Ask a Pro Martin Biron: Teaching an Old(er) Goalie New Tricks
Most probably noticed veteran goaltender Martin Biron was having a really good first season with the New York Rangers before it ended with a high-hard practice shot that snapped his collarbone just hours before the trade deadline at the end of February, leaving Henrik Lundqvist to carry the load down the stretch.
Biron, 33, posted an impressive .923 save percentage and miserly 2.13 goals-against average during 17 appearances, and with almost two months left in the season was easily on pace to play more than any previous backup behind Lundqvist. What many may not have noticed, however, was the way Biron was doing it, or more specifically the differences – some of them significant – from the style he played for the previous 12 NHL seasons.
As Biron tells InGoal Magazine in this week’s Ask A Pro, the changes in his approach were all part of the plan when he signed in New York, in large part because of the success Rangers goaltending guru Benoit Allaire had helping revive the career of another middle-aged goaltender in the NHL, Sean Burke.
~ InGoal started by asking Biron about the differences between Benoit and his brother, Francois Allaire, who he used to work with as part of annual summer camps organized by his former agent, Gilles Lupien:
“I haven’t been working with Frankie in two or three years because I was with a different agent in the past and Francois was the consultant with his firm so we did the goalie preparation at the end of every summer before training camps. But before that I worked with Francois for probably over 10 years going back to junior, went to Switzerland hockey school with him as a teacher, and so I got to know him and his family really, really well and got really close. But funny enough I had never really worked with Benny other than when I was on the ice one time as a 16 year old or 17 year old at a big hockey school and obviously you don’t really work directly with those guys when you are out there with 200 or 300 other kids. So I was really excited to work with Benny.
“They are very similar in their approach and their technical approach, but it’s tough to compare because I never worked with Francois for a whole year, it was always just a couple of weeks and that was it. With Benny I’ve had a chance to work with him a full year and had a chance to experience the way he watches the game and the way we prepare for a game and all that, which was so important for me this season.”
~ InGoal: What are some of the benefits of a full-time goalie coach, and specifically Benoit?
“Here in New York the goalies are on the ice every day about a half an hour before practice just to get ourselves into our goalie mindset and our goalie preparations for the actual practice and for the games. So I’ve had so much time to be able to work with him in that sense. And it’s not like let’s go on the ice and do half an hour and ‘ok, we did our work, now let’s practice.’ It’s thought out, it’s preparation that we need to incorporate in our game that has been a key for the last few games or a key for the next few games. So one day we may do more of a routine basic thing, and the next day we’ll do quick feet, conditioning, skating.
“He’s very honest, very up front. He told me right from the beginning that maybe the physical aspect and my conditioning might not be as good as it could be. He wanted to push me a little bit more so we got on a program with the strength and conditioning coach on how we worked during practice, how we pushed the pedal from the first drill to the last drill, there’s no lull moments, and I have to say that just those moments that he was speaking freely and honestly with me made me become a much better goalie, a much more confident goalie this year.”
~ InGoal: Were there some style changes as well?
“It’s not something I had to change, he just felt I’m 33 years old and we had that conversation where he said ‘you’re not 23, you’re 33, you are coming to a moment of your career where you are at a crossroads. Do you want to keep playing 6-7 years and go late into your 30s and 40s and be able to play at a top level or do you want to be content the way the last couple of years went for me? So one of the things with signing with the Rangers was I was looking at where my career was and what Benny had been able to accomplish with other goalies I had a chance to talk to, and a chance to play with, at different international levels.
“And I thought about Sean Burke a lot and how Burkie was in a position when he started playing in Phoenix with Benny and how his career kind of had that second wind and he was an all star again after changing his style and we talked about that a lot. And he saw a lot of – I don’t want to say similarities because we are two different goalies – but the same crossroad where it was what do you want to do with your career? And my answer was I want to play for six, seven, eight, even nine more years and I want to go that direction. So he said ‘good let’s work together towards that goal.’ It was about taking that next step forward as opposed to staying at that same level.”
~ InGoal: A lot of changes Sean made are ones we stereotypically associate with Henrik too, that goalline out style of play. But you’ve always been more of a read-and-react goalie, so what has changed specifically?
“I used to move a lot more in net. I used to come like maybe out a few feet outside of my paint and then skate backwards a lot and then forwards, backwards, so there was a lot wasted movement, a lot of wasted energy and time. Those things when you are a younger guy maybe, it’s just boom-boom-boom and it kind of blends in. Now I feel I can read the play better, I know the players, I know the game situations, I’m more mature and in tune to my goaltending and it’s about the positioning.
“I’m not the guy that plays deep like Sean does or even Henrik, who plays a little deeper and is more of a boxy kind of goalie when he goes down. But patience is definitely something we had to work on, keeping your feet ready to go left, right, back at any moment as opposed to always being in transition from one movement to another.
“It wasn’t like ‘I’m going to attach you with these strings to the post and you can’t go any further than that. It was just about practicing when the warm up drills and guys are coming down the wing, instead of going out two feet and backing in, just stand right there at the top of the crease, maybe six inches inside the top, and just wait for them right there. And the repetition and the repetition of that patience of not moving really comes natural after time. And you realize in games where you used to make saves with the tippy toes and scrambling and diving left and right, now you are making them look easy because you are in the right position and being so patient there.”
Biron’s advice for kids
“I guess I am learning it at 33 years old still and I am telling my six-and-a-half year old who wants to be a goalie the same thing: Just to be patient on your feet.
“When I started playing goal obviously butterfly was something that was just starting with Patrick Roy in Montreal. But you see so many kids now that play on their knees and play with the paddle down and I would just say be patient, really know your strength in that sense, but the patience factor to know when to go down and know when to work your way back up is a big thing for young kids.”
~ Do you see over-coaching at too young an age?
“My little guy played goal a few times this year and he had a lot of fun and he enjoyed it and he wants to play goalie, which is great, but he had a person that would come in with the Mites group to help the other goalie too, and they were talking about which leg to get up from when you butterfly and how to hold your stick, and how to do a one-knee down on the side of the post, and I’m thinking these are things I didn’t learn until I was 20 years old.
“Right now at that moment it’s just about making sure you are on your angle, and that’s about as basic as you want your goaltending instruction to be, and there is so much overcoaching of some of these little goalies, it almost takes the instincts away from the young guys.
“When I go on the ice with my little guy I will skate around and shoot on him, we’ll do breakaways. Obviously I will be like keep your stick down on the ice, keep your glove open so if a puck comes, and when you go down on your knees if you make a save, you get back up right away and get back in your net. When you get to be 11 or 12 years then you can do a little bit more in details.”
~ InGoal: So less backwards flow in your game now?
“A little bit, but obviously there are breakaways and 2-on-1s and situations you still have some. But when the play is in the zone the puck would go to the point and I would fight to be maybe a foot outside the crease and the puck would go back down to the hashmarks and I’d be skating back in my net. And back and forth, back and forth. It created openings I did not need to create. It’s not that other goalies coaches didn’t tell me. They did and we worked on it in video, but Benny really focused and put all his energy on that to start the season so that a month or two into the season I could move up to a different stages and see the results.”
~ InGoal: That’s a big change, but one you obviously sound excited about going forward.
“Yeah, obviously the way my season ended was just a fluke injury. For 15 years I have worn the same piece of equipment, the same model, and I never really had any injury, this was the first time I got hurt in my career and it’s a broken bone. So overall I am pretty fortunate. But if I have to look back at the steps that I took this year to make my play in net the way I know it can be, even though I only played a tad under 20 games, I think in years to come you can make a good case to be depended on even a little more. I think (head coach John Tortorella) has shown that this year, and Henrik and I had a great relationship and that worked out right from the beginning, right from the first day of training camp. We work really well together and compliment each other really well.”
~ Eddie Futterman, a 13-year-old InGoal subscriber from New York asks: “I know that you often tell the players what to do in the shootout and it often works. I was wondering how you analyze the other goalie and what to look for to find weaknesses in another goalie if I’m trying to do that for the players on my team.” (thanks to reader and inGoal intern Danielle Cook, who also asked about his shootout insight as a goalie)
“I don’t focus on weaknesses but I do study other goaltenders strengths and tendencies. We have many discussions during a season about goalies on other teams and it’s fun to see how they are similar or different from yourself. When I talk to players about shootout I just lay out guidelines. They are so skilled already and are being paid the big bucks for their offensive abilities, I don’t want to tell them what to do because I don’t want to create confusion. And obviously, I don’t get involve with that when I’m in the net.”
~ InGoal reader Jamie Hilts asks: “Last summer I found one of your Itech gloves in a sports store. It was an all black Prodigy with a small bit of orange. On the back of the hand it looked like someone had sewn on a piece of extra finger protection. I was wondering how often you have to make repairs like that?”
“I remember that glove very well. I tried black gear when I got traded from Buffalo to the Flyers. As you can see, my left index finger was exposed and I needed more protection. Harry Bricker, who is one of the equipment managers in Philadelphia, went to work to fix the problem. The next glove I ordered came in perfect and I never had to worry about that again. But to answer your question, there is always something that needs to be tweaked or changed when we get new equipment. The equipment companies have so many players to take care of and everybody wants the gear a different way, so it is very difficult to have everything perfect every time. They do a great job dealing with us, especially crazy goalies like me, so I put the blame on us more then them.”
~ Speaking of equipment companies, InGoal reader Trevor asks: “I noticed at the beginning of the year you wear bouncing around a lot between different models of pads and gloves. I am just wondering why you decided to stick with the One100s. I know it’s the same glove you’ve been using for years with a few updates, so I am mainly referring to your pads.”
“This is my first year with Bauer, When I came to training camp I saw Henrik’s gear and I really liked his pads so I asked them to make a pad for me with my specs and size. There are some changes in the pad, some modifications in the pad, but it’s the flat front and I really like it. I’ve got obviously a Bauer blocker, and that glove, the Bauer glove, is an old Itech glove that I’ve kept and that JR in Quebec City has made for me so now that he’s working with Bauer he keeps making it for me. I went back to Bauer sticks this year, just a plain old wooden stick, very light and very affordable. I was laughing those composite sticks, not the Rangers really care, but they are so expensive so I just decided to to go back and try wood and I really like the balance of it, the lightness of it and if they feel like they are chipping or breaking, you replace them and they are a lot easier to replace and a lot more affordable.
“The pads were a big change. When I got to training camp I had tried a few different sets of gear. I tried the new Koho a little bit, like the old Koho they are making again that Jonas Hiller has, because I used to wear that pad pre-lockout for a couple of years. But I was also wearing Henrik’ pads from last year just to try them and they were a little too tall but I was trying that just to see, and I liked them. For me it’s all about comfort and it’s also about the five-hole. If my knees touch, they get together the five hoel is well sealed. I’m not a very flexible guy. When I go butterfly my pads don’t go in the fornt like Mathieu Garon or (Marc-Andre) Fleury. I’m more like the knees are closed and exposed so I need that five hole area to be sealed and well protected. So those pads really felt good from the beginning and when they made a set just for me it felt really, really good. I thought it was going to be a bigger adjustment than it was. I had Vaughn for many, many years and really enjoyed the pads and the style of it. It’s just that I was making changes in my game, it was a new beginning, and this came along and I decided to jump on board.
~ InGoal: So if knee protection is important, and you worked with Francois Allaire for so long, is it safe to assume you have those Swiss-made carbon fibre reinforced kneepads so many of his pupils are using?
“No, actually I am an old-school guy. I have a little Bauer kneepad that sits underneath my sock that I have worn since Bantam. I get new pairs every once in a while, but I also have a knee extension inside of my pants, which are probably seven or eight years old. But my pants are old Sabres pants and I just get a shell with the new team colors put over the top. There is nothing to those pants. I have barely any protection but the kneepads just fit well for me, they are very small, probably the smallest kneepads in the league, but it works for me so I’m sticking with what works. Like my skates, which are 14 years old.”
~ InGoal: Does that explain why you need so much sock tape (Biron uses two rolls every time he gears up, with 2/3 of each roll going over each ankle, before the rest is used on kneepads, pants and elsewhere)?
“I am still keeping the sock tape guys in business. I’ve tried this year a couple of different options, especially in the skates and boots and all that, but I think I will be their best customer for a long time. I need to feel like my ankles are locked in. I’ve tried it with less. I’ve tried it with none. Before every training camp I’ve tried to go without and I go on the ice and I can’t even stand. I am locked into that position and that’s the way I feel comfortable, that’s the way I push, that’s the way I stop. I’ll go on the ice and just shoot pucks with skates on and I don’t tape it, but as soon as I put the pads on I need to have that tape, otherwise I feel like something is wrong.”