Gilles Meloche’s title with the Pittsburgh Penguins is goaltending coach.
But, he’s much more than that.
He’s a teacher, a friend, a psychologist and a motivator for the team’s two goaltenders – Marc-Andre Fleury and Jocelyn Thibault.
Those roles are familiar ones for Meloche. He was the team’s goaltending coach from 1989-2004, but split those duties with scouting. He was a full-time scout the past two seasons before returning to the ice this year as a full-time goaltending coach.
So far, the results have been very positive for the Penguins’ goalies.
“Obviously, he’s helped us a lot. What we need to do is work on the basics every day,” Thibault said. “Gilles is there every morning reminding us to do the basic things. Sometimes, we have a tendency to try to do too many things. I think Gilles keeps us on track. Every day, I like doing drills with him. I think he’s been real helpful this year.”
“Yeah, I think it’s helped me. Jocelyn has helped me out a lot, too,” he said. “We talk a lot. All three of us together talk and work together. It’s always good.”
The difference for Meloche this time with the team is his sole responsibility to work with the goaltenders. While he spends some time in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton working with Penguins goaltending prospects there, Meloche remains in constant contact with Fleury and Thibault.
“I am still not here all the time – most of the time, I am. I go to Wilkes-Barre and I go home for a couple days a month,” he said. “Every day, there is something different; every game there are different situations that happen. Even when I am not here, I watch all the games anyway and I talk on the phone to them. I think it is important. I really didn’t believe in being here full-time before, but now I think the game is getting too quick and there are too many adjustments to be made on a daily basis that someone has to be here all the time.”
Since their positions are so specialized, the Penguins goalies are happy to have someone they can turn to all the time for any advice.
“I think that’s huge,” Fleury said. “Goalies are such a big part of the game that they need their own coach.”
“I think it’s great. I like to talk with Gilles as far as goaltending issues or what I did on the ice or what Marc-Andre does or whatever else. I like to talk goalie with him,” Thibault said. “He’s been around for so long; we are in pretty much the same frame of mind, as far as goaltending goes. It’s kind of nice to talk about good things I have been doing and some things I should add to my game. It’s good to have him around.”
Meloche is a veteran of 788 NHL games in 18 seasons between the pipes for the Chicago Blackhawks, California Golden Seals, Cleveland Barons, Minnesota North Stars and Penguins. So, not only does he help with goaltenders’ technical issues on the ice, but he can enhance their mental state off it as he knows the rigors of playing the position at the NHL level.
“That’s what I like about him. Sometimes for goalies, it’s not always physical or technical, it’s mental,” Fleury said. “He’s been through it; he’s seen it all. He knows how we’re feeling.”
“He played for a long time and he’s been around a lot,” Thibault said. “He knows how things work; he knows how you feel sometimes. That’s huge. It’s good to have somebody that will know what you’re going through – good or bad – and that will try to help you.
“It’s helped both of us. I have been around for quite a while. Sometimes what you need is a guy to remind you of the basics. Gilles has been very good for me this year. If I get in a bad habit, he’s always right there to try to correct it right away.”
An NHL team not having a goaltending coach would be similar to an NFL squad not having a quarterbacks coach or a baseball team going without a pitching coach. The positions are so specialized and advanced that they need one person dedicated to coaching that position.
“If you haven’t played the position, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You have to have been there because you see the game from different angles and it’s easier to talk with someone who’s played the position,” Melcohe said. “Every team has them and is specialized now. You have your defensive coach, the head coach, the coach who takes care of the power play and penalty kill and it just made sense that the goalies had someone to talk to.”
An added bonus for the Penguins’ goaltenders – Meloche is French-Canadian just like Thibault and Fleury. So, when the three work together, they communicate in French.
“I think it’s good to have a guy from [Quebec] to let us be more comfortable to explain things,” Fleury said. “I get along with Gilles and Jocelyn very well. It’s fun. It’s a good atmosphere.”
While Meloche spends time talking to and working with the goaltenders on the ice, they all put in significant work watching and analyzing game footage away from the rink.
“When everything goes well, he just kind of goes with it,” Fleury said. “We watch videos from every game to see what we did wrong or right. He will tell me what I have been doing wrong and try to fix it and work on it in practice. It’s always little stuff when you see yourself, you realize it. When you’re playing, you’re just trying to stop the puck. But you watch it on video and you see what you’re doing.”
Meloche breaks down film on all the goaltenders – pointing out the good and bad.
“I am lucky because they are two great guys with great personalities and they are very receptive to things I talk about,” he said. “We analyze the video one-on-one after every game. We look at every goal and at every save because, even though they might make a save, they might be out of position. Then, we adjust the practice the next day.”
Overall, Meloche’s goals are to enhance and maintain the goaltenders’ level of play, not to change their styles.
“They are very receptive. It’s not something where I am going to be yelling at them and they argue back,” he said. “We’re just trying to get their game better. They are two great people and I have had no problem so far.
“Even though they have different styles, you work with what they have. I think Marc has more flexibility than Jocelyn, so they are different,” he continued. “But, as butterfly goalies, the basics are the same. It’s just the positioning on the ice and way you approach every shot.
“You always hope they improve. They are two good goalies. The key thing is to get them to play as steady as possible. You don’t want any big highs or big lows. They have to be steady game in and game out and that’s what we’re looking for.”