Roberto Luongo remembers the early days.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was just getting started on what would become a legendary NHL career, goaltending coaches were still a luxury. By the time he retired in 2019, teams had expanded the concept of coaching, and now many have dedicated goaltending departments. As a matter of fact, as a special advisor to GM Bill Zito in Florida, Luongo himself has become an integral part of the Panthers’ goalie efforts.
In the salary-cap era, where teams need to find every edge they can to get to the top of a very competitive league, goaltending can make or break a season. Organizations are putting a lot more emphasis on the position, and that evolution cannot be understated. “It was big,” Luongo said. “When I started playing, we only had part-time goalie coaches. They’d come in for 10 days a month and then leave, and you’d be on your own for three weeks before you saw them again. As I got to the latter part of my career, we got full-time coaches and I enjoyed that a lot. I always enjoyed having someone there to help work on my game, to bounce ideas off and review things. I tried to get better every day when I played, and it was important to have somebody there every day.”
Instead of relying on one goalie coach, teams are now building out. The New York Islanders have a crew that features iconic goaltender guru Mitch Korn as director of goaltending, Piero Greco as the team’s goalie coach and Chris Terreri as its AHL goalie coach in Bridgeport who also helps with development.
“It has evolved and the whole game has evolved,” said Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello. “We used to have one coach behind the bench, now we have four.”
Terreri and Lamoriello go all the way back to Providence College, when the goalie played for the NCAA coach, while Lamoriello knew Greco from his time in Toronto, where he saw the netminding coach work with the AHL Marlies. Korn is a legend in the game who needs no introduction, but he also had a connection coming into the Islanders in coach Barry Trotz, with whom he worked in Nashville and Washington.
Not only did Lamoriello trust the men brought into the organization, but they all have the fundamentals needed to help the Islanders’ goalie ranks. “All of these things are so important, relationships, communication, but the bottom line is competency,” Lamoriello said. “Each of them is competent in what they bring individually and collectively and they constantly communicate, interact and feed off each other.”
Lamoriello likens hockey to other major pro sports where specialization has grown over time: football has long had positional coaches for everything from the offensive line to special teams, while baseball has coaches for pitching, hitting and fielding. There is such a thing as “overcoaching” in Lamoriello’s mind, though, so finding the right mix of people is key. “When you’ve got three quality individuals like we have, with the talents they have, it makes it a lot easier on the coaching staff,” Lamoriello said. “Then they can focus on what they need to focus on, and always communicate.”
And with the right crew in place, an organization can give itself a big advantage.
Getting off to a red-hot start this season, Florida could look between the pipes and be happy no matter who was starting. Sergei Bobrovsky, 33, was putting up numbers even better than in his two Vezina Trophy-winning campaigns in 2012-13 and 2016-17, while 20-year-old rookie Spencer Knight was picking up where he left off last year when he made some incredible spot starts right out of Boston College.
As sunny as things were looking this season, it’s worth remembering that Bobrovsky had struggled mightily in Florida since joining the team on a massive seven-year free-agent contract that pays him $10 million per season. In fact, it was former backup Chris Driedger who carried the Cats for long stretches last year, posting the team’s best save percentage and garnering all three of Florida’s shutouts. Driedger, Bobrovsky and Knight all saw playoff duty in a first-round loss to rival Tampa Bay.
And this is where having a team of goalies on staff paid off for the Panthers. Along with Luongo, the franchise legend turned executive, Florida has another huge name in the business with Francois Allaire, officially listed as the team’s goaltending consultant. Allaire is a three-time Cup winner who worked with Patrick Roy in Montreal and J-S Giguere in Anaheim. Now a snowbird who winters in Florida, Allaire speaks with Luongo every day. While they never worked together in the NHL, Allaire first helped a 15-year-old Luongo train in the summer and the pair worked together until Luongo turned pro.
Florida’s official goalie coach is Robb Tallas, who has been with the team more than a decade and worked with Luongo during his playing days with the Panthers. “What I like the most, going back to my playing days, is he always puts the goalie in the right headspace and right frame of mind to play,” Luongo said. “He’s such an asset for the guys in the room.”
At the AHL level, Florida has Leo Luongo, Roberto’s brother, coaching in Charlotte. Leo, who’s been a goalie coach since his time in the QMJHL back in 2008-09, also scouts netminders for the Panthers. Needless to say, Luongo has a lot of trust in his brother and points to the development of a guy like Driedger as evidence of his good work.
Florida’s goalie department meets every few weeks over Zoom to talk about free agents and the draft. Interestingly enough, the Panthers will need that expertise to continue, as the franchise is rather light on goalies outside of their top two: Driedger signed with the Kraken in the summer, prospect Devon Levi was traded to Buffalo in the Sam Reinhart deal and Samuel Montembeault was lost on waivers to Montreal in early October.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, another local legend is helping build a prodigious pipeline for the Devils. Martin Brodeur is the team’s executive vice-president, advisor, hockey operations and, suffice it to say, a pretty good guy to have on your side when it comes to goaltending. Brodeur’s clan in New Jersey includes goalie coach Dave Rogalski, director of goaltending development Scott Clemmensen and AHL Utica goalie coach Brian Eklund.
The Devils also added former NHLer Anders Nilsson as a goalie scout. “You have to be ready and you have to do your homework,” Brodeur said. “That’s what we’ve done in New Jersey the past two years, creating a program where we’re going to turn over every stone possible to get the best prospects and develop them to the highest of our abilities.”
Scouting goaltenders has been a focus for the Devils, and it’s worth noting they’ve taken one in each of the past seven drafts. The first in that run? Mackenzie Blackwood. “We all watch video and we all rank them,” Brodeur said. “The scouts are out in the field finding the goalies and I help make decisions. How many butterfly goalies do we want in our organization? How many blockers? Sometimes you have to make decisions on depth size-wise. What’s our prime objective for size, is the minimum 6-foot-1 or 5-foot-10? Or is it the big boys at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7? Listen, we’ve got a 6-foot-6 goalie scout working for us (Nilsson), so I’m sure he’s looking at the big guys.”
Right now, the Devils have 6-foot-5 Akira Schmid and 6-foot-4 Nico Daws developing in the AHL with Eklund in Utica.
For Luongo, keeping tabs on the next generation is important, as well. “I like to watch the guys myself, too,” he said. “I want to have a visual on what he looks like and how he plays. I spend my days watching guys on video, whether it’s amateurs or pros. We have a whole process on how the year is laid out and how we scout guys.”
But the Panthers are in win-now mode, and that’s why getting Bobrovsky on track was so important leading into this season. “With ‘Bob,’ he’s off to a great start, which we’re all excited about,” Luongo said. “He went through a rough go his first couple years in Florida. He played OK last year but when he lost his spot in the playoffs, that wasn’t easy for him. We had some conversations in the off-season, mostly Robb Tallas, and made sure he had the right mindset coming in and he came in as a true professional. It’s paid huge dividends for him and our team.”
At the same time, the team has a rising star in Knight, whose needs are very different as an NHL rookie. “We all saw what Spencer could do last year coming right out of college and playing some big games for us,”
Luongo said. “With him, it’s about making sure we manage him the right way because he’s such a young guy. This is his first full pro season so it’s something we want to be mindful of, to manage him and make sure he gets the proper amount of games so that he keeps developing.”
The Devils, still in rebuild mode, also got off to a good start this year – though modest compared to the Panthers – but their goaltending goals are different. Last season, they wanted support for young Blackwood, so they signed Corey Crawford, only to watch the Cup-winner retire before playing a game for the team.
This year, they grabbed Jonathan Bernier and he’s already paid dividends since Blackwood started the season on the shelf with a heel injury. Having the right team in place behind the scenes will help Blackwood once he returns.
“When you hire goalie coaches, you want to make sure you’re bringing someone into your organization who will support your goalie, that will mentor him to become one of the most important positions on your team, but at the same time keep them accountable for their play,” Brodeur said. “That’s what (former Devils goalie coach) Jacques Caron did for me, he was like a father to me. Our relationship on the ice was totally different than it was off the ice, and that was what made him such a great coach.”
(Small world: Lamoriello was the man who initially hired Caron in New Jersey, and one of Caron’s charges back in the day was Terreri, who’s now the Isles’ developmental goalie coach under Lamoriello.)
Looking at the big picture in Florida, Luongo loved having a goalie coach during his playing days, proving that even the best in the game realize a collaborative effort can improve results. And he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. “The goaltending position is always evolving,” he said. “You always want to have someone there who is up to date on the new things coming out, what makes a goalie more effective. And sometimes when you play and you’re in it, you don’t see little habits that may be developing that aren’t good for your game. So I always liked someone from the outside having a set of eyes on me.”
For Brodeur, being part of a team within a team is a lot of fun, especially when the crew has the same passion that he does for the position. “They’re all goalie addicts,” he said. “I get so many clips of goalies on my text thread of saves. The other day, one of our prospects (Jakub Malek) scored a goal, so that was cool.”
Just a generation or two in the past, netminders were lucky if their team had a full-time goalie coach. Now, teams are making sure their prospects are supported daily in the AHL, while scouting efforts on the position continue to expand. “Not only are we looking into the development of our goalies,” Luongo said. “But we’re always looking for the next guy who can come in to keep the cupboards full.”
When the stakes are this high and goaltending can mean the difference between winning a Cup, or perhaps just making the playoffs to get a shot at the title, it’s understandable why NHL teams are making the investment.