How did I miss this? Not sure of the exact publication date, but sometime in the last week Slava Malamud over at Sport Express caught up with Washington Capitals goaltender coach Arturs Irbe and got his opinion on the goaltending situation in Vancouver.
The forthcoming Olympic Games might become historic for several reasons. It will be the first played on a North-American-sized rink and it is entirely possible that it will be the last one with the participation of players from the NHL. Also, for the first time in many years, it may present us with a finale featuring the strongest combination of players from Team Russian and Team Canada. And there is yet another milestone: it is entirely possible that Russia will come to Vancouver with the strongest goaltending brigade in the tournament.
Protecting the net wasn't a matter of paramount importance when Russian players were wearing CCCP on their chest, nor has it been in the post-Soviet era. The national style was a brilliant display of attacks and combinations, while the last line was paid far less attention. At best the position was entrusted to someone with unique natural talent. Now, however, Russia has four main goaltenders in the NHL and they are all in excellent shape. Can it really be that the last line of our national team will be our advantage over Canada, where we've always thought that great goaltenders grow on trees? And which among them can become the unexpected hero of the Games? Our expert Arturs Irbe answers these questions for Sport-Express.
Do you agree that Russia will have the best goaltender brigade at the Olympic Games?
"I think that's a little bit exaggerated. Although, perhaps, it is closer to the truth than it has ever been before. Especially in light of the fact that in recent years European and Canadian hockey have, in fact, merged. Russia has a very good selection. I'm sure this is a really nice problem for Slava Bykov."
And if this was your problem-whom would you choose as your number one?
"I don't think I have any right to talk about this. For sure someone would be offended or accuse me of having a bias. It's better that I refrain from answering."
Well, what if you could only choose between Bryzgalov or Nabokov, the winners of the last two World Championships?
"I could say that you need both of them to play in Vancouver. The tournament is very short, with a really difficult schedule, so you need to use two goaltenders. My experience has shown me that professionals in the Olympic Games can sometimes be knocked off their usual groove. The unusual practice and game schedules, always being in the same place, always being under scrutiny, the long waits.... and goaltenders are used to preparing according to a normal schedule, smooth and predictable."
You've said that the North American and European styles have blended together. Does this also apply to goaltenders?
Yeah, the goaltending schools are also, shall we say, hybridized. Europeans have learned something from the North Americans and vice-versa. It's really meaningless to contrast the two hockey schools now. The best goalies in the NHL are now using a mixed style. In the 90's when they were just getting used to the Europeans, the situation was different. Hasek made his way first, then me and Tommy Salo. We didn't play like the Canadians, and they didn't quite trust us. But now there's really no difference."
What can you say about Canadian goaltenders?
"The Canadians, just like everyone else, has to select their first pair. The third goalie is basically needed for emergency situations. It doesn't make sense to dress him for games, and you really can't have a normal practice with three goaltenders. As for the first pair, in any case Martin Brodeur deserves to be there. For second place you need to pick someone who can play at the NHL level. And for third place it makes sense to choose one of the young guys, like Fleury, Mason, or Price. They will be happy just to be there at the Olympics, and they won't spoil the atmosphere in the dressing room if they don't play. I think it makes sense to do the same thing with the other teams, including Russia."
Sometimes it's not the best team that wins the Olympics, but the best goaltender. In Nagano the Czechs were far from the best team, but they won because they had a superman in net, and one who was at his peak-Hasek. Who's going to be the Hasek this time?
"I agree, the Czechs weren't the strongest team but won because of a great goaltender. Who can become the next Hasek? Well, you've got Ryan Miller on team USA, for example, but personally I would pay attention to the Swedes and the Finns. The Finns have never won Olympic gold, and now they have a have whole host of distinguished goaltenders. It's like they [have an assembly line and] are just stamping them out. So I'm going to choose them as the dark horse.
By the way, is the Finnish school noticeable in your young ward, Semyon Varlamov? How does it show itself most often?
"Yeah, it's noticeable, but just a little. He's only been working with a Finnish coach for the last two years. The main features of the Finnish school are brilliantly delivered technique, skating, and movements. Finnish goaltenders are very economical and refined in their movements; they don't have any unnecessary hand movements, they always set up at the correct angle from the very first movement, without any extra steps, and they are always in the correct position."
But with Varlamov there's an impression that sometimes he saves himself with his athleticism and flexibility.
"Well, that's just a sign of youth."