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NHL goalies must form quick bond with position coaches

Establishing relationship, comfort level crucial to success

by Kevin Woodley / Independent Correspondent

The ability of a goalie and his position coach to form a quick and strong bond is crucial to success in the NHL.

The narrative regarding goalies switching teams is often about the need to build new relationships within the locker room, establish communication and trust with a new set of defensemen, and adapt to a new playing system. Yet there is no relationship more valuable than the one that must be built, in short order, with a new goaltending coach.

"I think it's more important than all those other things," said Edmonton Oilers goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz, who is building a relationship with new goalie Mike Smith after doing the same last season with Mikko Koskinen. Smith signed a one-year contract with the Oilers on July 1.

"Systems within hockey are all relatively similar, guys have seen them, guys have been a part of them, you're not reinventing the wheel with systems," Schwartz said. "Obviously, there's an adjustment period for players to establish relationships amongst themselves, but in the position we're in with our two goaltenders, constantly working as a group of three, that relationship is really important. There's a bunch of different things that go into that, and a big one is respect."

The same is true when a new goaltending coach is hired. Craig Anderson has been in the NHL for 17 seasons but did not start working with Pierre Groulx until 2016-17 when Proulx became the Ottawa Senators goaltending coach. Anderson quickly meshed with Proulx, making his day-to-day hockey life easier.

"It comes down the comfort level, and I think the company that is telling you what to do makes it easier to do it," said Anderson, who is in his 10th season with the Senators. "If it wasn't for PG, his personality, the way we jell together, the way he understands how I operate, I wouldn't enjoy it as much and that would take away from the passion.

"I mean, I've tried numerous things that don't work, and PG is like, 'All right, it doesn't work for you, let's find something else that works here.' You can get other goalie coaches that are like, 'No, it's got to be this way,' and eventually, if you can't do it their way, they just quit on you. That's just not conducive to getting better."

Video: OTT@TOR: Anderson turns away Nylander's bid

Such interaction between Anderson and Groulx came into play during training camp in September. Anderson found himself in an uncomfortable position on a sharp-angle play, so during the second week of camp he stayed late with Groulx to find a solution.

Groulx ran through multiple progressions of the play, each with a different wrinkle. Anderson tried several methods of moving into and off each post, pausing to talk things through with Groulx until each was comfortable with the outcome. Anderson is adding some of the newer post-integration techniques, many of which weren't introduced to him before Groulx arrived.

The relationship between a goalie and his position coach is often the closest on a team, forged through near constant communication and 1-on-1 drills during practice. An NHL goaltending coach is more than a technical adviser. He can be a confidant, a psychologist and, increasingly, an advocate with the other coaches. As such, goaltending coaches often go above and beyond to get to know a new goalie in the offseason.

Mitch Korn, director of goaltending for the New York Islanders, usually sends his new goalies to see a sports vision specialist. During Korn's first season with the Washington Capitals in 2014-15, he used that trip to start bonding with Braden Holtby, joining him for the flight. It kick-started a partnership that led to Holtby being voted the Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goalie the following season and a Stanley Cup championship for Holtby and the Capitals in 2018.

Calgary Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet flew to Hamilton, Ontario, this past offseason to watch Cam Talbot put in work with Pat Di Pronio, the coach Talbot has used since he was 10 years old. Talbot signed a one-year contract with the Flames on July 1.

After being hired by the Vancouver Canucks two offseasons ago, goaltending coach Ian Clark stopped in Sweden to start that process with Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson.

"We sat down and talked about how this was going to be a partnership," Clark said. "… I only had two nonnegotiables: 'You play the most critical role on the team, no one has a greater potential individual impact on the outcome of a game than the goaltender, so if we can agree on that, it makes no sense for you not to be the hardest worker on the team. You play the most critical role, you will be the hardest worker. You play the most critical role, you will be the fiercest competitor.'"

Video: VAN@EDM: Markstrom pushes over to rob Chiasson

Each relationship is unique because of how each goalie prefers to practice and digest information. It's the job of the goaltending coach to unlock the partnership's full potential.

"You have to find a common ground on things he believes are super, super important within his game," Schwartz said. "From there, you've got to figure out how you can kind of put a few little tweaks or nuances into his game that you believe could help him be even better than he already is. The relationship part of it is building a little bit of compromise, and creating that buy-in.

"The goalies have to know that you support them and have their back. They need to know that you care about them as a person, not just as an athlete."

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