The Importance of A Full-Time Goalie Coach
Earlier today, a post was published on Mile High Hockey regarding Semyon Varlamov the Avalanche’s goalie coaching situation. As I read the short post, I noticed just about every single hyperlink was directed towards posts I’ve written on The Goalie Guild. With some good questions posed at the end, I thought the season’s midpoint would be a good time to answer them.
First, the questions asked by Mike at MHH (these guys are good friends of mine, as I founded The Avalanche Guild four seasons ago, and have worked with them on a few events). The bolded questions are the ones I’ve focused my five responses on:
“However, given that the #1 job seems to have developed into a split-time arrangement lately and wit the team winning more often than not, is it still a viable argument for the pro-Varlamov to demand a full-time coach? (1) Is his inconsistency an indicator of youth and inexperience or a sign that he needs a more omnipresent guiding hand at his position? (2) Why aren’t people discussing the lack of a full-time coach for Jean-Sebastien Giguere? (3,4) Have we made much ado about nothing here at MHH? Was having McLean back part-time for this season just a stop-gap until Parkkila or another full-time coach was available to take the reigns in Denver? Should we be worried about a lack of goaltending development in the Colorado system when touted uber-prospect Sami Aittokallio plays a similar style of game? (5)“
1. Varlamov is just 23 years old, and he has never played in as many games over the course of an NHL season as he has right now (27 total). Because he’s in unknown territory, he absolutely needs guidance managing his game at this level. By “his game” I don’t just mean the technical side, I mean the emotional and mental side as well.
Goalie coaches are less like head coaches and more like really good buddies that know what you’re going through. They are stabilizing forces that help an emotional athlete (all goalies are emotional, whether they show it or not) stay even-keeled and focused. They radiate positive energy, they are Merlins to King Arthurs, and it is very obvious to me that only having one around on a part-time basis is not nearly as advantageous as having someone full-time.
Every NHL team has a full-time goalie coach, while 11 teams even have a two-coach system. I can’t comment on how much those coaches are with their teams (every goalie coach handles their workload and schedule differently), but I can tell you no other NHL team is more “behind the times” in terms of goalie coaching than the Avalanche.
It’s amazing how much confidence can be instilled in a young NHL goaltender when there are open face-to-face discussions (phone conversations are not the same) on motivations, mindsets and momentum-swinging moments. Goalie coaches are like mirrors, in the sense that a goalie like Varlamov will see the reflection of his own game in a dynamic and influential manner. It’s like constant video analysis, something I’m pretty sure Avalanche goaltenders are not doing much of, especially compared to some other teams that have full-time goalie coaches.
A goaltender sees the game from their own eyes, and projects everything they accomplish by having a mindset that strives to prove they are always doing an awesome job. What I mean is that, sometimes, our minds as goaltenders will trick us into believing we are not making many mistakes, that we are actually making all the right decisions, or that certain goals aren’t our “fault” when they actually might be. I can’t see myself move in the net, I need video replays or a goalie coach providing verbal feedback. The more feedback I get, the more I see, the more I understand, the more I learn.
I may not need it every day, but I want it more often than not, and especially when I’m struggling.
This is even more crucial for a prized raw talent, or any 23-year-old goalie with no experience being a starter. Without a full-time goalie coach, there may not be anyone there showing him certain mistakes, or explaining certain ways to execute his technique with more efficiency.
Young goalies need this alternate view of reality, otherwise they are prone to becoming complacent with their work ethic in terms of developing and getting better. This is fairly straightforward in my eyes, but hopefully the paragraphs above shed light on just how important it is for Varlamov.
2. Yes, Varlamov’s inconsistency is an indication of youth and inexperience. Those potentially negative elements can be limited and managed by a full-time goalie coach; they strive to disallow bad habits to creep into practices, off-ice workouts, etc. A goalie coach is a true eagle-eye. They watch from above, and through their wisdom and knowledge, make subtle but key adjustments that allow the goalie to focus their energy on specific areas of technique. The young goalie simply does not attune themselves to their game all alone. When they go through drills, they’re rarely thinking about one specific element of movement, they’re often just going through the motions, trying to battle hard, and trying to act like it’s a game situation.
But there are times in practices where a young goalie’s mindset needs to be centered on a certain game element; maybe it is recovering with more balance on the inside edges, maybe it is keeping an active stick sealed to the ice and leading with it on a more consistent basis, maybe it is keeping the glove hand out and open, not allowing it to drop and expose space. Unless you have a goalie coach on the ice watching your movements, you are not going to be fully aware that certain areas of your game need to be reinforced, honed or further developed.
Goalie coaches create certain drills in certain practices to work on these numerous elements. A goalie does not have the time to do these on their own, nor are they paid or expected to do so. A 23-year-old is not going to have the mature work ethic to have such strategic, comprehensive practice habits. It takes years to develop those things, and it is limited by the personality of that goalie; some goalies have stronger work ethics in practices than others.
One of the best things I’ve learned about the effectiveness of a full-time goalie coach is the importance of their balanced presence. There are times they need to let the goalies figure things out for themselves. There are other times where they really need to lead their pupils along a certain predetermined path, and guide them with more focus and intensity than usual.
Goalie coaching at the NHL level is managing personalities, egos and attitudes. Time spent with each goalie, how you hang out around the rink, the type of discussions you have, it all matters! It’s a total balancing act, and it takes a very keen goalie coach to know when to be totally “hands on” with a goalie, and when to step back and just let them manage their own game for a while.
But unless that goalie coach is around to see how a goalie practices from day-to-day, it’s that much tougher to know when to step in and say something, or get more involved. It’s like me when I miss a week of NHL action…I have to watch games again for another week before I can really comment on how a goalie is playing again. Every day missed is crucial, because so much happens to a goalie every time they step on the ice.
When a goalie coach steps back from working with NHL goalies for a few days, it’s time to jump on a plane and go work with the AHL goalies. If you’re one of the 11 teams that have an assistant goalie coach, take them along for the ride, or let them hang out with the NHL goalies for a few days. As a full-time goalie coach, there’s always someone to work with, whether it’s in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, CHL, or maybe with a prospect overseas. The whole time, you should be scouting and evaluating potential draft-eligible goalies, or unrestricted free agents.
That being said, having a full-time goalie coach will ALWAYS trump having a “part-time” goalie coach in terms of practicing, developing, scouting and evaluating. There are many elements of Varlamov’s game that needs work, that much we know. But who is there to guide him and give him that visual feedback at the level and consistency he needs to develop at the most effective rate possible?
3. Signing Giguere was probably one of the best moves of any team that signed any goalie all summer long made. He is one of the most well-respected and classy goaltenders of the last ten years. The fact he is right here in Denver mentoring and aiding in Varlamov’s development is one of the best things that could possibly happen to the team. It will most likely play a huge role in turning the potential negativity surrounding the acquisition into positivity.
“They gave up soo much for Varlamov, it’s just ridiculous!”
“Yeah, but Giguere is mentoring and playing with him now.”
No hockey fan can discredit that influence on the evolution of Varlamov’s game, and I am the first in line to say that it’s absolutely a huge positive moving forward.
Even though they play completely different styles, every goalie mimics and shadows certain elements of what they see the other goalie doing on a daily basis. This is the true human nature of a goaltender; we mimic what we see, and we take what works for us and use them, then make them our own. I am a chemically concocted combination of all my idols, and even goalies I played with growing up. That’s just the human element of body language, biomechanics and athletic movements.
What Varlamov sees in Giguere will influence what we ultimately see in Varlamov. There are many positives that come out of this, because Varlamov is a hyper-active, swift-footed goaltender that needs to learn to control his movements and stay centered in his net. Giguere is the epitome of being centered in the net, as that is the fundamental component of the Francois Allaire style of goaltending; move less, rely on space management, and focus on the economy of movement to absorb shots and keep pucks directly in front of you.
The two styles mesh extremely well for a piece of goalie clay like Varlamov. Like alchemy, when the two goalies practice together, Varlamov’s game is improving because he sees Giguere’s economy and positionally-based style. I can say with full certainty that I would probably give more credit to Giguere’s day-to-day influence then I would to McLean’s partial presence and influence.
Maybe that is why McLean is listed as a goaltending consultant. He’s not coaching on the ice every day, so maybe this plays a role in the current situation as we see it.
4. Giguere is in the twilight years of his illustrious NHL career. He’s not in a mode of crucial development like Varlamov. He is more concerned about and focused on managing his body than he is about honing technique or implementing certain elements of advanced mechanics. He doesn’t need to progress or develop, he needs to maintain a certain level of homeostasis in terms of energy levels and hydration.
As the prized Allaire “student” for so many years, the student eventually turns into his own master. Giguere is essentially at this point. He no longer needs to be coached, he can only learn by coaching others. This is similar to the transition Chris Osgood made with the Red Wings. He finally reached a point where his game had evolved to a pinnacle point of time, and instead of playing, he retired and became a goalie coach, and he will be an amazing one for as long as he chooses that profession.
Whether Giguere elects to become a full-time goalie coach for the Avalanche, or for some other team in some other league, or to take a few years off before returning to the game, is totally his call. But the natural progression of a veteran NHL goaltender with Stanley Cup rings is to stay involved and continue to mentor and guide younger goalies.
Maybe Giguere gets his fix over the next 1.5 seasons, and that’s all he feels like he wants to accomplish as a “pseudo” goalie coach. Maybe he falls in love with it and builds up the type of resume you see with blossoming goalie coaches like Sean Burke (PHX), Jeff Reese (PHI), Bill Ranford (LAK), and others. It will be awesome to see which direction he takes, but these are just a few reasons why Giguere doesn’t need a goalie coach right now (especially compared to Varlamov).
The last two questions asked are good ones, and ones I can’t really answer.
I don’t know if Parkkila will come over to the NHL because goalie coaches over here do not make a lot of money. I am sure he is being paid a lot more to work with SKA’s goaltenders, but I am just speculating off what I know what type of money NHL goalie coaches make. Every team pays their goalie coach different amounts depending on their expected roles. But it is not a huge chunk of change compared to what head or assistant coaches make, so you have to keep that in mind.
5. The Avalanche’s lack of a full-time goalie coach is not just about Varlamov. It’s about having a pulse on the entire goaltending depth chart. The Avs go fishing blindfolded when it comes to drafting goalies. They seem to pick and choose randomly, without any type of systematic approach.
Look at Nashville; Magnus Hellberg is so much like Anders Lindback is so much like Pekka Rinne. You model prospects and drafted goalies after your elite stud in order to allow the goalies to develop similarly. The NHL teams that have really solid full-time goalie coaches understand this is a really good way to draft and develop goalies, and so the scouts will look for similar goalies that have similar form, function, and biomechanics.
For the Avalanche, since I started covering the team in 2006, no two goalies have been similar in form or function at all. Jose Theodore was nothing like Craig Anderson was nothing like Peter Budaj. As the prospects continue to pile up, Calvin Pickard is nothing like Sami Aittokallio (the first Finnish goalie they have ever drafted) is nothing like Kent Patterson is nothing like Kieran Millan.
I am going to be totally honest with you all when I say the whole situation with Sami Aittokallio really freaks me out. He has the potential to be scary good, not unlike what I saw with a top-flight Finnish prospect named Rinne.
But Rinne has been working side-by-side with Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn for over seven years. More than seven years worth of amazing guidance. Seven years worth of building an amazing friendship. That’s what it took to turn Rinne into one of the best goalies in the entire world.
Aittokallio must be signed before the upcoming deadline of June 1st, otherwise his rights are released and he’s available to all 30 NHL teams again. If he is not signed, it is a disastrous mistake, for I feel Aittokallio has tremendous upside and all of the elements you want in a true NHL goaltender.
But unless a full-time goalie coach is reinforcing the value and potential a goalie like Aittokallio to the head honchos, is anyone going to know how good he could really be?
I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs for years about the Avalanche needing to give Tyler Weiman a legitimate chance, and it never happened. Then I screamed about the awesome potential Peter Delmas had, and he was never signed. Now the Canadiens are developing him into a very solid AHL goaltender, possibly even Carey Price’s future backup. Then I said a chance should have been taken on Brandon Maxwell, but that didn’t happen either.
And now, more than I’ve ever “screamed” in my life in terms of Avalanche goalie prospects, I am urging this organization to sign Aittokallio. He needs to spend at least one more season in the SM-liiga, so he can continue to develop with his goalie coaches over there. The more time he spends over there playing in high-level games, the better he will be when he inevitably comes over to play in the AHL and beyond.
But unless there’s a full-time goalie coach making it known Aittokallio has awesome upside, there’s a part of me that is freaking out, because the deadline to sign him draws nearer every day, and if he’s not signed shortly after the World Junior Championships end, I start to wonder how close they’re paying attention, or where their motives lie when it comes to making decisions on Sami, Cedrick Desjardins, Kieran Millan, and Kent Patterson.
I could go on and on about the importance of a team like Colorado having a full-time goalie coach, but I think it’s safe to say I’ve listed enough reasons to prove it is needed. They are behind the times, and they will continue to struggle developing goalies until the culture changes.