Malcolm Subban going ‘eyes first’ as he battles for Blackhawks’ starting goalie job

Subban’s NHL track record entering this season is subpar, but the skills he’s working on with Hawks goalie coaches could lead to substantial improvement.

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Malcolm Subban has worked on new techniques with Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite.

AP Photos

Malcolm Subban’s eyes darted — left to right, right to left, left to right — around the Zoom screen as he imitated Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite’s advice.

Throughout the offseason and especially during the first week of training camp, Waite and developmental goaltending coach Peter Aubry have taught Subban to move his eyes and head first when he sees a shot coming. That gives him more time to locate and track the puck while he moves his body to the correct angle.

The technique is called ‘‘eyes first,’’ and Subban said the effects of advice such as that from Waite and Aubry have been ‘‘huge.’’

‘‘If you’re not tracking the puck, it’s hard to make good contact with it to keep the pucks in front of you or smother them,’’ Subban said. ‘‘When we’re doing the movement drills, we’re going eyes first.

‘‘That translates to when you’re [facing] shots. If you have your eyes and head going first, it gives you the ability to track the puck well, which can, in turn, give you better rebound control. They correlate all together.’’

Right now, Subban and Collin Delia seem to be neck-and-neck for the Hawks’ starting goalie job, with Kevin Lankinen in peripheral contention and Matt Tomkins a taxi-squad candidate.

Coach Jeremy Colliton has said no matter who starts the season opener Wednesday against the Lightning, the battle likely will continue well into the season. It’s difficult to assess in camp whether each goalie has the mental fortitude needed to handle a long-term No. 1 role in the NHL.

‘‘[Former Hawks goalie Corey Crawford] had a swagger to him, [but] it doesn’t just happen; it’s built over time,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘We want to fill our goaltenders with confidence that we believe in them and they’re going to have an opportunity. It’s going to be competition between them. And we’re going to let it play out.’’

In November, Delia said he was ‘‘frothing at the mouth’’ for the opportunity. His life circumstances have come together at the perfect time for it, and he worked closely with goalie coaches to refine his game throughout the fall.

But Subban, too, trained hard to prepare, working with Penguins goalie coach Andy Chiodo — his longtime personal coach during offseasons — and now Waite and Aubry.

‘‘Jimmy’s been great,’’ Subban said. ‘‘He doesn’t want to change your style too much. Obviously, there’s stuff he implements that I’ve liked in terms of depth and how we play angles and overlap and so on.’’

Subban, 27, has a clear advantage over Delia and Lankinen in terms of NHL experience, but he wasn’t particularly effective in his three-year stint as the Golden Knights’ backup. That said, his track record is more complicated than first meets the eye.

Subban’s .812 save percentage against high-danger shots ranks a respectable 37th among 64 eligible goalies in the last three seasons combined, which means he’s relatively good at making highlight-reel saves that rely more on reflexes and quick movement.

Conversely, his .951 save percentage against low-danger shots ranks 62nd of 64, which means he hasn’t been good against attempts from farther away or sharper angles. Plus, 11.8% of the shots he has faced have been rebounds, the 13th-highest rate among the 64 goalies. That means he also is spitting pucks out relatively often.

Those are two areas in which crisper puck-tracking and a more square positioning to shots — another skill Waite emphasizes — might help Subban improve. If he does, 2021 might become his long-awaited breakout season.

‘‘It’s not easy stuff as a goaltender, but you can always work on it, especially not having played in 10 or 11 months,’’ Subban said. ‘‘Those things will be huge getting back into things here.’’

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