Goalies are strange creatures, and they’re often creatures NHL head coaches admit they don’t know much about.
Before heading to the respective Edmonton and Toronto bubbles to close the book on 2019-20, some teams were faced with difficult decisions when it came to deciding who should be their starting goaltender after nearly five months without game action.
This included the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are coached by former Vancouver Canucks bench boss John Tortorella. Prior to heading to the Toronto bubble, Tortorella stressed the importance of listening to his goaltending coach, Manny Legace.
“We’ve had a number of conversations during this camp and since Manny has been with us,” Tortorella said. “We’re always talking about what we’re looking at. He brings up some points that I don’t even think about. And they’re interesting points as far as how a goalie thinks. I don’t know how a goalie thinks. He does. He’s played the position.”
Elvis Merzlikins had a stellar rookie year — and even picked up some Calder and Vezina votes — but it was Joonas Korpisalo who got the call for game one against Toronto.
The move was criticized by some who soon went quiet after Korpisalo turned in a 28 save shutout to give his team an early 1-0 lead in a series many presumed they were outmatched in.
The Blue Jackets needed both of their goaltenders in order to get past Toronto, and nearly got past Tampa Bay — who went on to win the Stanley Cup — in the second round.
Much like the Blue Jackets did, having two good goaltenders is going to be of the utmost importance for every team in the league this season, thanks to the compact 56-game schedule.
And much like the Blue Jackets, the Canucks are well suited for this, even with the departure of Vezina-calibre goaltender Jacob Markstrom this offseason.
“For head coaches, it will be a lot harder, because they won’t be able to base anything on results or gameplay,” said noted goaltending expert Kevin Woodley. “I’m not even sure if preseason games are the best way to evaluate, but sometimes it’s just so obvious and you can trust the head coach’s opinion when they’re able to look at games.”
Instead, the Canucks will rely heavily on the opinion of goaltending coach Ian Clark, who has been touted by many as one of the best goalie coaches in the world. But what exactly will Clark be looking for throughout training camp?
“The goalie coach can tell when they’re feeling good about drills, moving in a certain way, when they’re reacting from their skates instead of their knees,” said Woodley. “All these little cues that will be different from guy to guy, that may not be as obvious even in a game environment to everyone. But without the benefits of the results of a game environment, you need to rely on those things even more. Movement patterns, is he hitting his spots, is he set and squared early; all these little tells that can be very different from one guy to the next in terms of, ‘what are the signs that this guy is on top of his game?’ I like the goalie coach’s chances of knowing that from his experience with those guys, more than I do the head coach, so I think it’s going to be more important than ever to have that dialogue heading into training camp.”
At training camp, the Canucks will have a few question marks in net. Were Thatcher Demko’s performances against Vegas nothing more than a flash? Can a 31-year-old Braden Holtby help carry the load sufficiently enough to the point where the Canucks aren’t cursing themselves for letting Markstrom walk to a division rival come playoff time?
These questions will be answered in due time, but there’s legitimate reason for optimism when it comes to both goaltenders’ chances of success.
As outlined way back in May on this very site, Demko felt as though he was just getting settled in and finding confidence as a starter before the NHL’s pause, and his play in the bubble absolutely reflected that. The Canucks will have to play tighter defence — similar to how they did against Vegas in limiting east-west movement — than they did in front of Markstrom last season in order for Demko to find success. Although it won’t be easy by any means, it’s certainly doable.
Holtby played in one of the worst defensive environments in the league last season, and will have been working with Clark for about a month by the time game one of the regular season gets underway. He has been rapidly incorporating Clark’s philosophies into his game, and is a noted fast learner who is eager to discover new ways he can find success.
If there’s anybody who can get Holtby back to his previous Vezina-winning level of play, it’s Clark.
The Canucks will need to have a constant feel of who’s feeling good and who’s not, as this season is going to demand a lot from every player, but perhaps even more so from goaltenders.
The Canucks are set up perhaps better than they ever have been with the current coaching staff in place, but it wasn’t always this way in Vancouver.
“I think they’re well suited for it in terms of the relationship they have, the back and forth and that dialogue,” Woodley added. “With most teams, it’s going to be the head coach’s final call, but for the most part, Travis has always been really good about asking for help when he needs it, whether it’s with a goalie coach or otherwise, he has a really good dialogue with his assistants and uses it wisely, and that hasn’t always been the case here. I don’t want to call anybody out, but there was a former head coach here and I remember the goalie coach being absolutely flabergasted because he got a call at 11 o’clock the night before an afternoon game, finally asking who he thought should play the next day. I was shocked because that meant the goalies hadn’t been told, and the head coach was calling the shots all season up to that point. I don’t know how much that still happens, but I think it would be naive to think that it doesn’t. There are probably still some teams where the dialogue isn’t as good as it is here.”
Travis Green and Ian Clark — whose contracts are both set to expire at the end of the 2020-21 season — have a good relationship with one another, and this is going to benefit the Canucks not only coming out of training camp, but all season long.