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Biron: Bales developed trust factor with prior coaches, goalies

Former Sabres goalie played with Bales in Rochester

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Martin Biron was coming off a successful junior career and already had three NHL games on his resume by the time he showed up to his first AHL camp in Rochester. It was 1997, and Biron felt almost as if he could begin his pro career on cruise control.

Then he met Mike Bales, his goalie partner that season with the Amerks. 

"Mike was always competitive, which was great because you're a young guy and you think you're going to be given the world," Biron recalled. "He was a really good veteran, worked extremely hard."

Bales, who was named an assistant coach on Ralph Krueger's staff on Friday, controlled the Rochester net for the first half of that season and Biron was eventually demoted to Buffalo's ECHL affiliate in South Carolina. That stint only lasted two games; Bales sustained an injury and Biron was recalled, went on to play most of the remaining games that season and had a successful career in Buffalo.

Bales played the next three seasons in the IHL, then 10 more in Europe. He and Biron had been out of touch for roughly a decade when they ran into one another at a goalie camp hosted by Mitch Korn, who was the Sabres' goalie coach when the two were together in Rochester. 

It was Korn who helped usher Bales into his coaching career, which included a pair of Stanley Cup championships during his time with Jason Botterill in Pittsburgh and, most recently, two seasons in Carolina. It was also Korn who gave Carter Hutton his shot with the St. Louis Blues.

All this is to say that the goalie world is a small one, and Biron and Bales reconnected since the latter became involved in the NHL. The trust factor Bales formed with his goalies and head coaches in recent stops, Biron said, makes him an exciting hire by the Sabres. 

"I think what Mike Bales has done, and you look around at his success stories around the National Hockey League, is he's been able to have a little bit bigger of a voice," Biron said. "I go back to Marc-Andre Fleury with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Before Mike Bales, Marc-Andre Fleury was very erratic, very much an acrobatic type goaltender. When Mike Bales came in, he looked at Fleury and said, 'Look, I'm not going to take away your athleticism and the fact that you can do things that nobody else can do. But we are definitely going to dial it back and build a lot more of a structure in net.' 

"To be able to have that voice and to have that confidence in your ability as a goalie coach, going to a Stanley Cup champion in Marc-Andre Fleury, a guy that's been in the league that many years, and change a little bit of his game or adjust his game a little bit, that's very impressive."

Fleury has a career save percentage of .910 in 467 games before Bales took over as the Penguins' goalie coach in 2013-14. His save percentage in four seasons under Bale was .917. The two developed a close personal relationship along the way, as they detailed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2017.

Bales took similar ownership in Carolina, where coach Rod Brind'Amour leaned on his goalie coach to set the starting schedule between Peter Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. The Sabres are expected to have the same dynamic in net as last season, with a veteran in Carter Hutton sharing time with the younger Linus Ullmark.

Krueger has emphasized his belief in empowering his coaching staff to make such decisions, which is now comprised of Bales, fellow newcomer Don Granato and holdover Steve Smith.  

Biron said that Bales' appointment is further evidence of that philosophy.  

"You're seeing that this is going to be a priority for Ralph Krueger and his staff, to have a voice from the goaltender's side into what's going on, especially in the defensive zone," he said.

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