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Hiller looking to lead, not for excuses, in Anaheim

Jonas Hiller Anaheim DucksIt’s hard to believe that less than three years ago Jonas Hiller was an unknown Swiss rookie leaning heavily on veterans like Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Jean-Sebastien Giguere to ease him into the National Hockey League.

Today Hiller is the rock in Anaheim. With Pronger now playing on the other side of the continent in Philadelphia, Niedermayer easing into retirement, and Giguere trying to regain his No.1 status with the Maple Leafs alongside another ex-Ducks defensive standout in Francois Beauchemin, Hiller may be the only thing keeping the Ducks from a hard place – and a high draft pick.

All of which is fine by Hiller. The 28-year-old Swiss standout knows the Ducks may have to lean heavily on him this season, and he’s ready for it.

“There’s a lot of talent around, no doubt about it,” he said of a defense core that could include two offensively inclined rookies (Luca Sbisa and Cam Fowler), and two young third-year pros (Brendan Mikkelson and Brett Festerling). “I will try to give them some confidence, some stability. I’ll try to keep it simple.”

Simply keeping it out of the net could be tough on some nights, as backup Curtis McElhinney found out the hard way in an 8-3 drubbing by the cross-county rival Kings on Wednesday night. Los Angeles outshot Anaheim 23-7 and scored four times in the first period alone, finishing the night with a whopping 42 shots.

“You would almost think we never practiced a defensive zone coverage when you watched us tonight,” head coach Randy Carlysle lamented afterwards.

If there is genuine concern it could be a long season for Ducks goalies, Hiller isn’t talking about it. He’s more focused on making sure he gets on the same page as his defensemen, whether it’s a young top draft pick like Fowler, or free agent additions like mammoth Andy Sutton or Paul Mara, who as brought in after fellow summer signing Tony Lydman out after experiencing double vision.

“We’re still working on it with the defensemen,” Hiller said. “We changed our box play a little bit, so it’s taken some time so everybody knows what each guy is doing. In certain situations you talk right after it happens (in a game). And in another situation you might watch the tape the next day and if something important happens you talk about it with them. But normally it’s just a feeling of how defensemen do and how I do and getting to know each other.”
That – not results – is the most important part of preseason, said Hiller.

“These are the situations where you have to get a good feeling for the season and the time when you have to work with your defensemen to try and start understanding each other,” he told InGoalMag after a recent game. “So they know what I do, I know what they do, and it’s kind of like start growing together.”

Hiller knows a lot about growing. He’s done plenty of it between the pipes in the last decade. It’s a journey that started late by most standards in 2000, when a young, off-the-radar Hiller first went to Francois Allaire’s annual summer goalie schools in Switzerland. It’s a journey that was documented first in the old Goalie News magazine, and re-chronicled here at inGoalMag:

For a goaltender that wasn’t even on the junior program radar in Switzerland in 2000, Jonas Hiller had plenty of options to go to the NHL in 2007. But it was Hiller’s comfort with legendary coach Francois Allaire that led him to choose the Ducks despite having 16 one-way contract offers in the NHL, and despite the fact Anaheim was about to win a Cup with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and also had current Russian Olympian Ilya Bryzgalov under contract for another season.

Hiller had been working with Allaire for six summers before making his choice.

“It’s an advantage for both of us,” Allaire, now coaching in Toronto, told the Goalie News during the 2007 Finals. “He trusts me and he trusts the way I coach and trusts my knowledge of his talent. At the same time, there will be a part of teaching that won’t be necessary. He knows already what I’m asking and the way I am asking. We’re going to go quicker and faster than a guy coming from another organization who has never been involved with me. I really trust his talent.”

That talent has since become evident to everyone, as Hiller supplanted Giguere as the No.1 last season and authored a stunning upset of top-seeded San Jose in the first round of the playoffs. But the path from Switzerland to the NHL to Olympic star was never as straight as it seems now, and Hiller himself says it didn’t start trending upwards until he began working with Allaire in 2000.

“It was a dream to play in the best league in the world – you always got to have that dream – but for me it was pretty far away because I never played junior national team or anything,” said Hiller, who wasn’t even starting for his hometown junior team and only got one emergency game in the top Swiss pro league (Nationalliga) between 2000 and 2003. In 2003-04, he had a 3.55 goals-against average behind a Laussane team relegated to the Swiss B League. Things turned around next season with HC Davos. Starting in a Swiss League that was attracting top locked-out NHL players (and current Canadian Olympians) like Rick Nash and Joe Thornton, Hiller was named goalie of the year – an award Cristobal Huet, who also attended Allaire’s summer camps, captured three times before coming to the NHL at age 28 – while winning the first of two Nationalliga Championships with HC Davos. From there came appearances – and success – in higher-profile events like the Spengler Cup and European Champions Cup, a starting role at the World Championships, the NHL, and a starring role at the 2010 Olympics.
“It was step by step,” Hiller said of the slow rise. “As a kid I always had that NHL dream but it was so far away and I came closer and closer every year.”

Hiller doesn’t think it’s a coincidence he started taking those steps after Allaire’s camps. While he still thinks of himself as more than just a blocker, Hiller has come a long way technically since that first session at age 19.

“The basics are those side to side movements, always be in the right spot in front of the shooter and taking up the area,” said Hiller, who did have other goalie coaches – and one-on-one sessions with ex-NHL goaltender David Aebischer stressing things like proper leg recovery – before hooking up with Allaire.

If he had to choose another Allaire disciple for comparison, Hiller has always said he think of himself as being closer to the reactive game of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo than a pure blocker like Giguere. He has fast feet, makes strong, quick lateral pushes from his knees, and reads the play well, a combination that allows Hiller to arrive early and square to save positions, look bigger than his 6-foot-1 frame, and maintain superb rebound control on body saves.

“But I’m also still working a lot of my reflexes,” he stressed. “It’s not just positioning, I can also go for the puck and I can make saves with the arms.”

The way things are shaping up in Anaheim now he may need every body part.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.