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NHL skaters have a ways to go to catch up to goalies

Part of Chuck Fletcher’s challenge is to apply his intellect and experience to elevate the skaters to the goalies’ standard. It may be an impossible task.

Part of Chuck Fletcher’s challenge is to apply his intellect and experience to elevate the skaters to the goalies’ standard.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Chuck Fletcher is a Harvard graduate. Part of his hockey education took place at the side of father Cliff Fletcher, a Hockey Hall of Famer. The Minnesota Wild general manager once worked as an agent for Newport Sports Management. He rescued his team's season last year by acquiring Devan Dubnyk from Arizona for a third-round pick.

Fletcher needs neither his diploma nor his credentials to identify the element that has revolutionized hockey. His eyes do that just fine.

"There's no question the biggest advancement in coaching and skill development in the last 20 years," Fletcher said, "has been with respect to goaltending."

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Equipment has helped goalies reach their zenith. Pads are taller than the Eiffel Tower. Gloves can scoop up enough salmon to handle the dinner rush at Legal Sea Foods.

But the position's biggest advancement is in education. Goalies of all ages have never been taught as well as they are now. Techniques such as reverse VH, pushing laterally while on the pads, and playing deep haven't just been identified and thought out well. Goalie coaches are teaching and reinforcing good habits throughout the year.

Most teams employ two goalie coaches: one to work with their varsity stoppers, another to mentor their prospects. In the NHL, goalie coaches review every goal allowed and critical save with their pupils. Even mites receive position-specific instruction that skaters do not. The NHL's simple numbers — one coach for two goalies — promotes a depth of teaching that is not available for the other 18 players.

Like his 29 colleagues, part of Fletcher's challenge is to apply his intellect and experience to elevate the skaters to the goalies' standard. It may be an impossible task.

"When you really look at the game and the evolution of the game," said Fletcher, "the equipment's bigger, the goaltenders are bigger, the net's the same size. In some ways, it's probably a losing battle. I'm not sure we'll get back to where we used to be, with eight or nine goals a game or whatever it used to be. I think those days are probably gone."

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Part of Fletcher's approach is to give his players the green light to seek outside counsel. Zach Parise has hired skills coach Darryl Belfry for on-ice tutorials during the offseason. Belfry also counts Sidney Crosby and Max Pacioretty among his clients. This season, the Maple Leafs hired Belfry as a skills consultant.

For forwards like Parise, Belfry's principles include maximizing crossovers, manipulating defensemen's feet, and transferring weight. These are player-specific corrections that an NHL coach with systems and personalities on his mind may not have time to make.

Parise's teammates take a similar summer approach. Charlie Coyle trains and practices his on-ice skills in Foxborough under the watch of Brian McDonough, owner of Edge Performance Systems. Christian Folin, a two-year player at UMass Lowell, works with skating coach Adam Nicholas.

As critical as summer is for recovery, it's also an important window for players to work on how they skate, handle the puck, and process the game. During the season, those opportunities are not always available, especially amid a three-in-four grind.

"His theory is that [you do it] if you can get 5 percent better in one area," Fletcher said of Parise. "Can you dramatically change your game? I think it would probably be hard. But there's no reason you couldn't find a way to get better, whether it's deflections, working on your one-timer, different things like that.

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"There's probably skills you can improve enough to add a couple goals per year. When you see Zach doing it, then obviously he feels there's a way to get better. He's just looking for any small edge you can get."

The Wild term some of their practices "skills days." The players shoot, stickhandle, and tip throughout these sessions. But it's hard for coach Mike Yeo and his staff to find enough time for development. Last Thursday, the Wild concluded a four-game, eight-day road swing at TD Garden. The priority of the trip was survival, not skills work.

So Fletcher has given his players the green light to hire coaches in the offseason. Meanwhile, Fletcher and his colleagues prioritize skill when making personnel decisions regarding pro and amateur players. The NHL, after all, is not a development league.

"Once the players get to this level, oftentimes it's hard to make dramatic improvements with them once they get into their mid-20s," Fletcher said. "You can maybe pick up your skating and improve it a little bit, improve your shot a little bit. But a lot of the developmental work has been done before they get to this level."

In a dream world, Fletcher would hire more coaches and specialists to improve specific skills with the Wild and their prospects. But even with unlimited resources, the skaters may not be able to catch up.

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"The sheer reality of it is that goaltenders are winning," Fletcher said. "It's probably going to be tough to reverse that."

SAVE THOSE PICKS

Draft is no place to bank a goalie

Tuukka Rask has a .890 save percentage.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Some of the goalies who have seen NHL time this season have not played well. Jonas Hiller (.861 save percentage), Eddie Lack (.861), and Cam Talbot (.890) are three examples. None of the three was drafted.

But consider some of the other puckstoppers whose numbers are also in the tank: Semyon Varlamov (.890), Tuukka Rask (.890), and Jonathan Bernier (.895). Collectively, they are earning $17.05 million annually. All were first-round picks.

Goaltending is a volatile position that depends on the play of others. Rask is a good example.

The former Vezina Trophy winner has a history of high-end performance. But his save percentage is in the toilet, mostly because of how poorly the Bruins have defended. Rask has taken some goals off the scoreboard. But not enough for the Bruins to be in a top-eight position.

The Bruins are paying Rask $7 million for a sub-.900 save percentage. Conversely, other teams that have not invested resources via salary and picks are getting more bang for their buck.

The Rangers acquired Antti Raanta from Chicago for undrafted forward Ryan Haggerty. Raanta, who is making $750,000 annually, has a .955 save percentage. After signing undrafted goalie Mike Condon in 2013, the Canadiens now have the Holliston native under contract through next year at $575,000 per season. Condon has a .913 save percentage and was the starter during Carey Price's absence.

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Jonas Gustavsson, who became a Bruin via a tryout, has a .914 save percentage while earning $700,000. Rask's play has not been worth a $6.3 million premium more than his backup.

Of the 11 first-round picks tending goal in the NHL, Price, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Cory Schneider have been good. But Henrik Lundqvist (seventh round), Pekka Rinne (eighth), and Jaroslav Halak (ninth) have been sharp, too.

These days, it's not hard to find a goalie outside of the draft's opening rounds. The supply is higher than it's ever been.

The performance of historically good goalies such as Rask, Varlamov, and Sergei Bobrovsky underscores how even the best need help from their teammates. You don't see this kind of season-to-season variance among skaters, regardless of how bad their teams may be.

There are two conclusions: First, teams shouldn't invest high picks in goalies. Second, it's a surer bet to pay a skater big money than a goalie.

RIGHT MOVES

Burns, Byfuglien forces on defense

Dustin Byfuglien is a former right wing who is now right-shot defensemen.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

It is no coincidence that Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien, the NHL's best forwards-turned-defensemen, share characteristics. Burns (6 feet 5 inches, 230 pounds) and Byfuglien (6-5, 260) are behemoths. They are former right wings who are now right-shot defensemen. They spin around the rink with the ease and grace of figure skaters.

But the quality that makes them unique is how they've transferred their up-front rambunctiousness to the back end.

"He's a beast," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Burns. "So big, strong, mobile. Skates well. Shoots the puck well. They've got a good asset back there."

Burns last played right wing in 2013-14 under former Sharks coach Todd McLellan. Burns took most of his shifts next to Joe Thornton. On the forecheck, Burns was a straight-line, freight-train force. When he didn't run opponents over, he was skilled and mobile enough to slalom around them. Byfuglien played the same way when Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice used him at right wing.

Since they've shifted to the blue line, they man the defensive zone with the same decisiveness and brute force.

Last year, Burns averaged 23:57 of ice time. Through 19 games, coach Peter DeBoer has bumped his best defenseman up to 26:30 per outing. DeBoer, formerly New Jersey's coach, had Burns during last year's World Championships.

"I had an appreciation for him coming in," DeBoer said. "He was the best defenseman of the tournament there last May. I knew how special this guy could be. I think he's translating that to an NHL season.

"Having a guy like Paul Martin has helped him. It allows him to do his thing, which is as good as anybody in the league. I don't think there's another defenseman with the package of skill and size and physicality that he has."

Through 19 games, Burns (5-9—14) led all defensemen with 83 shots on goal. Byfuglien (5-5—10 in 20 games) was second (68).

Moving from right wing to defense is hard. The two big men have made it look easy.

ETC.

Wild’s defense takes a big hit

Marco Scandella will be out at least one week.Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Minnesota placed Marco Scandella on injured reserve Thursday because of a lower-body injury that will keep him out at least one week. "He's a huge part of our defensive group, playing in our top four," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "He plays kind of in that third D pairing if you look at how it's slotted. But his minutes would suggest he doesn't play that way. Huge part of our defensive game. The execution part of it, his skating ability, his play on the special teams, that's going to be a lot of opportunity for someone to step in and take advantage of it." Scandella (3-3—6) was averaging 20:02 of ice time, fourth among Wild defensemen. What was arguably the league's deepest defensive corps is now down an important player. The amount of inquiries made on Minnesota's defensemen will decrease for now. But if Christian Folin plays well during Scandella's absence, the former UMass Lowell defenseman could gain interest later in the season.

A bump in popularity

On the power play, most teams funnel their offense through the off-side wall or the point. In comparison, Patrice Bergeron quarterbacks the Bruins' No. 1 unit as the bumper from the slot. With quick bumps, Bergeron distributes the puck to all areas. When available, Bergeron rips off shots or tips pucks. "I think he's kind of the key," Yeo said. "It's interesting how things have changed a little bit. Some of the most successful [power plays] were the quarterback or the guy who kind of controls things is the guy on the back end. [Bergeron] is kind of a unique player where he controls things a little bit more from the middle of the ice."

Clarity is being challenged

The NHL is a month-plus into the coach's challenge. All it's done is create confusion about what is a goal and what isn't. A graze of a goalie has wiped out goals. Multiple jabs at a goalie trying to play the puck have not taken goals off the scoreboard. No coach can say with certainty what will happen when he issues a challenge. The process is a punch line, capped by the tablets the referees use to watch replays. They'd be better off lifting their heads and watching the replays on the scoreboard. Perhaps the challenge will become more illuminated with time. Right now, it's as light as midnight.

There are tricks to this trade

Travis Hamonic is under contract through 2020 at an excellent average annual value of $3,857,143.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Thursday, Travis Hamonic confirmed Sportsnet's news that he had requested a trade from the Islanders. Hamonic emphasized that his wishes were because of family reasons. The hard-nosed defenseman is from St. Malo, Manitoba. It would be hard for the 25-year-old to return to his home province. Winnipeg is already three deep on the right side with Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba. Byfuglien would not be an acceptable swap because he'll be unrestricted after this season. Hamonic is under contract through 2020 at an excellent average annual value of $3,857,143, according to war-on-ice.com. Myers is signed through 2019 at $5.5 million annually. Trading Myers for Hamonic wouldn't necessarily make the Jets better. Trouba is restricted after this season and has a higher ceiling. Of the Western Canadian teams, Edmonton would be the likeliest trading partner. The Oilers need help on defense. But GM Peter Chiarelli will not cede Oscar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse. Islanders GM Garth Snow would have to consider one of Edmonton's young forwards. Nail Yakupov alone would not bring back Hamonic.

Falling stars

The dreadful NHL All-Star Game might become even worse when it takes place in Nashville on Jan. 31. There will be four teams, one from each division, playing a three-on-three tournament. Each game will be 20 minutes. That's a very long time to watch uninterested players dog it up and down the ice. The $1 million bonus for the winning team is a good carrot. But it's not enough to make the All-Star Game look like hockey. The sport demands competition, conflict, and ultimately resolution. Otherwise, it's not hockey. Would you watch the Tour de France if the cyclists had to ride tricycles? Of course not. It would be a different sport. Fans pay big money to attend. For some reason, people watch it on TV. The only way the All-Star Game changes for the better — and by that, I mean scrubbed — is for fans to stop paying big money to attend and change the channel.

Ex-Eagle Smith recovering

Former Boston College forward Ben Smith is recovering from a head injury. The 27-year-old Smith, who has played in four games for the Sharks, went through an extended solo session following San Jose's morning skate on Tuesday. Trainers monitored Smith's heart rate to determine his recovery time after each burst of activity . . . Colby College has endowed its men's hockey coaching position, now named the Jack Kelley Head Coach. Kelley coached Colby from 1955-62 before leaving for Boston University. Fittingly, former BU assistant Blaise MacDonald is Colby's head coach.

Loose pucks

Niklas Kronwall Kronwall is not playing as aggressively as he has in years past.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

After 20 games, Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall has been a negative possession player for the first time in his career. Part of this is because of the coaching change from Mike Babcock to Jeff Blashill. But the 34-year-old Kronwall is not playing as aggressively as he has in years past. This might be because he's hesitant to land his trademark bone-crushers. Kronwall was suspended for Game 7 of last year's first round against Tampa Bay for walloping Nikita Kucherov. The bigger concern is whether Kronwall's legs are fading. He's under contract through 2019 at $4.75 million annually . . . One of the biggest statistical quirks is the one goal Nazem Kadri has scored through 19 games. Kadri has been Toronto's best player. He's averaging 18:35 of ice time, most of any Leafs forward. He had 81 shots on net, second in the league after Alex Ovechkin. Once Kadri's luck turns, his production will go through the roof . . . Not sure why TV broadcasts insist on using stupid nicknames ("Beantown," "City of Brotherly Love," "Big Apple," "Windy City") when discussing road teams. They only annoy the natives. Uncle.

Plenty in reverse

Part of what makes elite teams so tough to beat is having little to no drop-off in net when the ace needs a rest. These five backup goaltenders have been top-notch this season (through Thursday's games).

Compiled by Sean Smith

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.