Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark’s ascent to the NHL elite: How one technique tweak changed everything
Maneuver Bob Essensa wanted Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark to execute measures just two inches. Two inches. That’s all it would take, Boston’s goaltending coach thought, for Ullmark to open up a whole new level.
“Backflow” is the term Essensa uses for it: a situational backward movement that a goalkeeper uses, for example, on a spot kick.
“Just a few inches,” says Essensa. “You get to your spot at the top of the paint. Typically when this happens, you will have some kind of net-front (presence). So you get up with your first net guy, give it a little push, create that backlash. In my mind, and I hope in their minds, you’re going to have a second chance, a rebound, a rebound situation, a broken play sooner than they would have once they were in the paint. “
Everything has gone well for Ullmark in 2022-2023. The 29-year-old is playing behind what might be the winningest regular season team in NHL history. He is in the second season of a sizzling partnership with Jeremy Swayman. He optimized his equipment to the point where he scored a goal with his custom Bauer stick. The father-of-two is enjoying last season’s transfer earnings.
It may be that Ullmark’s inclusion of the back-flow has fueled his greater degree of ball-stopping ability. Two inches of drift have boosted nearly all of his strengths, from scoring to rebounding to ball-handling, to the point where he leads the league in every traditional goaltending category: wins, goals-against average, save percentage. General managers will determine whether the Vezina Trophy should be Ullmark’s reward for all of these accomplishments. He deserves.
Essensa says the return is “definitely the biggest improvement” that has led to this success.
For almost all of 2021-22, his first season in Boston, Ullmark didn’t want to do it.
Imagine a car in city traffic. Stops and starts repeatedly. All this braking and acceleration produces wear.
Goalkeepers are the same way. For Ullmark, 20-plus years of exploding from his edges, slamming the brakes when he hit his spots and diving into the butterfly made his hips, thighs, knees and hamstrings pay the price.
Now, imagine the city car executing a rolling deceleration instead of a complete stop. Not only is it easier on the brakes, but it allows the car to accelerate faster when the light turns green.
This is how the return to ice works. Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas, two of Essensa’s former students, put it to good use. The drift helped Rask and Thomas knock down the first shots and gave them momentum to win contests on rebounds. In Game 4 of the Bruins-Leafs Round 1 series in 2019, Rask’s putback on Ron Hainsey’s point shot positioned him perfectly to deflect Connor Brown’s drive into the net.
“Creating that step back, creating a little bit of push back, hopefully that would allow him to stay healthier. Knock on wood, it’s up to a point,” says Essensa about Ullmark. “For me and the guys that have done it with the Bruins before, they always felt like their feet were faster. Now they were recovering on second chances more quickly. It’s the philosophy of physics: Something in motion stays in motion.”
Every goalkeeper uses backhands on breakaways and penalty kicks. They skate forward to lower the angle and then move back to match the shooter’s speed.
But not every keeper likes the backhand for situations in the area. For a time, Essensa itself adopted the philosophy of skating goalies in their spots, framing up to the shot and holding the ground.
This was the approach Ullmark learned in Sweden and Buffalo. Ullmark believed that if he hit his spot and stayed there on a spot-up shot, for example, he would maximize his 6-foot-5 frame by reducing the shooter’s angle.
Last year, when Essensa approached Ullmark to try a comeback, the goalkeeper resisted the suggestion. In Ullmark’s mind, he had fired his ball-stopping clay to the point where it could not be reformed.
“I played professional hockey for more than 10 years. I’ve done it a certain way over the years,” says Ullmark. “Then Bobby comes along and says, ‘Maybe we should do this. Have you thought about that?’ At that point, it’s kind of hard to buy it. Because you’re too used to one thing.”
Ullmark tried. It didn’t come naturally. His struggles against the flow showed on the scoreboard.
“Maybe you’re late for a goal because you’re doing it,” Ullmark says. “Then you are angry. Because, ‘Why did I do this? Why didn’t I do the same?’”
The dispute between Ullmark and Essensa was reaching a dangerous point. If Ullmark didn’t believe in return, he would revert to his old habits. It would become much more difficult for Essensa to penetrate.
“If I introduce something that’s not rooted in a goalkeeper’s game and it doesn’t work, he automatically goes back to what he was doing,” says Essensa. “So it’s not always an easy sell.”
Essensa had no such disagreement with Swayman. Alfie Michaud, Swayman’s goalie coach at the University of Maine, believed in the opposite. By the time Swayman turned pro, drifting was part of his toolbox.
“I was really lucky to start it in college and see the benefits right away,” says Swayman. “Definitely point shots, things coming through traffic, flows through traffic, tips. It gives me a better chance to not only make the first save, but the second as well. And third, for that matter, if there is a kickback or tip.”
Part of Essensa’s job is to respect the technicalities of his charges. Ullmark is different from Swayman. They’re both different than Rask and Thomas. It would do more harm than good for Essensa to squeeze the square pegs of its goalkeepers into its round hoops.
But Essensa was sure enough in his faith to stand firm. He was convinced that Ullmark would be healthier using the reverse flow.
At the same time, Essensa identified growth in Ullmark’s game that the setback could express. Watching Ullmark’s Essensa in Buffalo convinced him the Bruins were onto something special.
On July 28, 2021, the Bruins signed Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million contract. Ullmark had recorded a career save percentage of .912 over 117 NHL appearances to that point. That put him 26th out of 61 goalkeepers who played in 100 or more games between 2015-16 and 2020-21. He was, in other words, slightly above average.
For Essensa, the numbers didn’t tell the whole story.
“Anyone who watched Linus play in Buffalo, he had the ability to steal games by himself,” Essensa says. “His hands are great for a guy his size. Very athletic. He was actually able to compete outside the technical world when he had to.”
Because of Ullmark’s fundamental strengths, Essensa believed his young student could get better by staying healthy and fixing the loose change he sometimes left around the crease. Backflow can address both.
Selling Ullmark in the process didn’t happen quickly. Essensa repeatedly reminded Ullmark that he had size and hands in his favor.
Last season, Ullmark was taller than any of the other 118 NHL goaltenders except six: Mads Sogard (6-foot-7), Mikko Koskinen (6-foot-7), Anthony Stolarz (6 -foot-6), Jon Gillies (6-foot-6), Magnus Hellberg (6-foot-6) and Jacob Markstrom (6-foot-6). Ullmark’s height and quick handle and blocker would make up for any angle he would give off with movement.
Ullmark not only had to practice the backhand. He also had to believe in it. It took him until last summer, after more work with MoDo goalkeeping coach Andreas Eriksson in Sweden, for the move to feel routine.
“I talked to other people, other goalkeeping coaches too, and picked their brains,” Ullmark says. “That’s how I am as a person. I have to fully believe in the idea and fully believe that, ‘OK, this is something that works.’ I’m not just going to do it blindly because someone tells me to. I am very particular about the way I play and my game. I am very proud of him. I’m going to listen. Then I will need time to digest it.
“Once I see that it actually makes sense and that it works, which I did over the summer, I’m like, ‘OK, that feels good. That feels good.’ Some transitions, after integration, simply making savings feel different. But in a good way.”
Backflow has become routine for Ullmark. Against the Devils on Dec. 28, his slightest move on Jesper Boqvist’s point shot set the goalie in motion. That put Ullmark in position to stop Dawson Mercer’s point-blank chance with his blocker.
It’s not just that Ullmark has unlocked more of his game. On Sunday against the Blues, Ullmark made his career-high 47th appearance. He does not feel the workload.
“Being on the spot, like before, being very patient on my feet and waiting for the shots, I was at a red light,” says Ullmark. “When the light turns green, you have to let go of the brake and put your foot on the gas. Now, it’s more like I’m slowly going up that red light and not stopping. There is no stopping the game. I don’t have much strain on my body. Once you’re standing, you need to start moving and unlocking your whole body. Now, it is always in unlocked mode. That is why I feel better now during this period of time as I have played more games than before when I played less games. But I would feel much more shocked.”
Ullmark’s .937 save percentage is the fifth-highest single-season mark in league history – just behind Thomas’ .938 in 2010-11. That season, Thomas won the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies. Both are within Ullmark’s reach.
Essensa isn’t surprised by Ullmark’s ascension to the NHL’s elite. But even with all the potential he saw in Ullmark, did he ever think he had this kind of performance in him?
“Oh yes,” says Essensa. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have brought it.”
(Feature photo: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)