The case against Tampa Bay Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean

Anders Lindback is one of five goalies that Frantz Jean has worked with over the course of the last three seasons. None of those goaltenders had a save percentage better than .902 during that span. - USA TODAY Sports

Frantz Jean has yet to get more than a barely adequate performance out of the netminders he has worked with over the past three seasons. And "barely adequate" ought not be acceptable.

I don't like writing this article. I feel much like I'm beating a dead horse here, as I've said all of this before. But sometimes you just have to sit down and lay your thinking out in one place in order to allow the conversation to move on. So here goes.

There is a strong case that Lightning goaltender coach Frantz Jean is a significant detriment to the club. It's not an absolute case, but it's a strong one. It's something that's out there in the world these days, to the point that even professional reporters are going out and getting quotes about it. And while I greatly appreciate Damian Cristodero's work on this, I find that the information he provided does little to ease my biggest concerns. In some cases, it fuels them.

I want to start out by reiterating that I am open to being convinced that I'm wrong on this. In fact, I desperately want to be wrong. I want things to go so smoothly in the coming years that I'll look back on this and say, remember when I was so worried about Frantz Jean? Just goes to show that you can't jump to conclusions. I also want to emphasize that this is something I've been thinking about for a very long time. It isn't new. I have been talking with other writers here about this for more than a year. And when I felt that my conclusions were shaky, I've refrained from posting them publicly.

But nonetheless, here we are. I get asked with some frequency why I think there's a coaching issue with the goaltenders. This is why.

Who is Frantz Jean?

It may seem unfair to use a man's background to determine his intentions, but in this case, the background is meaningful. Jean's been aligned with a particular school of goaltending for much of his professional life, and that gives us an indication of what has shaped his philosophy about the position and the "best" way to play.

You can find Jean's biography here, including where he played and coached and what successes he's had. For the purposes of this article, the most pertinent points are who he trained with as a coach and who he has credited with influencing him: Phil Myre, Vladislav Tretiak, Francois Allaire, and Roland Melanson.

For all of these men as coaches, "letting the puck come to you" is the core philosophy. In Myre's words, "The ideal save is to let the puck hit the goalie with minimal movement and great control of movement." They use code words like "efficient," "economical," "conservative," and "disciplined." Jean himself says that "Everything is based on being well-positioned in the (crease) and being in the shooting lanes," although he appears to look for a slightly more active style than a pure, old-school blocker goalie.

At the core of this school is a belief that a goalie with proper technique will usually make the initial stop, and that with good positioning he can affect how shooters deploy by taking away the most dangerous and most common shots (especially those low to the ice.) And this is absolutely, 100% true. Good positioning, in terms of angles, depth and posture, is unquestionably fundamental to goaltending. You simply cannot be good for very long without it.

But it's more complex than that.

One of the biggest challenges to goaltending is that even as goalie techniques have evolved over the years, so have shooting techniques. Goalies at the NHL level are seeing more shots, more blocked shots, faster shots, and more accurate shots than ever before. At this level, a goaltender has to be able to both anticipate and react much faster than they did twenty years ago. It's harder now to figure out the perfect position than it was when the butterfly began to take over the NHL in the 1980s and 1990s. The much-maligned "desperation save"--so termed in order to draw a contrast to good positioning-is a necessary component of good goaltending these days.

Meanwhile, however, the blocking, on-your-knees, elbows tight, "efficient butterfly" paradigm has taken over all levels of hockey in North America, particularly in the junior ranks from which Frantz Jean comes. An over-reliance on technique has made robo-goalies common in many quarters, as young goaltenders are schooled in the method without being given the chance to develop their instincts. One reason that Sweden and Finland are producing so many successful NHL goalies is that they teach technique without being slave to it.

Why does a goalie coach's philosophy matter?

The approach that keeps a goalie back in his net, looking to block all the holes and to suffocate and absorb the puck works very well for some goalies and not so well for others. If your body and brain work together this way, it can be highly successful. There are many such players at the top of the NHL: Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, and Niklas Backstrom, for instance. These players thrive with the structure that this approach gives them. It is not, in and of itself, a bad approach to playing goal.

It does not work for every player, however. Not every player thinks that way or reacts to stimuli that way. Not every player's body will move that way. Many players will abandon "proper" technique and simply get to where the puck has gone. And a lot of them are successful, too. Pekka Rinne, Tim Thomas, Semyon Varlamov, Kari Lehtonen, Jimmy Howard, among others. Domink Hasek is probably the patron saint of the breed. This isn't to say that these players do not use positioning. It is to say that they think about it differently and are willing to look past technique sooner than others. These goalies are more active (especially in the hands and shoulders), more mobile, more aggressive, and use a great deal more of the ice than their more "efficient" counterparts.

Most NHL goalies are somewhere between those two extremes. Most players will combine good positioning with mobility and reactivity in some form or another. And therein lies the core of the goalie coach's challenge, and, in my estimation, where the biggest issues with Lightning goaltending can be found.

Frantz Jean appears to prefer a slightly active goaltender who nonetheless plays deep in the crease, creates a wall, and gets from place to place with the least possible amount of expended energy. He emphasizes both muscle memory and being "meticulous with ... mechanics." He relies on so-called "static" drills that develop mechanics more than he does on motion drills that develop reactivity.


And those drills are wonderful if you have a goalie who is naturally inclined towards an efficient, contained style of play. If you have a goalie who tends towards a more motion-intensive style, static drills fail to reinforce the player's abilities to read puck movement and react to it, as well as to be in control of that reaction. Essentially, you are leaving untutored a large portion of the skills and reactions your player will actually be using in game situations. If you have a player who, like Dwayne Roloson, relies heavily on motion stimuli, and you ignore that, you end up with an unprepared, stiff, and shaky goaltender.

What kinds of goaltenders has Frantz Jean had to work with?

Well, first of all, none of them are actually goaltenders who aren't good enough to stay in the NHL. One of the most common sentiments I've seen is that these guys were never that good to begin with (or were old or were young or were career backups or whatever). It's an argument that Jean simply has had bad raw material. Another contention is that this has just been a very long string of bad luck and it's pure randomness. I am not convinced by either one of those arguments.

First, let's look at the actual performance of Tampa Bay goalies since Jean was hired in 2010.

SA w/o Jean

Svs w/o Jean

SA w Jean

Svs w Jean

SV% w/o Jean

SV% w Jean

Dan Ellis

4026

3670

741

659

.912

.889

Mike Smith

6726

6152

576

518

.915

.899

Dwayne Roloson

14849

13510

2093

1880

.910

.898

Mathieu Garon

7320

6617

1618

1456

.904

.900

Anders Lindback

940

859

587

530

.914

.902

Total

33861

30808

5615

5043

.910

.898

No goaltender with an true talent level below .900 stays in the NHL, at least not since the late 1990s. We aren't talking about the difference between a good NHL goalie and an average one. We're talking about the difference between a good goalie and a horrible one. The problem isn't that none of the goalies have become elite. It's that they have all been performing below their own career standards, by a considerable margin in most cases.

But is this pure randomness? It may be. It is certainly possible for long runs of bad luck to happen. But at some point, this becomes a long string of excuses. If it were one or two players, that would be much more convincing. But there are five. If these statistics were more strongly balanced by periods of good play and good results, they would be less concerning. But there has only been one extended period of play above this level: Dwayne Roloson's .912 in his 34 games in the spring of 2011.

Mathieu Garon's statistics, I must say, stand out here. He is much closer to his career averages than the other goalies have been. These stats are, well, not very good, but it certainly seems that it could have been much worse than it was. Is that because of randomness? Perhaps. I tend to think it has more to do with style, however. I think Garon does well with a structured approach to the position. Or as good as his talent level allows. However, a success story that involves a small rather than a large drop and a .900 save percentage does not do much to allay my fears. I would want to see someone actually do well in this system, not merely do less bad.

There are, of course, caveats to this type of analysis. Sample size is one, and it has given me pause. But again, I am struck not only by the fact that this has happened to five players, but that all told we're looking at more than 5000 shots over three years. Take away Anders Lindback's small portion, and the numbers come out with the same distribution: .910 without, .898 with. This is far from a perfect sample, but it's not something I can easily dismiss.

Is it the defense?

That is certainly part of the issue and can account for some of the struggles. It doesn't account for all of it, however. Statistics guru Vic Ferrari once estimated that a team's ability or inability to control the puck can at most affect a goalies save percentage by about 0.006. Tampa Bay goalies have been performing about 0.012 worse here than elsewhere, so at most team shots against could account for half of the discrepancy.

However, for all of the time that Dan Ellis and Mike Smith worked with Frantz Jean, and for the most successful part of Dwayne Roloson's career here, the team was controlling the puck 53% of the time. So that would actually raise their save percentages, not lower them. (There is also no evidence that goalies get reliably better or worse as shots against rise. It's certainly not a stronger effect than randomness is.)

I do believe that team defense is affecting the goalies. I believe even more strongly that team defense is costing games. And I believe that the defense must be fixed for the Lightning to have a successful season. I don't, however, think that team defense accounts for all or even most of the results the goaltenders have been seeing.

Has Frantz Jean just not had enough time or stability for this method to get results?

Dan Ellis-six months

Mike Smith-nine months

Dwayne Roloson-sixteen months

Mathieu Garon-twenty months

I can accept Dan Ellis's claim that he simply didn't have enough time to absorb Jean's adjustments, as he has since appeared to incorporate some of it into his game and has returned to being almost exactly as reliable as he was before Jean. I have a harder time with the claim that Smith didn't have time, although he never had an offseason's work with them. I outright reject the claim that neither Roloson nor Garon (have) had sufficient time. Both have had at least one offseason and one full season. If there was something to be gained there, it ought to have showed up under these conditions.

And while there has been turnover in goal, do you really think that if any one of these players had "gotten it" and performed at any level anywhere above terrible they'd still be gone? The reason there's been turnover in goal is that there's been poor performance in goal. It really isn't the other way around. And it seems disingenuous for Steve Yzerman to suggest that turnover is a cause rather than an effect here. Player turnover isn't something that happened to the goaltending and made it bad. The bad goaltending led to the turnover.

And, if I may speak frankly here, I find it alarming that three years and five players worth of truly awful goaltending is considered an acceptable learning curve. Is it fair to the fans, the players, and the franchise to expect everyone to sit through an adjustment that makes you terrible at your position for that long? Is this really a method that takes more than twelve months to even begin to incorporate? That seems a horrible waste of the limited resources an NHL franchise has to build good goaltending.

Moreover, there is turnover in goal on every team. There will always be new players who will join the team. Few teams have the same two goalies for several years in a row. Jean will simply have to adjust to having new players. It's part of the life of a hockey franchise and should not become an excuse for failure.

Let us not forget that Frantz Jean has had as much time to make this work as Guy Boucher had.

Is this a square peg-round hole issue?

Yes. The goalies Jean has been given have often not been suited to thriving within this style, and thus they've been expected to make changes that are far more fundamental than the team wants to admit. The right goalie can thrive in a structured system like the one Jean appears to want.

Which naturally raises the question of whether these young goaltenders that Steve Yzerman has been collecting fit the system. Well, Ben Bishop might. Ironically, Dustin Tokarski was another possible candidate. Cedrick Desjardins is, too. But neither Anders Lindback nor Andrey Vasilevskiy are conservative goalies. Both of them will need more freedom to play big and noisy and inefficiently, as will Jaroslav Janus. And they will need help harnessing that energy without suppressing it.

The franchise is facing a dilemma here, then. They have carefully amassed a stable of young goaltending talent over the past twelve months or so, and these players are important future assets. There are, it seems, three directions open that will have direct impact on the value of these assets in both the short and the long term.

If management truly and deeply believes that Jean's approach will pay dividends if they just wait a little longer, they should stick with it, despite whatever hardships may come in the meantime. And despite whatever I or any other writer puts in a blog. They'll be asking the fans to take on faith that which they haven't seen: that the pain will all be worth it in the end.

Second, they can exchange the players they have who are not making progress for players who already display the traits they're trying to instill. This, of course, requires determining when a player is really stalled and not merely in a funk, and that's not an area that the team has shown much facility with over the past three years. It also requires being able to match talent to approach and again, that's not something that has been done well to date.

Or, third, the coaching staff must figure out a way to develop their young goaltending talent by building on the athletic, battling, energetic, reflex-and-motion-oriented instincts they have. You know, the traits that brought them to the club's attention in the first place. Create a two-pronged approach that strengthens both technique and instinct. Because you can teach reactivity. Or at least you can develop, refine, and shape it. Many other coaches have done this very successfully.

And this is a big question for me. Frantz Jean has been given goalies who are not inclined towards a efficient, still, quiet, conservative positioning game and he has so far been unable to have any kind of success with them at all. He keeps trying to hammer those square pegs into the round holes. Whatever adjustments he's been making to his own approach have been insufficient.

In the spring 2012, Dwayne Roloson was asked about recent changes he'd made to his preparation. It appears that he finally spoke to Jean about how uncomfortable he was with the way Jean was preparing him for games. It did help some, as we all noticed at the time, though it was far too little and far too late. But Roloson's words are telling. "I didn't want to be an insubordinate guy and not go with what they were teaching."

Even assuming that Roloson may have meant something less drastic than the word "insubordinate" suggests (and I expect he likely did), two things are clear. One is that Roloson, despite having more than a decade in the NHL and having gone through a very similar process with Roland Melanson many years before, did not feel comfortable broaching the subject of his own comfort level with Jean until things got very bad. The other is that Frantz Jean either never picked up on Roloson's discomfort with training or was unable to respond adequately to it.

And that, my friends-that lack of response-is how we end up in this mess.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that changing the goalie coach alone will result in a winning season. Whether a coaching change would be successful depends greatly on who the replacement would turn out to be and what they would choose to do. I won't even tell you that goaltending will never get better under Frantz Jean. I believe that Ben Bishop is probably one of the best available choices for this system and that he has the potential to do very well in a structured, disciplined approach.

I do, however, have deep concerns for many of the other goaltenders the Lightning are counting on for the coming years. I am convinced that there has been a problem with coaching that has made an already bad situation worse and prevented the goaltenders the team actually had from performing as well as they were expected to. But even if Frantz Jean's coaching has been less harmful than I suspect, it certainly has not been beneficial in any measurable way.

A good goalie coach is able to get good performances out of good players. A great one will get good performances out of average players. Jean has yet to get more than a barely adequate performance out of either good or average players. And "barely adequate" ought not to be good enough.

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