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Oilers Franchise Turnaround Bolstered By Goaltending, Coaching

Oilers Franchise Turnaround Bolstered By Goaltending, Coaching

The Edmonton Oilers franchise had a dramatic turnaround in 2016-17. Say what you want about Peter Chiarelli’s polarizing trade of Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, or the fact that they completely lucked into a generational talent like Connor McDavid – the simple fact is they are no longer the laughingstock of the NHL. A surprising playoff run helped solidify their place as one of the best young teams in the league.

One underrated aspect of their speedy climb up the standings has been the play of their goaltending. Cam Talbot has specifically impressed in the crease. Starting a career-high 73 games in 2016-17, Talbot managed to accumulate 12.21 goals-saved-above-average. That was the ninth-best total in the NHL. This improved on his total of 3.31 GSAA in 56 games in 2015-16.

They’ve even managed to develop a goaltender of their own, Laurent Brossoit, into a feasible backup. Although he wasn’t drafted by the team, he was once deemed equal value to be traded for Olivier Roy back in 2013. Roy floundered in the minors before heading to Austria in 2015. Brossoit will likely move into the backup role full-time in 2017-18.

The post-Devan Dubnyk era could have been a much harder to swallow if it was not for this recent success.

Dustin Schwartz, their goaltending coach, and Sylvain Rodrigue, their goaltending consultant, have been the driving force behind that success. They hope to continue this upward trend with their crop of young talent that includes recent college free agent signee Nick Ellis, and Dylan Wells of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes – who recently signed his entry-level contract with the team.

Wells was drafted in the 5th round of the 2016 NHL entry draft. This was a bit of a surprising choice, considering he was coming off a season in which he posted a lacklustre .871 save percentage in 27 games.

The bold move looks to have paid off immediately. Wells followed up his 2015-16 campaign by increasing his save percentage by a whopping 4.5%, all the way to .916. What caused this dramatic turnaround? Wells praises the Oilers’ coaching staff, specifically for introducing him to the theory of Head Trajectory.

“Dustin introduced Head Trajectory to me, and it immediately became a major part of my training,” Wells said in an interview with InGoal Magazine. “As simple as it sounds, puck-tracking affects so many other areas of your game. Now that I’m more focused on my puck-tracking, I look back at my past seasons when it wasn’t my primary focus and wonder what I was thinking.”

“Puck-tracking affects so many other areas of your game. Now that I’m more focused on my puck-tracking, I look back at my past seasons when it wasn’t my primary focus and wonder what I was thinking.”

Learning this new skill not only helped Wells see the puck more efficiently, but it also added some much-needed patience to his game. Going into the 2016 draft, the scouting report on Wells was that he was an extremely “athletic” goaltender with great physical ability, but struggled with his technical game. His over-aggressive reads put himself in increasingly difficult situations.

“Last summer, after the season when I came home I knew I needed to make a few changes,” Wells recalled. “I needed to dumb things down and focus on the basics. Last year, when I was struggling, I was really overplaying and overthinking situations. In training, I focused on my angles and having a ‘less-is-more’ type of approach. That really helped, because your angles and your puck-tracking really tie in together. It’s difficult to track the puck if you aren’t square and set. I really simplified things and I’m happy with the result.”

About that “athleticism” tag that constantly gets thrown around in his scouting reports? He doesn’t mind it, but he realizes that constantly relying on it is actually a bad thing. It’s great to have athleticism, but he strives to have a more “controlled athleticism” that allows him to only showcase it when the situation calls for it.

“I’ve always had natural athletic ability, but I needed to learn how to incorporate that into a more positionally sound game. The fundamentals are all there, I just needed to apply them better. I almost used my athleticism too much. It’s a good thing to be athletic, I certainly use it in some situations, but it’s not ideal to be using it all the time. Being positionally sound makes the game so much easier. Focusing on tracking and keeping my hands out in front of your body has really helped me simplify my game.”

Ideally, ending up like Carey Price is the goal. Athletic, sure – but only when necessary.

“Watching Carey Price, he’s so calm in his net, but he still has an athletic side to his game. When he needs to make a big save, he can. It’s almost an effortless movement. It doesn’t even look like he’s trying. That’s something that every goalie strives for.”

“You always try to emulate certain things from watching other goalies, and Price’s controlled athleticism is something I’d love to take.”

For Oilers fans, this is a great sign. There was sheer thankfulness from Wells to the Oilers coaching staff for helping him figure out his game – and at only 19 years old, his potential is limitless.

Fans will likely get a chance to see Wells in action at the annual YoungStars tournament held in Penticton, BC every year before the hockey season. After that, he’ll return to the OHL to try and lead the Petes back to the playoffs for the second straight season.

He’ll also have his sights set on the starting role for Canada at the 2018 World Juniors – agreeing that he “would be lying” if he said that he wasn’t thinking about it.

The next time you daydream about the Edmonton Oilers and their bright future, think less about McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nurse. Start getting excited about the pipeline they’re building in the crease.

About The Author

Greg Balloch

Greg Balloch is a Vancouver-based writer for InGoal Magazine, broadcaster for Sportsnet 650, and goaltending coach. His career began in Hamilton, Ontario with the Junior 'A' Hamilton Red Wings, before moving to Vancouver to cover the Canucks on the radio and work with the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL. A lifelong goaltender, he has been teaching the position for over a decade.