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Photo Credit: Kalamazoo Wings

‘He’s an extension of Clarky’: How Ian Clark and Curtis Sanford work in tandem to help the Canucks’ non-roster goaltenders develop from afar

Vancouver Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark is widely regarded by many to be the best goalie coach in the league. His work in turning Sergei Bobrovsky into a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender is well documented, and obviously, his work in morphing a far from technically sound Jacob Markstrom into a top-tier goaltender speaks for itself.

Another area Clark has excelled, however, is in identifying and developing young prospects.

In Columbus, Clark had input with the amateur scouting department, and helped them identify young prospects such as Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

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“The Blue Jackets relied on Clark to highlight a cluster of prospects worth drafting each season, in addition to undrafted players who might be worthy of a free-agent contract,” wrote Aaron Portzline of The Athletic back in 2018. “That’s how they landed on Tarasov (third round) in last year’s draft, Thome (sixth round) in 2016, etc. That’s how they signed Kivlenieks and Kulbakov out of the USHL.”

Since Clark was brought on board with the Canucks in 2018, the club took a flyer on a young Latvian goaltender with a ton of upside in Arturs Silovs late in the 2019 draft, and added Jake Kielly as an NCAA free agent signing.

With Michael DiPietro on the taxi squad, the 24-year-old Kielly’s current task is to find his footing at the AHL level after playing the bulk of the 2019-20 campaign in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings. He feels more confident than ever after working with Ian Clark.

“I mean honestly the biggest thing for my career has probably been working with Clarky,” said Kielly. “Obviously he has an incredible track record of working with different goalies throughout different periods of time, and he just finds a way to make his goalies successful. Honestly, last year was a bit of a learning experience for me, being a first-year pro. Figuring out the lay of the land and stuff like that. But being able to go into this year knowing exactly what Clarky wanted from me, being able to go in and have expectations for myself, I feel like I was able to bring a better game into camp but also elevate myself throughout the time I was up there. He’s obviously such a wealth of knowledge that any opportunity you get to be out on the ice with him you just have to soak it in and try to implement what he’s trying to tell you to do in a way that works in your game.”

Kielly is in Utica with the Comets while Arturs Silovs is in Manitoba getting reps with the Moose. Despite the distance between them and Clark, both goaltenders are extremely pleased with the guidance that he has provided them with, and how clearly he’s communicated with them what he wants them to work on in order for them to improve. A big part of that is Clark’s excellent communication with Utica Comets goalie coach Curtis Sanford.

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“Communication is massive,” said Sanford. “It doesn’t even matter what position we’re talking about. Forwards, defence, and goaltending, I think it’s always important to have really good communication from the coaches down to the development coaches and to the players. It has to really be open, and I think once we leave training camps and development camps, we have a pretty good idea of a pathway for these players from the start of the season, to the end of the season. It’s just kind of continually monitoring, evaluating, and communicating what those expectations are going to be and how we’re going to achieve them.”

Those efforts are felt by every goaltender in the organization, no matter what level they’re at or where they are in their developmental journey.

“The one thing that we do really well is Curtis is an extension of Clarky,” said Kielly. “He doesn’t mix things up, he doesn’t have different symbols for things, he doesn’t say things that Clarky wouldn’t say so when you go from a training camp in Vancouver and then are able to come down here with Curtis, it just makes things much simpler, things flow better, and I’m able to pick up right where I left off. There’s no jumbling of organizational plays, systematic plays and stuff like that. He played in the league a long time and he played for Clarky too, so he’s able to communicate things to me in a way that makes sense for me.”

Sanford largely attributes that to remembering what it was like working with Clark as a goaltender himself.

“I think it goes back to those playing days, and just having an understanding of what Ian’s expectations are for goalies, what his expectations were for me, and then just kind of remembering what it felt like as a player. I have to kind of step back and put myself in these goalies’ shoes at times and remember how I was feeling, how I was trying to adapt, and then make it as simplistic as possible for these players to understand. All our goalies are extremely competitive, have extremely good work ethics and are extremely coachable, so I think all those things kind of go hand in hand.”

“Ian was probably the most influential goalie coach that I had in my career,” added Sanford. “I had him in Vancouver, and I didn’t play a whole lot but the time I spent with Ian that year and a half in Vancouver I started to understand how to play the position a lot better. And then I was able to kind of take that onward with me and then we kind of reunited there in Columbus… He is extremely influential and I think he’s one of the best there is in the game. I’ve got a great deal of respect for him.”

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Although he isn’t currently working with Clark or Sanford, Arturs Silovs has felt the impact of the Canucks’ goalie coach, and he’s somebody the organization is still very high on.

“I’m getting experience and new ideas of how to play in goal,” said Silovs. “It’s more about mentality and details in the game. How to save more energy, how to play properly, it’s been really good. I’ve never had a coach like Ian before so it’s been a good experience for me. It’s more about just improving my movement, my skill in total, and just to become a better goalie.”

Silovs’ biggest things to work on are narrowing his stance and keeping his feet quieter when navigating his crease. Those are the things that held him back the most last year, and they’re the things he knows he has to focus on the most moving forward.

“I think his raw assets — his athleticism, his competitiveness — he’s an extremely smart hockey player, he understands the position really well,” said Sanford when asked what Silovs’ greatest strengths are. “I think it comes down to gaining that experience over on North American ice, and just kind of learning how to rein in your game. We don’t necessarily want to completely control what these guys are doing because they have such great instincts and athleticism. You always want to coach to their strengths. It’s not completely black and white, there’s a lot of gray area that we like to live in as well and let these goalies explore themselves. A lot of it comes down to just gaining that experience over on North American soil, learning how the game is played, learning how to make reads within the arena dimensions, and then just kind of letting your instincts and athleticism take over at that point.”

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Under Clark and Sanford, the Canucks have one of the most respectable goaltending institutions in the league, and its effects are felt by every goalie at every level of the organization.