Home » More & Less Hockey » What difference does a coach make?

What difference does a coach make?

(Originally published at Kukla’s Korner, February 21, 2013)

In the wake of Lindy Ruff being fired, it seems like a good time to talk about one of my pet peeves in the coaching area.  Oh, who am I kidding?  It has nothing to do with Ruff or McLellan or any head coach.  It’s all about the “surprising revelation” that Kevin Kurz shared about Antti Niemi and how he brought his Finnish goaltending coach back with him from Finland. This touches on something I wonder about a lot, and have wondered about for years.  Why is the NHL so slow to recognize the importance of goaltending coaches?  I would add to that, isn’t it a no-brainer that one goaltending coach won’t fit all?

Ignoring how I kick myself for not asking him about this when I had the chance, when I was like talking to him about playing in Finland, ignoring how utterly and completely useless and stupid that makes me feel.  But why would I ask?  It isn’t as if the moment I noticed his play slipping in prior seasons I thought “gee, when was he playing his best?  What was he doing right before that?  Who was he working with?”  Right, I did just that, and forgot about it completely at the worst possible moment.  Kick, kick, ouch.

Where head coaches and assistant coaches can’t be expected to fit every player the same way, a goaltending coach seems like the sort of job that a team could afford to fit to each goalie, or at least the designated starter.  Actually, I have no idea what that would cost or how many teams could afford it, but it still makes sense.

Goaltenders play a peculiar role.  Their individual temperament, preferences, physical strengths and limitations are all magnified by their solitary status in the net.  So why in the world wouldn’t they carry their coach with them wherever they go?  Like the mechanic who works on your race car, you don’t use a different one at each track in each new city, you bring the guy who knows what’s what with you.

NHL teams don’t do that.  A goaltender’s performance goes up and down as he changes teams, for many reasons, but I would guess it’s mostly because of who the goaltending coach is.  It isn’t a matter of whether the team has a good one or not, but a question of how much that coach knows about that player, and how long he has known it.  The learning curve for coach and goalie is a big waste of time if it could be avoided.  Even if they do figure each other out, who’s to say their systems are compatible?  Sure, you might have a guy with the Midas touch like Phoenix has, but you don’t need that.  You just need one guy who knows one guy really well.

No one except the goaltending coach has the job or the understanding to notice little glitches as they arise.  There will only be one other guy on the ice at a practice who is likely to know what a goalie is trying to do.  And the other goalie doesn’t have a lot of incentive to help the guy whose job he wants.  Even if he did want to help, he’s still just one guy, one set of eyes.

There isn’t a whole lot of feedback for a goalie to work with in a regular practice setting.  A goalie’s coach is a lot more important to his individual performance than other coaches are to skaters.  If a skater doesn’t quite get what the Coach or AC is saying, he can ask another skater for advice, ask three or four.  There’s bunches of them out there.  Everyone needs feedback, all the time.  You need coaching in anything you do until you stop doing it.

So why in world wouldn’t NHL teams try to make a goalie’s coach part of the goalie package… apart from the problem of wresting that guy from another team’s payroll?   One might argue that goaltending coaches wouldn’t want to be shipped around like players are but I am sure something could be worked out.  Surely.

Maybe goaltending coaches should have a special status not on the coaching staff, tied more to the goalie than to the team.  By “maybe” I mean “of course no doubt about it the way it’s being done now is completely bassackwards.”  The Sharks had one.  They had Niemi’s personal special long time coach right here, and they let him leave again.  “Bassackwards” simply doesn’t cover it.

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