BOSTON — Boston Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa has helped three of his goalies win four Vezina Trophies: Tim Thomas (2009, 2011), Tuukka Rask (2014) and Linus Ullmark (2023). He has collaborated with five head coaches (Mike Sullivan, Dave Lewis, Claude Julien, Bruce Cassidy and Jim Montgomery) since he was hired in 2003.
It is with one Stanley Cup, four Vezinas and three NHL decades at his current post reinforcing his credentials, then, that Essensa classifies the “shin lock” as the maneuver that produces the tightest seal on posts. In addition, Essensa promotes the shin lock, also known as the shin-on-post technique, as being a healthier alternative for goalies’ hips.
But following Rask’s 2022 retirement, there are not many NHL goalies who still use the shin lock regularly. Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, Essensa’s current duo, do it on occasion. Same goes for Brandon Bussi and Kyle Keyser, the organization’s AHL goalies. An informal survey of NHL goalies identified the Ottawa Senators’ Joonas Korpisalo as the one who did it the most.
“That’s probably the first time I’ve heard that term,” said Saros, a 2022 Vezina finalist.
Putting it in reverse
When it comes to sealing posts, the reverse vertical-horizontal (RVH) is a goalie’s preferred method, especially on sharp-angle, in-tight threats. A goalie slams the lead pad flush to the ice. The trail pad is cocked at a 45-degree angle. The lead arm is held tight against the post. When executed correctly, the goalie leaves no short-side daylight save for a slice next to the head.
The RVH, however, requires a dual-purpose foundation, both for sealing the post along the ice and for providing a platform for the movement that may follow. Most goalies use one of two, and sometimes both: skate-on-post and toe lock.
The former is how it sounds. A goalie wedges the skate blade against the post to close the door against on-ice pucks. By loading the skate off the post, a goalie can flow into whatever comes next, be it a cross-crease slide or push to the top of the blue paint.
“I feel that’s how I get my most explosive, powerful pushes,” Keyser said. “I’m able to get to the top of my crease. Get my depth.”
The problem with skate-on-post, though, is that it does not provide an airtight seal. An attacker who is good at jam plays can stuff pucks through the opening above where the skate meets the post.
To counter this problem, goalies use the toe lock. This is where the skate is tucked inside the post. This closes the skate-on-post hole. When executed correctly, the toe lock, also known as the toe bridge, eliminates the on-ice jam play as a scoring threat. A goalie can also load off the toe of the skate to move into the next situation.
“You can just anchor,” Ullmark said of the toe lock. “Because then your skate is on the inside. So you have your toe on the inside of the post and it creates a lock. So if someone tries to jam it, it’s not as easy as people think to jam it in there. Because it’s locked with the pad and the skate.”
The downside of skate-on-post and the toe lock, however, is the strain they place on ankles, knees and hips.
See for yourself.
Use a doorway as an example. Try dropping down into the butterfly. Hold your foot against the door frame and your knee flush to the floor. Lean your hip and arm into the door frame. Load off your foot and jump into an athletic position.
Then do this thousands of times like a goalie would over a season’s worth of games and practices. Invite 10 of your friends to bump and slash and cross-check you at the same time.
“You want two points of contact with the seal of your post. One is low, one is high,” said USA Hockey national goaltending coach David Lassonde. “The first one you normally do with your skate or with your toe bridge. The second one is further up your body, primarily the hip. So when you think about how your leg is kind of parallel, then all of a sudden you’ve got to try and get your hip on the post? It’s almost like the lower part of your body is going in one direction and your hip’s going the other. I’m not so sure your body was made to do that.”
Nobody knows this better than goalies. Just since 2022, Korpisalo, Laurent Brossoit, Anton Khudobin, Robin Lehner, Matt Murray and Daniil Tarasov have required hip surgery. As much of a tool as RVH has become, it has taken its toll on its users.
The way Essensa sees it, the shin lock is a healthier alternative.
“When you get into a toe (lock), now you’re putting pressure on your ankle, on your knee,” said Essensa. “Once you get into a shin (lock), everything just kind of aligns. You’re not stressing those joints as much as you would otherwise. You’re just sitting there, basically pan on post. The seal, for me, is way better. It’s the transition out that’s always a challenge.”
A tricky maneuver
Rask executed the move as well as any goalie in NHL history. The ex-Bruin tucked his shin against the post. He cradled the outside of the post with his arm. The strong side was bricked off. Rask flicked his shin to get to where he was needed next.
“He’s probably the model of what the shin lock was,” said Keyser. “Every goalie coach who’s teaching the shin lock is probably showing video of how Tuukka did it. Because he was so good at it. It felt like there were no holes there. I feel Linus and Sway are kind of the same way. I see them do it in practice sometimes. It’s just really good for those shots from bad angles. You’re just not giving up those holes that sometimes you have when it’s skate-on-post or toe bridge-on-post. Even though you feel like you have it sealed up, there’s always that minor, tiny little bit of hole in there. With that shin lock-on-post, you basically have your entire body locked up on that side. There’s nothing to shoot at.”
Even Rask occasionally struggled with transitioning out of the shin lock. Essensa referenced Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks. Bryan Bickell tied the game after taking a slot-line pass from Jonathan Toews. Rask was slow to move out of the shin lock to challenge Bickell’s shot.
That’s because it’s harder to transition off the shin than it is to explode off the skate or toe, both of which are loading off the post. The kicking motion required to get out of the shin lock is not as natural for goalies to master. Ullmark likens moving from skate-on-post to doing a squat. Transitioning out of shin lock feels more like kicking a football.
Most young goalies start their careers with skate-on-post or the toe lock. All of Lassonde’s teenagers at the U.S. National Team Development Program are this way. Jack Parsons, currently on the under-18 team, is the only one of Lassonde’s charges who occasionally employs the shin lock.
Lyon, 30, was a Yale freshman when Rask won his Vezina. Lyon was paying close attention. As a pro, Lyon hired Markus Lehto, who was Rask’s agent.
Even so, Lyon never felt comfortable incorporating the shin lock. The pro journeyman simply didn’t have enough time.
“I could probably do it if I spent six months focusing on it,” said Lyon. “But you also get to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, I don’t want to change too much in-season. Then I only have two months in the offseason. How much am I going to screw around with things?’ At this point especially in my career, I’m just at a point where I know what works for me and what’s successful.”
Time, or the lack of it, appears to be the primary obstacle between the shin lock and deeper market penetration. That and frustration. It is easy for goalies to experience discouragement practicing an unnatural transition.
“In the beginning when I started, it feels like such a failure,” said Ullmark. “But is it a good thing? Yeah, it’s a good thing. Is it wonky? Yes, it’s wonky. It’s a whole different kind of push to get from the post to another position. And it’s not easy. Because it’s a lot easier doing squats than it is to kick a football.”
At the U.S. NTDP, Lassonde watches over the next generation of American puckstopping prodigies. Lassonde does not see the shin lock often. That does not mean, though, that Lassonde discourages Parsons and the other goalies from tinkering with the shin lock.
Goaltending is constantly evolving. If netminders see the shin lock as a valuable tool, it is a goalie coach’s responsibility to promote toolbox expansion.
“If it works for them, by all means I’m going to find out what it is they like about it,” said Lassonde. “Then I’m going to obviously rep it. Because if it’s a skill that helps them, why wouldn’t we rep it?”
(Top photo of Zdeno Chara defending Matt Cooke as Tuukka Rask executes a shin lock: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)