What is the hardest position to play in hockey? The Goalie

Hockey is not an easy sport to play.

Here is a quote from Hall of Famer and current Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan: 

Is hockey hard? I don’t know, you tell me. We need to have the strength and power of a football player, the stamina of a marathon runner, and the concentration of a brain surgeon. But we need to put all this together while moving at high speeds on a cold and slippery surface while 5 other guys use clubs to try and kill us. Oh yeah, did I mention that this whole time we’re standing on blades 1/8 of an inch thick? Is ice hockey hard? I don’t know, you tell me. Next question.

But of all of the positions – center, winger, defensemen and goalie – which position is the hardest?

The hardest position to play in hockey is the goalie. The goalie takes the longest to learn, is the most mental taxing, the most physically demanding, and often the biggest factor in determining whether a team wins or loses.

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Goalie takes the longest time to develop the necessary skill set

When a player is drafted into the NHL at 18 years old there is a small chance that he will play in the NHL the next season. There will always be 6 to 12 players end up playing in their first eligible season, but most will need a few more years to develop.

Of the 6 to 12 players that end up playing in their first year they will be mostly forwards with the odd defensemen included. The rest of the forwards and defensemen who end up making it to the NHL will end up trickling in over the next two to three years.

But what about the goalies? Well, no one really knows what a good timeline for developing a goalie is other than – it will be awhile!

Goalies will often take until their mid-twenties to get to the NHL. That is 6-8 years after the player was drafted before they make the NHL. It is difficult to pick any player and predict whether they will translate into an NHL player, but with a goalie it is almost impossible. How do you scout someone who is 17 and project what they will be like at 25? 

This is why during the NHL draft most goalies will not be drafted until the 2nd round at the earliest. It is rare to see a goalie go in the first round. There are exceptions such as Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall), Carey Price (5th overall) or Andrie Vasilevskiy (19th overall) who all went in the first round. 

It is much more common for a goalie to be chosen in the draft in later rounds or to come over from Europe as a free agent. For instance, some of the top goalies were drafted later such as Ben Bishop (85th overall 3rd round), Pekka Rinne (258th overall), Henrik Lundqvist (205th overall), Darcy Keumper (161st overall), Sergei Bobrovsky (undrafted), Braden Holtby (93rd overall) etc.

A list that shows most of the star goalies were drafted late does not indicate that they are less valuable than other positions or teammates. What it shows is that the goalie position is so hard to predict how a goalie will develop because the position in itself is so hard to learn. It simply takes many more years to master for a player than other positions before he is ready to play at the highest levels. 

What makes this position so hard to learn and play? Let’s look at some of the factors that make the goalie position so difficult.

Goalies require intense mental concentration and intelligence

The skill and intelligence a goalie requires to play in the NHL is extremely high. Not only do they need to have incredible reflex and reaction times, be in great shape with extremely agile, but they need to be able to read the game – and this is what probably takes so much time.

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A goalie learns to read plays – where a player is going to pass it, how the puck is being shot of the stick and how a play is developing. All of these are necessary skills to get into position to stop the puck. 

So much of goaltending is positioning. The puck is being shot so hard that it would be extremely difficult and foolish to rely on your reflexes. That is why the goalie needs to be in the right position so the puck will hit him and he doesn’t need to worry about making a reflex save.

To be in the right position the goalie must be fantastic at reading and anticipating the play. If the goalie overplays it he will be out of position. If the goalie doesn’t react to the play quickly enough, he will be out of position. The timing of learning where to be in the crease to cut off the angles and stop the shot requires so many years of practice before they are able to handle the pace of play at the NHL level.

All of these skill and mental requirements add up to making the goalie such a difficult position, and why so much more training is required before a player is able to get to the NHL. 

Goalie is more physically taxing than other positions

If an NHL forward or defensemen is healthy they will play, if they can, in all 82 games. 

Now, there is no way that an NHL goalie will ever play 82 games. It would be simply to physically demanding on the goalie to do so. For the most part a top tier goalie will play about 60-65 games a year.

Even about 5 to 10 years ago a goalie would play up to 70 games. Carey Price in 2010-2011 played 72 games and Lundqvist played 70 games plus from 2006 to 2010. However, this is changing and has changed where it is rare for a top goalie to play more than 65 games. 

The first and most obvious reason is that the goalie plays the whole game with no break except for intermissions. Yes, they are not skating up and down the ice, but wearing all that heavy equipment and getting shots fired at you is unbelievably draining energy wise.

Another reason they play less is in preparation for the the playoffs. Most goalies who win the Stanley Cup have played less than 60 games in the year. A team cannot simply overplay their goalie during the regular season and expect them to have much left in the tank for the long playoff run. A goalie is going to wear out at some point, and you do not want that time to be in the playoffs. 

So teams have become much more strategic in how much they play their best goalie during the regular season so they are well-rested and ready for the grind of the playoffs.

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Also, it is very rare for a goalie to play on back-to-back nights. An NHL team will have about a dozen times a year where they will need to play on consecutive nights. Almost always a team will play a different goaltender on each of these nights. It is hard for a normal player to have enough stamina for both of these let alone a goaltender. 

The usual pattern is that the #1 goaltender will get the first night, and the backup goalie will get the second night. Yes, the backup goalie usually gets the short end of the stick by having a tired team in front of him!

No off games: when a goalie has a bad game you lose

One of the hardest thing about being a goalie is little room for error and there is no room for having an off game. If you are bad in net everyone in the building will know it and your team will lose.

This does not mean you always have to be at your best, because teams can still win with average goaltending. However, if you play poorly your team will definitely not win. At the NHL level the games are so tight that one soft goal on any night will often be the difference between winning and losing.

This applies to no other position but the goalie. If you are the leading scorer and play poorly there are still other players who can score. If you are playing poor defensively, there are still other players to help out – including the goalie.

But if you are the goalie and play poorly, the end result is a lot of goals against and a losing team. Now, how is that for pressure!

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

As my daughter began watching NHL games with me, I realized how many questions come up about the sport. Hockey Answered is full of, well, answers! If you are a new fan or lifelong enthusiast, I hope that you can enjoy hockey even more by learning something new around here.

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