shots. For a goaltender of unlimited ability to anticipate where the puck will be, he should not confine himself to a certain place; he should flop to where that puck will be. Roberto Luongo had some great games and some terrible ones, because he was doing what he always does to stop the most shots. This consistency gives him a weakness the shooter can exploit because they know where he is not going to be. Tim Thomas does not have any set positioning, so he could be anywhere. That is much harder for a shooter to anticipate and attack.
I was talking with my Dad about how to act in social settings the other night. I was saying that while I believe I am funny, sometimes I act too much like a comedian, and I go overboard. He said that there is not set rule or system on knowing how much is going overboard, you just have to rely on feel. In essence, what he was saying what that I could just rely on my internal filter. I find in thinking about it, I often know when I am going overboard with the jokes, and that playing it on feel is a much better way to do better on social interactions than to have a set system. A butterfly approach to social relationships would be there is a set rule of jokes you should tell at this time so as to prohibit you from going overboard. I know as a funny guy that that limits my humour, which is one of my strengths. Right now, almost every goalie in hockey is playing a system that limits their potential to stop every shot, except for one goalie. In an age where goalies are limiting where they can play and how they can play, Tim Thomas has become the best goalie not in spite of removing the conventional limits, but because of it.