Justin Goldman is the ultimate goalie nerd. He's the Director of Goalie Scouting for McKeen's Hockey, a writer for NHL.com, and the founder of The Goalie Guild. Some of you will remember him as the founder of The Avalanche Guild, the co-host of Avalanche Weekly on Mile High Sports Radio, and the guy on Uncle Nasty's show on KBPI that previewed Avs games. He covered the Avalanche for six seasons until he moved to Minneapolis, MN last summer to further pursue his goalie scouting endeavors and to learn how to ice fish. You can follow him on twitter @TheGoalieGuild and join him in admiring Jonathan Quick's flexibility and digging around for random goalie facts.
1. How important is a good goalie coach to the success and competitiveness of a team?
If one can make the argument that goalies are the most important position in hockey, then it's clearly not a stretch to say the goalie coach is absolutely essential to a team's success. The proverbial "puzzle" is incomplete without one, and in my mind, the goalie coach is one of those crucial corner pieces, so to not have one, especially at the NHL level, is to simply be way behind the times. I know I rant and rave about this all the time, but with more than half of the teams in the NHL now employing a two-goalie-coach system, clearly teams understand the importance of a good goalie coach. In fact, three teams just recently added a second goalie coach to their organization: St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Anaheim, so the list is growing every month. Not only could a book be written on the importance of a goalie coach to a team's success, but goalie coaches play a key role in the scouting realm, too. They really help a team's scouting staff -- very few of which understand the technicalities of goaltending development -- locate and assess draft-eligible and free-agent talent. You don't develop good goalies and have success at the NHL level unless you draft well, and since drafting goalies is like playing darts blindfolded, goalie coaches can eliminate a lot of the guesswork that goes into selecting a goalie. You also see more and more teams locating older and more matured talent in Europe. Teams like Dallas, Anaheim, and Calgary have recently benefited from finding quality UFA talent in Europe. But you can't make educated decisions on signing a European goalie unless a goalie coach does their homework and has a good network to overseas. I could go on and on and on, and I usually do when this is the topic of conversation...but yeah, I think you get the idea.
2. You've said you are glad the Avs have moved on from McLean. Why?
Well, allow me to clarify. Obviously they need an upgrade in that department, but to be honest, I don't think McLean did a poor job during his time in Colorado. He was paid a limited amount to fill a limited role, and with his limited coaching experience, did the best he could. His exact role as a consultant was foggy...at least in the public eye, I don't think anyone really knew exactly what his time commitments were. But he obviously wasn't with the Avs "full-time" as a coach, so the working relationship left a lot to be desired. I do know he was around more this season than last, but I also know he still spent a fair amount of time in Vancouver. I could argue that he wasn't the best type of goalie consultant for what the Avs needed, but then again I don't think many elite-level goalie coaches would have been willing to take the job description as set forth by the organization. Also, to be fair, his experience as an NHL goalie did provide some solid support for Varlamov and the four rookies in the minors. I know he spent some time with the Cutthroats. I know he helped Varlamov through some rough patches. So he is at least a competent mentor, otherwise he wouldn't have been hired in the first place. At the end of the day, something is better than nothing, and although I was not covering the Avs this season, I learned that he did have a positive impact at times this past season. But an upgrade was clearly needed, and not solely because McLean wasn't good enough, but because the role the Avalanche gave him and paid him for was unsubstantial. They need a "full-time" goalie coach, and that means ownership must be willing to pay someone to fill that "full-time" role. Time to pony up some dough. So I'm glad the Avs have moved on because it coincides with Joe Sakic's new role, Joe Sacco's dismissal, and hopefully, more money into the future of the franchise. Ultimately, it's the philosophy and ideology -- the club's lack of situational awareness in goal -- that needs to change. They need to hire a goalie coach that has experience implementing a systematic blueprint for goalie development, but that only starts with a willingness to pay for that.
3. Given the sad state of the Avalanche defense during McLean's tenure, was he a bit of a fall guy?
Just like a head coach will take the fall for a team's failure, a goalie coach will always be a bit of a fall guy for failed goaltending. But like I said above, you get what you pay for. Until ownership wakes up and recognizes how far behind they are in terms of goalie development and goalie coaching, whoever is put in place (we've most recently seen Jeff Hackett, Jocelyn Thibault, and McLean), they will always struggle to get the most out of their goalies. It is never always the goalie coach's fault -- an NHL goalie, especially the starter, should be able to do a solid job of managing their own game. McLean wasn't the best fit, but this issue goes way deeper than just the goalie coach and his abilities. It only scares me so much because Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio are so, so promising. Both could be starters in the NHL. But potential isn't reached unless they have support. This doesn't even take into consideration the dynamic of team defense, team support, etc. There are simply too many dynamics to put it all on McLean's shoulders. Hockey is a team sport, and teams that play well in their own zone will almost always have better goaltending stats, and that really changes the perception of what a goalie coach is accomplishing during his tenure. Quick example: James Reimer went from a sub-par goalie to a guy with a solid even-strength save percentage that helped the Leafs make the playoffs. That's not all because Francois Allaire was replaced with Rick St. Croix...a lot was due to a much improved team defense, more offensive support, and the fact he was more experienced and stayed relatively healthy. There is no way of knowing exactly how much of a goalie's success is team related and how much is goalie-coaching related, you just have to observe and learn as much as you can about the situation. But it's always a mix of a bunch of things; that's the nature of hockey and that's why the world of hockey blogging and analysis is getting so infatuated with fancy stats -- it really does help eliminate some of the guesswork, and provides examples and sample sizes for these different team-oriented dynamics.
4. What specific problems did you see in Varly and/or Giguere that were due to the goalie coach situation?
That's really tough to answer because I'm not down there on the ice with the guys. In my opinion, J-S Giguere doesn't need a goalie coach anymore; at his age and with his experience, he knows how to manage his own game. So there were no problems with Giguere, and he is essentially a "goalie coach" for Varlamov in a variety of ways. So it's all focused on Varlamov, and clearly when you trade for a goalie and label him the future of the franchise, you need to give him everything he needs to be successful. Clearly, he still needs help from a coach, and he can't get that from Giguere. He is still too young and too raw-skilled to develop on his own, especially in the mental toughness realm. As a goalie gets older and plays more NHL games, they become more aware of how their body must move, must react, and how they must look in order to be successful. For someone like Varlamov, a goalie coach is like a mirror. He provides essential feedback and verbal reinforcement in practice and following games. If you don't have that on a steady basis, you don't know how to become more efficient and more economical in different areas from positioning to depth to rebound control to footwork to hand placement. The list goes on and on. There are aspects in Varlamov's game that need some tweaking, and it's just a matter of someone seeing him on a consistent basis, assessing the problem areas, then being around long enough to implement the changes to the point where it becomes muscle memory. A perfect example: Sergei Bobrovsky. He played so small and so hunched over in Philadelphia, and it was very easy to see. But they rushed things and didn't want to wait another year to let him develop. He was traded to Columbus, and Ian Clark, a full-time goalie coach with an excellent track record, got him to stand more upright, to play bigger, and to be a little more patient on his skates, and a little more efficient on the posts. Now he's a Vezina Trophy finalist, and will probably win it because he led a team that was expected to be a cellar dweller in the West. It's such a fine line between a good and a great NHL goalie, and Varlamov is a great goalie at times, but he can't become a truly elite goalie on his own. He needs more support, he needs more feedback, he needs more time. I also use Bobrovsky as an example because there are some similarities in terms of the adjustments Semyon needs to make to be elite. Because he is so flexible and athletic, he must learn to play with a straighter back and play bigger. He has such a deep crouch and gets so wide in his stance that he makes himself small, and when you're only 6-0 or 6-1 or 6-2, every little centimeter counts against NHL shooters. Varlamov often gets caught making butterfly saves where he sits back and his butt is almost touching the ice. Imagine how much bigger he would look and how much better he would seal holes and how much more net he would cover if he stayed upright, straightened his back and his thighs, pushed his hips out, and reached those shoulders to the sky. He is already one of the most flexible goalies in the world, and his athleticism and tenacity and quickness is second-to-none. But he needs some refining, he needs to understand that he can play bigger, look bigger, and take up even more space in the net. I'll conclude the technical stuff with one of my favorite goalie quotes; "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast." He is so energetic at times that he loses control of his movements and looks "hurried" in the crease, like he's moving in fast-forward. He is over-aggressive and lunges, reaches, or tries to do too much. With some good coaching and guidance, he can slow things down and realize that it's not always about speed or quickness, but about placing the body in certain positions that allows him to move less, move smoothly, and with more body control. Think about that quote, think about when Varly gets caught on some goals against, and it should hopefully give some of you that "aha!" moment. That's just a few of maybe three or four things I saw from Varlamov this past season. It's not rocket science and I am nowhere close to being an NHL goalie coach, but while these things are easy to see, it takes a full-time goalie coach to actually be able to change his biomechanics and postural patterns to the point where he's playing bigger on a consistent basis. It took Bobrovsky a mere half-season...and there are other young goalies making similar adjustments in similar time frames. How long will it take Varlamov to refine and adjust? It's not all on the goalie coach, it's not all on the goalie, it's a hidden combination of both, but you can't turn one key without the other.
5. What improvements do you expect to see with a new coach?
I am honestly not sure what to expect with all of the front office changes, so I can only speculate on what I hope will happen. A new goalie coach will (again, hopefully...) implement a plan and a structured system of development, and a more structured daily routine in practices and games. He'll create a healthy and more intimate friendship with all of the goalies in the organization. He'll provide more feedback and written reports to the coaching staff and scouting staff and upper management. He'll provide more pre-scouting notes on opposing NHL goalies. I know of at least five NHL goalie coaches that post a short pre-scouting report on the opposing goalie in the team's locker room on the day of a game. Nothing super in-depth, just a few strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies so the shooters have a bit of an edge. A new goalie coach will provide scouting notes on draft eligible prospects, too. He'll communicate more with goalie coaches around the world and establish a culture (or more appropriately, create a culture) in the club and transform Colorado from a goalie graveyard to a goalie garden.
6. If the Avs stick with using a part time coach, will we still see improvements?
This depends on who is filling the role. Every goalie coach brings their own unique philosophy to the table, and that philosophy must be flexible depending on that coach's situation, and who he is working with. Maybe we would, but then again, it could go the other way. At this point, however, I'd have to think that any change is good change.
7. What qualities should the Avs target in a goalie coach?
Experience, experience, experience. I don't mean NHL playing experience, but rather pro-level goalie coaching experience. It must be someone who understands the current evolution of the position and teaches things like post leans, one-knee down, dead arm post integration, depth control, active hand placement, etc. All those advanced techniques are important because the position is changing on a weekly basis...to the point where someone like myself has to work really hard to keep up with everything. It is so intricate and detailed and in-depth. It's a rabbit hole, and that makes an NHL goalie coach's job that much more difficult. I'm really hoping the old boy network is left at the door, and the Avs hires the right coach that is the best fit for the job. Round peg in a round hole. Someone who is sought after, and who can come in with a strong reputation and make an instant impact. And no, I do not think Patrick Roy is that person, at least not yet ;)
8. Who is out there that you think would be a good fit?
First and foremost, bringing in Francois Allaire would be the ultimate home run for the organization. I won't go into the reasons why, but that ball would be hit right out of the park if they found a way to bring him in. It also makes the most sense since he has a relationship with Giguere. From there, it could be any number of coaches. Steve McKichan was the goalie coach for Toronto for a few years and is extremely knowledgeable. Paul Fricker coached Calvin Pickard in juniors and might be a nice fit. If Varlamov is truly the future of this franchise in goal, attempts must be made to reel in Jussi Parkkila from SKA in the KHL. Erik Granqvist is one of the best goalie coaches in Sweden and may want to try coaching in the NHL. There are some really good goalie coaches in the QMJHL, and Marco Marciano is near the top of that list. Eric Raymond is another. I also know David Alexander, who is currently the goalie coach for the University of Maine, deserves some looks as well. We all know the Avs would not be opposed to bringing in someone from the Quebec region, and the goalie coaching is very strong in that area. Eli Wilson is another name that may generate some interest, and same goes for Jon Elkin. Brian Daccord used to be the goalie coach for Boston, still coaches in the Boston area, and I know the Avs really like to scout talent in the Boston area, especially at the NCAA level. So there are a lot of good candidates out there, and who knows, it may be someone who is already currently employed by an NHL team looking for a different type of challenge.
Many thanks to Justin for taking the time to give us this in-depth look at what the Avs are facing with the guy behind the net. It will be interesting to see what happens and if Sakic and Kroenke are putting even half as much thought into this position as they are into the head coach slot.