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Goalies must make a lot of adjustments to succeed with new teams

Signing as free agent means much more than changing address, uniform

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

The first day of free agency can feel a lot like a game of musical chairs for NHL goalies, but addresses and uniforms aren't the only things that change.

Signing with a new team means a lot of adjustments, from a new goaltending coach, to new defensive systems and reads, to new puck-handling and communication preferences with new defensemen.

Calgary Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet knows about those adjustments more than most, having worked with seven incoming goalies acquired in trades or as free agents over five seasons with Calgary. Cam Talbot, who signed a one-year contract with the Flames on July 1, will be the eighth goaltending transition Sigalet oversees in Calgary.

 

[RELATED: NHL Free Agent Tracker]

 

"It's definitely an adjustment, but what's nice about free agency is you have the summer to start building that relationship and trust," Sigalet said. "As soon as we signed Talbot, you are on the phone and starting to learn about each other, what the goalie likes, what his needs are on a daily basis, so you can prepare what you are going to do for that goalie. Most are flexible, and a lot have similar needs, so it's not a vast difference, but you can do a lot with a conversation, going over video and setting goals over the summer, identifying and agreeing on what they need to target or change in their game to make them more successful on your team."

The number of changes varies depending on the goalie, goaltending coach and team, and the factors that determine the ease of transition are similar to those when changing teams at the NHL Trade Deadline. They include whether a goalie's style and strengths match the defensive system and types of scoring chances his new team allows (rush vs. in zone), the number of shots on goal a team allows (some struggle to focus when they're not busy enough), whether they have played in the same conference or division recently, how insistent a new goaltending coach is on technical changes, and whether the goalie has been through it all before.

New Chicago Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner certainly has.

Lehner, who signed a one-year contract with Chicago on July 1, experienced the extremes of change last season after joining the New York Islanders on a one-year contract following three seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. His move to New York checked a lot of boxes: a new team in a different division with a new coach and system that altered the types and number of shots he faced, and goaltending director Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco asking for significant adjustments to how he played.

It helped that the structure new coach Barry Trotz brought to the Islanders simplified the reads Lehner had to make behind his new defense, a big part of changing teams, and reduced the number of odd-man rushes he faced compared to with the Sabres.

"Reading off the structure here is easier, definitely," Lehner said in early March.

Video: Blackhawks add Lehner as free agent behind Crawford

Those reads likely will get more complicated with the Blackhawks, who give up more chances off the rush, but the fact Lehner was able to make all those adjustments and finish last season with a .930 save percentage and third in voting for the Vezina Trophy as the best NHL goalie bodes well for his ability to adapt.

It's also promising for the goalie replacing him on the Islanders, Semyon Varlamov, who signed a four-year contract after eight seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.

Mindset matters as well, so hearing Varlamov say he's eager to work with Korn and Greco should make it easier the first time he is asked to wear player gloves and hold a medicine ball on the ice to encourage one-piece movement, or if one end of a dog leash is clipped to his mask and the other attached to a stick blade to reinforce head-down tracking habits.

"I heard a lot of good things from every goalie who worked with those two guys in the past," said Varlamov, who worked with three goaltending coaches in Colorado (Kirk McLean, Francois Allaire and Jussi Parkkila. "So when I had to make a decision, it was actually pretty easy for me because I wanted to work with them."

Unlike Lehner and Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky doesn't have to switch conferences after signing with the Florida Panthers.

Like Lehner last season, Bobrovsky won't be the only Panthers player adjusting to a new coach because it will also be Joel Quenneville's first season as Florida coach. Having the entire team trying to get on the same page with a new coach and system allows a goalie to work things out with his new defensemen, rather than strictly trying to adjust to them.

Bobrovsky is also familiar with switching teams and goaltending coaches, having revamped his game under Ian Clark after being traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Columbus Blue Jackets on June 22, 2012, and then, after twice winning the Vezina Trophy with Clark, succeeding last season with new goaltending coach Manny Legace after Clark and Columbus agreed to not renew his contract.

Video: Bobrovsky on signing seven-year deal with Panthers

With a seven-year contract, Bobrovsky has plenty of time to adjust to the Panthers, but first impressions matter.

"Try not to five up a touchdown in your first game," said Curtis McElhinney, who signed a two-year, $2.6 million contract to be the backup to Andrei Vasilevskiy with the Tampa Bay Lightning, his eighth NHL team in a 12-season career. "I think every transition takes time, but really it just comes down to if you are a good person and committed to those people in the room, how you carry yourself, and being genuinely interested in the people on the team."

The easiest transition may belong to Talbot and Mike Smith, who essentially swapped spots when Smith signed a one-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers. (Talbot played four games for the Flyers after being traded by the Oilers on Feb. 15.)

The defensemen in Edmonton will have to adjust to Smith's prolific puck-handling, but each goalie should benefit from familiarity.

"It's a little easier because they played against their new team a lot and seen them many times in the same division, so they know the teams and players really well," Sigalet said.

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