The Monday morning practice, featuring a handful of locked-out NHLers and the Univeristy of British Columbia men’s team, had been over for half an hour already, but James Reimer was still out on the ice working as his own goalie coach.
The Toronto goaltender was busy directing Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis and Anaheim forward Andrew Cogliano, pointing to where he wanted them to be, and what he wanted them to do during a series of drills he said afterwards were regular parts of his work with departed Maple Leafs goaltending guru Francois Allaire.
A day later, Reimer and Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider were joined by Eli Wilson, the former Ottawa Senators goaltending coach who now runs his own school and does camps and private lessons for a wide range of clients across the continent, from kids to top junior prospects to Blackhawks’ goalie Ray Emery. Based in the Vancouver suburbs, Wilson stayed out with Schneider and Reimer for more than half an hour after most of their dozen-plus NHL peers had left the rink so they could work on some position-specific skills.
For Schneider, it was the first time since coming back to Vancouver almost two months earlier that he’d had a chance to work with a goaltending coach. As the NHL lockout drags on to six weeks, that lack of structure is a real concern.
“It’s just little habits that you get out of and it reminds you, reinforcing them, and just repetition, doing it over and over again so you don’t think about it,” said Schneider, who had considered either flying home to the Boston area to work with his personal summer goaltending coach, Brian D’Accord of Stop It Goaltending, or flying him to Vancouver. “Sometimes when you get playing shinny or practice too much you think about certain things and it’s not as automatic as you’d like it to be and this helps reinforce that.
“It’s hard to assimilate that stuff in a practice or shinny and it was great of him to come out and give us his time. It helps push what you can do. Sometimes it’s easy to just do the drills and shinny and not work on little things like that on your own, so it’s someone to give you that extra motivation and force you to work on the little things that you might forget about.”
While many goalies avoid summer shinny because of the bad habits it can create, the reality is that most regular hockey practices – even at the NHL level – aren’t always much better for the guys between the pipes. That’s why most teams have a goaltending coach to go out with them before and after practice and work on position-specific skills that are often otherwise neglected.
For locked-out NHL goalies reduced to skating with their peers, not having that is a problem.
“It’s good, it’s more structure,” said Reimer, who has also worked out earlier in the lockout with goaltending coach Ryan Cyr of GDI Prairies in Winnipeg, a surviving division of the international goalie school founded by Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ian Clark. “When you are technically sound and working like this it’s obviously a lot harder and you are getting more shots and it’s not just some guys floating around the zone and holding onto the puck and stuff. It’s more quick plays and quick shots, so you are working more, using your legs more, and it is more tiring.”
That was evident by the end of Tuesday’s 90-minute session, as both Reimer and Schneider were gassed after a series of post-practice drills featuring a blend of crease movement and recovery, as well as a lot of sharp-angle attacks and low-high pass outs from behind the net. It’s the kind of thing they are more likely to see once the NHL season starts, and the kind of things missing from most of their workouts to date, which feature a steady diet of rush chances and point blank shots, as well as a few drills the week before Reimer admitted left little choice but to cheat for the pass to have any chance to make a save.
“You can work on stuff that’s more relevant to your position and where the shots are coming from is more game situations,” said Reimer, who chose low-high drills himself the day before. “Everything is just a little more relevant and it gets you prepared and gets you ready for the season – when she finally gets going.”
How much longer that will be is the next big question facing goalies like Reimer and Schneider, who indicated he is finally starting to consider going to Europe. Even with more goalie-specific training as part of the regular workouts, both admitted concern about being away from game action much longer.
Of course playing in Europe isn’t quite as easy for a goaltender, especially one with North American roots.
Of the nearly 159 NHL players listed by Sportsnet as playing overseas already, only 13 were goalies. And among that group, all but two were originally from Europe, with Jonathan Bernier and Rick Dipietro the exceptions after taking work in Germany’s second division pro league. (The site didn’t include Alex Auld, who is playing in Austria, because he wasn’t under NHL contract this season, so there may be a few more in similar circumstances).
That discrepancy is explained by several factors.
First off, most European teams already signed two goaltenders for the season, and it’s a lot harder to displace one than it is to find one of the 20-plus spots set aside for forwards and defensemen on each team. It’s a situation that has left high-profile NHL goalies like Ilya Bryzgalov watching some games as a healthy scratch behind the two guys in place before the lockout.
Secondly, the game is so different for a goaltender – and it goes well beyond different angles created by bigger ice surfaces.
“That’s one of the big cons of going over,” said Reimer. “It’s such a slower game, and things develop so much slower.”
While those who started their careers in Europe have been through the transition before, there is a legitimate concern among some that haven’t about going back and forth, and whether some of the habits picked up facing a pass-first, shoot-never mentality in Europe might be worse than those from shinny, especially if they have to come back and start an NHL season on short notice.
“Absolutely I think there will be a big adjustment back and that’s part of the hesitation,” Schneider said. “But at this point it’s more to get that game intensity ratcheted up so that way when we come back you re not startled by the speed and intensity of a game-like situation, and you might not be as sharp or be as adjusted to the play as you want. For me I think it would be worth it to get into that routine and rhythm of game action, so when you do jump into games it feels comfortable.”
Which is why his search will become serious if there are more NHL delays.
“I think you do have to look,” Schneider said. “I think there is a second wave of guys that are waiting this out a little bit and if there is nothing on the horizon they might jump over there and it can take up a lot of spots pretty quickly.”
In the meantime, Schneider will try to work in a few more goalie-specific sessions with Wilson – and try not to cheat too much the rest of the time he’s on the ice without a position coach.
“You just have to catch yourself if you feel like you are cheating,” he said. “You have to recognize it and adapt and play it the way you normally would and if they happen to throw it backdoor to a guy who is wide open, then so be it. I am trying to incorporate as much goalie stuff into the drills as I can and just work as if it was a game.”
Until there are real games to play, it’s the best they can do.