Dwayne Roloson’s long, evolving road to Tampa Bay
With the trade that sent 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson to Tampa Bay for prospect defenseman Ty Wishart, InGoal Magazine dug into the files for this story on his path from kick saves to NHL starter:
To really understand how long it’s been since Dwayne Roloson broke into the National Hockey League, look not at the year, but rather the style he played, and the goalies he played with and was coached by.
Now one of just 11 goaltenders to play past his 41st birthday in the NHL, Roloson was an undrafted, unheralded, self-described stand-up, kick-save stopper when he finished college and signed a free agent contract with the Calgary Flames and began his career with their AHL affiliate way back in 1994.
Calgary’s goaltending coach at the time was the legendary Glenn Hall, but the real influence in a half- decade evolution to becoming a butterfly goalie and an NHL regular didn’t arrive until the Flames’ affiliate ran short on targets and signed 11-year veteran Roland Melanson as a goalie and coach.
“It was weird,” Roloson recalls of sharing a net with his coach. “We were stuck so it was just myself as a goalie and then they called Rollie in to be the backup goalie and to be a consultant at the same time.”
Melanson would go on to become one of the NHL’s most respected goaltending coaches, working in Montreal and now in Vancouver. But the transition started as a player-coach with Roloson, which should also aid the latter’s transition to Tampa Bay because the Lightning’s first year goalie coach, Frantz Jean, is a good friend and former minor league roommate of Melanson. They still work together at their ProTek Goaltending schools in New Brunswick, where it all started for Roloson too.
You know that clichéd saying about necessity being the mother of invention? For Roloson the necessity of Melanson’s presence in Saint John of the AHL quickly became the mother of re-inventing his game between the pipes, the key to converting himself into a butterfly goalie and making the NHL.
“He ended up working with me daily and that was a big benefit,” Roloson once told InGoal. “Talking to Glenn in training camp the next couple of years and having Rollie in the minors was great because I got to talk to a Hall of Famer and then talk to a technically sound guy. It helps a lot because you get both experience and you get somebody that’s there monitoring every little move.”
And he means every move.
“Rollie is one of those guys that if the ‘I’ is not dotted or the ‘T’ is not crossed, it’s not a letter and that’s the same way he looks at goaltending,” Roloson said. “If you’re not here and here and here or doing these things, you’re leaving holes and that’s where you’re going to get scored on. Rollie is the type of guy that works towards perfection and that’s what he wants you to be: a perfect goalie.”
Which is hard when you are trying to change the way you play the position from the skates up, tougher when you implement those changes as a first-year pro facing some of the best young shooters in the game, and nearly impossible when you watch most games from the bench. Roloson found it different – and far more difficult – to try and make saves in his new style during a game than in practice.
“Instinct for me was do a skate save in some of the situations,” he said.
Those instincts, the same ones that had gotten him an All American nod as a senior at UMass-Lowell and his first NHL contract, sometimes took over. Instead of trusting them, he had to turn himself over to the teaching. Of course that meant thinking about what he was doing while he was on the ice. And if you’re thinking, you’re not reacting. It’s a delay all goalies know can cause flashing red lights.
“Even though I made the changes my first year, it was probably three or fours years down the road that I was starting to do things instinctively instead of thinking about it first,” says Roloson. “And it has to become instinct so you’re not thinking, because as soon as you think, that’s one step too many.”
Roloson’s think-less quest during wasn’t helped by the amount of time he spent watching, especially after graduating to the NHL in his third pro season. Even four years into the transformation, he found it hard to totally trust his new style, particularly when he only got to put it to use once every couple of weeks against the world’s best shooters. He continued to hammer home the techniques he’d learned in practice, working diligently to make the movements instinctual and rid himself of the over-thinking that plagued his game-time performances. But he never played enough to complete the process.
“For me it was hard going from what I was used to and trying to make the change while playing because for three years in the league I hardly ever played,” he says. “To go into a game and try to use these things instinctively, it just wasn’t happening. I was working too hard trying to do all these others things and then the next thing you know things went bad and I was thinking too much again.”
It took five years, two more NHL teams, and a full season back in the minors to get the playing time he needed. In 2000-2001, Roloson spent the entire season with the St. Louis Blues’ affiliate in Worcester.
Seven seasons after starting his pro career, Roloson was right back where he started. With a pregnant wife and an uncertain future, he thought it might be his last season. But it turned into exactly what he needed to complete his butterfly transformation. He finished it by being named the AHL’s top goalie.
“To be able to go back to the minors and play I think helped me out,” he says.
REVERSE EVOLUTION: STEP 2 IN ROLOSON’S DEVELOPMENT
The following season Roloson signed in Minnesota after winning a job out of a training camp tryout contract, and, at age 32, finally put the minor leagues behind him for good.
If joining the Wild marked the start of Roloson’s full-time NHL career, it also marked the second step in his evolution as a goaltender. That process may have started with Melanson taking him off his skates and putting him on his knees – think of it as Darwin in reverse – but it started to trend back in the other direction after hooking up with Wild goaltending consultant Bob Mason, a self-described “hybrid guy who learned a lot from [the late San Jose Sharks goalie guru legend] Warren Strelow.”
While Roloson wasn’t about to go back to those mid-90s glory days of stand-up, kick-save goaltending, he now spends a little more time on his skates and a little less on his knees. He focuses on positioning and angles while maintaining his edge and setting his feet. He slides less, particularly when the puck is on the perimeter. Instead of sliding into position as a puck-blocker all the time, he uses more T-pushes and moves upright, putting some of those old reactive instincts back into his repertoire.
Not surprisingly given Mason’s affinity for Strelow’s teachings, the approach sounds a lot like ex-San Jose stopper Evgeni Nabokov (ironic since Roloson took the one job most saw Nabokov landing after leaving the KHL last month) and indeed his stance has narrowed since working with Mason.
“He was still sliding while making saves. He had less control and was giving up more juicy rebounds,” said Mason, who worked on footwork daily with Roloson to take advantage of his strong reads of how plays develop. “When he gets there with his feet set, that’s when he’s really clean. That way he’s reading and reacting to situations and using the proper save techniques when time comes.”
Those changes – away from the earlier mindset as more of a pure puck blocker – helped Roloson feel more reactive off his positioning, faster laterally on his skates than he was on his knees. They were also ahead of the curve in terms of stopping pucks in the more dynamic post-lockout NHL, and have helped Roloson excel behind even the woeful New York Islanders, and into his early 40s.
“It’s made me quicker,” said Roloson. “I rely more now on getting into position and then reacting instead of staying down on my knees and just trying to push into shots or trying to get into a position while I’m already on the ice. Now I can get back up, then move, unless time doesn’t warrant that.”
Roloson also tends to play more aggressively atop his crease, something Jean will have to be careful not to try and change too much, the way he appeared to with Ellis, or how Melanson has with Luongo.
“I try to get out and challenge as much as I can and not worry about anything else,” he said. “Obviously there’s times where you can come out high and there’s times when you got to be back in.”
Working with Mason, Roloson developed a system to try and take some of the instinct or “feel” out of that decision, replacing it with a more scientific checkpoint that allows Roloson to stay in position. It’s a system that encourages Roloson to initiate his positioning with the top of the crease rather than the goal line, making it easier to check and leaving him less likely to lose his net behind him.
“We use a simple method of heels and toes,” said Roloson. “What I mean by that is heels on the edge of the crease is as far as you really need to be out and toes is really how far you need to be back unless the puck is on the goal line and the play tells you to be back. That little 11 or 12 inch measurement makes a big difference of pucks hitting you or pucks going wide or pucks going in the net.”