Aside from Francis, who took a more high-profile place beside Paul Maurice on the Carolina bench after an early December coaching change, Wesley and Barrasso log countless hours behind the scenes in a field – coaching -- both former stars are relatively new and inexperienced at.
And while it’s easy on the surface to look at Cam Ward’s raw statistics over the second half of the season and declare him at legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate, there is a much deeper story here that involves a special relationship formed between the former first-round draft pick and his goaltending coach.
“Let’s just say I probably wouldn’t be having the success that I’m having if it wasn’t for Tom,” said Ward, who has started 27 straight games for the Canes, going 19-6-2 with three shutouts. “I can’t say enough about the guy. He’s not only my goaltending coach but he’s a good friend and he’s helped me tremendously on and off the ice.”
“It is trust,” said Barrasso, one of the best American-born goalies to ever play in the NHL. “He has faith in what I’m teaching him as evidenced by the fact that he applies it.”
Barrasso was hired by general manager Jim Rutherford two years ago as director of goalie development, a position in which his job was mainly to help along the Canes’ young goalie prospects. But Barrasso also took a special interest in Ward, who at 25 had already won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his stellar play as a rookie in the 2006 Cup victory but was showing signs of inconsistent play as he began to move forward as the team’s No. 1 goalie.
“Cam is a special goalie, and he showed that his first year when he won the Conn Smythe, but there was a learning curve for him for a couple of years,” Rutherford said. “It’s not about ability, it’s about mental toughness and preparing to play a lot of games. When you’re playing a lot of games you know you are going to give up some bad goals. How do you push those aside and get ready for the next one? It doesn’t matter who you are, there is a learning curve.”
Ward took the physical part of his game to heart last season, losing more than 20 pounds to get in tip-top shape. But something was still missing from his game that prevented him from reaching the upper echelon of NHL goalies.
“When I look back at last year the thing that was most inconsistent about Cam was probably his preparation for games,” Barrasso said. “I don’t think he had a clear understanding of what he needed to do to allow himself to play at the highest level every day.”
Not every great player is a great coach. There are countless examples in every sport to prove that point. But Rutherford believed Barrasso’s somewhat straightforward personality would translate well to teaching.
“If you are looking for an answer that you want don’t ask Tom,” Rutherford said. “You may get the one you’re thinking, but you may not. That’s a great asset of Tom Barrasso -- you get exactly how he feels. I think that’s great. He’s very honest, he’s very loyal and he really understands the game. I love it when he’s around and he has his input. It’s direct, it’s quick, it’s clean. You know where he stands.”
“Tom spends absolutely no time beating around the bush, which for a player is so much easier to deal with,” added Maurice. “You don’t want to have to wade through what a coach is trying to tell you. It’s direct, it’s honest, and maybe most importantly, Tom is very consistent with what he believes needs to get done.”
For some young players of today’s generation, Barrasso’s direct approach might ruffle some feathers. Not with Ward, who is glued to every word of wisdom his mentor has teed up for him like a wicked slap shot from Alexander Ovechkin.
“That’s why I like him,” Ward said. “He’s a straight shooter. What you see is what you get. That’s all you can ask out of your coaches, is to be honest with you and tell you how it is.”
Maurice laughs when asked about Ward’s development, making no bones about his bond with goalies, giving all the credit to Barrasso.
“I say hi to Cam in the morning when we meet at the coffee machine and say “great job last night” and that’s the extent of it,” Maurice said. “The extent of my relationship with goaltenders is ‘stop the puck.”’
If you’ve attended a practice this season, Ward and Barrasso often stay on the ice after most players head to the locker room, working on a drill or two to keep improving Ward’s development. And like some of his comments, most of Barrasso’s drills for his pupil are quick and productive. In golf terms, Ward doesn’t stay on the range beating hundreds of balls.
“The beauty of doing the drills is they are not over-kill,” Ward said. “You’re not standing in there taking repetitive shots. He tries to make a point. You do a couple of drills and that’s it. That’s how you stay fresh.”
Barrasso, who at 43 looks like he could still stop his share of pucks, spends his time during games in the press box, charting Ward’s play, then breaking it down into a short video in which the two review together.
“When I watch the games upstairs I make notes virtually every time Cam touches the puck or is involved in the play,” Barrasso said. “I will condense that down in my computer to maybe a six-minute video that we sit down and go through the game he played the night before. It gives him a little bit of closure and it gives him a little bit of positive reinforcement of how he looks when he’s playing well, how he looks when he’s doing things right. To me, that’s a real positive way to teach. He’s obviously a fantastic goalie, but he’s also a very good student.
“When we go through the video together we see things very similarly so when I have something that is critical of his game I don’t think it’s a shock to him, I think he knows it’s coming,” added Barrasso. “That kind of honesty leads to a trusting relationship. We’re not contemporaries, I’m significantly older, but the best thing I can say about our relationship other than Cam’s a professional is he wants to learn, he wants to be better. You can’t instill that in anybody. If they don’t have that in you it’s going to be very difficult to achieve success.”
While Ward has improved technically under Barrasso’s instruction, particularly with his stick-handling, which was one of Barrasso’s strong suits as a star goalie, Ward has made his greatest strides in his mental development as a No. 1 goalie.
“It’s hard work to be focused and to be sharp all the time,” Barrasso said. “With this stretch he’s been on recently you’ve seen a level of consistency night in and night out that was not as readily noticeable a year ago, and yet he still had a great run at the end of last year. This year, he’s learned so much about himself, so he’s probably finding it easier to play at this level than he did a year ago.
“My biggest point I make to him and one of the lines I use is: ‘Be prepared to be great.’ And when I see that it makes me happy because I know his mind is engaged in the game, his body is engaged in the game and he’s putting himself in position to be a great goaltender because that’s what he really is.”