So, about those goalies: The importance of goalie coaching

Goaltender Dan Ellis, left, works with goaltending consultant Frantz Jean during an NHL training camp Monday, Sept. 20, 2010, in Brandon, Fla. via cache.daylife.com

We've had a lot of discussion these past few months about what went wrong this season, and goaltending certainly went wrong. And, many times, the deeper you look at a problem, the more questions arise about it. Questions about the organization's approach to goaltending certainly arose over the final games of the season after Dwayne Roloson experienced his too-late resurgence between the pipes. Why does it seem that Lightning goaltenders seem to struggle so badly when they thrive elsewhere?

Of course, that statement is only partially true in an objective sense. While Mike Smith is certainly thriving in Phoenix, Mathieu Garon was doing as well in Tampa Bay as he has across his career. Last season, Roloson himself beat his career averages by a good margin. It's not cut and dried, but it is something about which to raise questions.

An NHL franchise's approach to the goalie position is personified by its goalie coach. His job is more than just to run drills with the goalies. It's also to maintain the integrity of the team's vision of what goaltending is supposed to be--style of play, physical and mental attributes, and overall understanding of how to be a successful goaltender. That vision should be systematically encoded into the organization at all levels, and it's through the implementation of this approach to the position that the goalie coach influences his team's success in the long-term.

Every goalie coach has a sense of what the optimal goaltender looks like when he plays. He has a sense of what a goalie should do--what's crucial, what's important, what's unnecessary, what's harmful. He has to determine what's a strength and what's a weakness. And he'll have an overriding philosophy about the position: about depth, about timing, about hand placement, about recovery and flexibility and demeanor and save selection.

The majority of a goalie coach's job is about assessing players, so being clear about that "philosophy of the position" is a priority. When a goalie coach works with a goalie on proper stick placement when trying to guard against pass outs, he's got to determine whether this is something that is absolutely crucial to success or something you can either pick up or not, as your comfort level with it changes. And that's only something you can determine if you have a strong sense of what must happen and what is merely details.

The goalie coach is, to a large extent, a goalie's external eye. Grant Fuhr, when he was coaching the Phoenix Coyotes goalies, said, "I'm an extra set of eyes sitting upstairs. I have the opportunity to have a different look at it than what they do. And then I correlate what I see and what they see and we try to translate it into one." So when your coach tells you your hands are too high or too low, you listen. When he asks you to try adjusting your depth, you try it. Because those little adjustments are hard to pinpoint on your own.

The coach's feedback will influence a goalie's positioning in myriad subtle ways. Even at the NHL level coaches will make adjustments in everything from a goaltender's hand placement to their depth in their crease to how they visualize the game. The training regimens they set up are predicated on the idea that there's a better way to play and a worse way to play (which is not the same as believing that there's a "perfect" way to play.)

In other words, a coach's philosophy about what the position is will determine what he thinks needs to be worked on most. And what he works on most determines how prepared a goalie is for a game. Ideally, practice routines are tailored to the individual goalie, who should--by the time they're in the NHL--know enough about what works for them to be able to discuss the drills with a coach. And hopefully, he can listen, too. Olaf Kolzig, in describing what he did with Capitals goaltenders, said "You see their strengths. You try to strengthen their weaknesses. And you don't try to change them. You just try to refine them a little bit." But that refinement is based on the coach's philosophy about the position.

This philosophy, encompassing everything from work ethic to save selection to off-ice preparation, is also a necessary part of building long-term depth. Goalie coaches have input into what kind of players scouts should be looking for and which players should be drafted or picked up via trade and free agency. Drafting and development of goaltenders should be systematic rather than haphazard, and having an overarching philosophy of the position is indispensable to that. Rather than simply taking a goalie with some raw talent and expecting them to mold themselves to fit the philosophy, the organization should be acquiring, drafting, and developing goalies whose play already fits the philosophy.

As a general manager, you don't choose one young goaltender over another simply because they put up good numbers. You choose players who are most likely to be biomechanically and mentally inclined to fit into your approach to the game. If you believe in blocking goalies, you draft goalies that tend to have success at that style rather than ones who rely on their athleticism and reactiveness. Mismatches not only harm the development of the young players but waste the resources you've put into that player, including the opportunity cost of getting them.

So, does a goalie coach have an impact on goalie performance? Unquestionably. And the single biggest component of that impact is the coach's understanding of what goaltending ought to look like and how you go about getting it to look like that. A coach's ability to read and communicate with his players, his ability to listen and have an open relationship with them, his ability to balance organizational consistency with the understanding of each player's unique needs and talents can make or break a franchise's goaltending performance for years to come.

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