The goaltending excellence department, introduced by the Florida Panthers on Dec. 8, sounded fancy, but it was practical and logical, a reflection of the NHL trend to dedicate increased resources to the position to build deeper depth charts within organizations.
The intention of creating a four-person department, headed by Roberto Luongo, was to make sure the Panthers always have another goalie ready when opportunity presents itself whether through injury or a free agent departure.
Luongo, who retired June 26, 2019 after 19 NHL seasons as a goalie for the New York Islanders, Panthers and Vancouver Canucks, won a Panthers record 230 games. He is in his second season as special adviser to the general manager.
In the reorganization, Florida hired longtime NHL goaltending coach Francois Allaire as a consultant, kept Robb Tallas as goaltending coach and expanded the duties of Leo Luongo, Roberto's younger brother, who is goaltending coach of their American Hockey League affiliate for the past four seasons. The Panthers also plan to increase the number of position-specific scouts.
"By having people that know all the little intricacies of goaltending," Luongo said, "and truly understand the position evaluating goalies for us, and making sure we are bringing in the right guys, and then making sure everyone gets the same direction and is on the same page through the whole development process, we can make sure we have the depth in the organization to always have goalies that are ready to step up or fight for a job. And we're not stuck with a situation where one or two guys get hurt and, all of a sudden, we're in trouble."
The potential value of this project was realized when four goalies changed NHL teams through waivers during the first five days of the season. Anton Forsberg went from the Edmonton Oilers to the Carolina Hurricanes to the Winnipeg Jets, Eric Comrie went from Winnipeg to the New Jersey Devils, Troy Grosenick went from the Los Angeles Kings to the Oilers and Aaron Dell went from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Devils, who were scrambling after the retirement of Corey Crawford on Jan. 9, four days before the start of the regular season.
It further illustrated the importance of goalie depth in a truncated 56-game season played during a pandemic. Avoiding the need to go to the waiver wire is one reason several teams have expanded their goaltending departments in the past few years.
Mitch Korn was the first goaltending coach to take a director title with the Washington Capitals in 2017-18, and after winning the Stanley Cup that season took the same job with the Islanders.
The Arizona Coyotes were first to expand their goaltending staff this offseason, hiring former Maple Leafs goaltending scout Brian Daccord to the newly created position of director of goaltending operations Sept. 25. Daccord, who was the first full-time goaltending scout in the NHL, joined a group that included NHL goaltending coach Corey Schwab, goaltending development coach Zac Bierk in the AHL and dedicated goaltending scout Clay Adams.
Luongo wanted Florida to be among the teams at the forefront of this movement, especially because it had the backing of Allaire, who started his NHL career as the first goaltending coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1985.
"When he brought this idea to me, [Francois] said, 'When I started, I was the only goalie coach and I kind of set the precedent and now everybody has got a goalie coach,'" Luongo said. "He said, 'Now, within five to 10 years, everybody's going to have this too.' Hopefully being one of the first gives us an edge."
The Calgary Flames announced the creation of a goaltending department eight days after the Panthers. Jordan Sigalet, who had been the goalie coach, moved into the new director role, Jason LaBarbera was hired as the NHL goaltending coach and Thomas Speer continued as development goalie coach with the Flames' affiliate in the AHL.
"One of the keys is Jason now has a sounding board in myself because I know doing his job for the last six years, there are times you feel like you're on an island," Sigalet said. "And then for myself, just to be a lot more in-depth scouting. It's really tough to take on all the draft scouting and free agency scouting when you're in the daily grind of an NHL job, so to have more eyes and be more in-depth in that, I think that's going to be huge and just have more eyes and more hands on the goalies in our system."
Making sure there is a similar philosophy throughout that process is also key to the success of these new departments, said Allaire, who has more than 30 years of experience as an NHL goaltending coach.
"Sometimes I received a goalie and I said, 'Well, really, it's not my kind of goalie' and they know the way I coach and they bring me a guy and there was no chance we work together, not because it's not a good guy or a good goalie, but you have to have a certain relation between the scouting and the coaching," Allaire said.
The Panthers now believe they have the framework in place to develop those relationships, which should help the process of developing more goalies.