LaBarbera Ask A Pro: Style Adjustment to Fit New Team
To say Jason LaBarbera is looking forward to the chance to play a bigger role with the Edmonton Oilers than he did with the Phoenix Coyotes over the last four seasons would be an understatement, but it is not a statement about his new playing partner, Devan Dubnyk.
LaBarbera has known Dubnyk as an offseason workout partner on and off the ice for six years, and is firm in his belief the Oilers’ big incumbent has all the tools between the ears and between the pipes to be a top No.1 goaltender in the NHL. In fact, LaBarbera was surprised to hear the recent rumours and rumblings that Edmonton might be in the mix for another No.1 starter like Cory Schneider, who has since been traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the New Jersey Devils. And not just because they are friends.
“He’s already looking for houses for me,” LaBarbera told InGoal Magazine hours after signing a one-year, $1-million free agent contract to back up Dubnyk. “It’s pretty funny, we’ve talked about it before, but we never thought it would happen. The fact it did has got us both pretty fitred up and we’re both pretty excited about the opportunity for both of us. I have worked out with him and skated with him for the past six years and I have seen him grow, I have seen how much he’s improved and I think he’s just starting to break through. I think he’s going to be one of the top guys in the League. It’s just a matter of people being patient with him.”
LaBarbera was happy to find work early as the NHL’s annual game of goalie musical chairs left several veterans without a seat. He knows he is coming in to support, not supplant, the 6-foot-5 Dubnyk, but is still looking forward to a chance to play more than he did in Phoenix – first behind Ilya Bryzgalov and then Mike Smith. LaBarbera also believes it’s no coincidence he was nearby as both Bryzgalov and Smith made their respective ascensions to No.1 goalies in the NHL, and thinks he can help Dubnyk take a similar step. That ability to be an effective, supporting backup was just one things LaBarbera talked about in this week’s Ask A Pro.
LaBarbera also talked about altering his style behind a younger Edmonton team likely to give up more quality scoring chances than the stingy Coyotes did, an adjustment that could require him to be a little more aggressive with his positioning than he was in Phoenix, where goalie coach Sean Burke preaches the same outside-in philosophy New York Rangers guru Benoit Allaire taught him years ago.
It was an interesting and candid thought amid the hype of free agency, especially given the uncertainty surrounding how some other goalies that changed teams – like Ray Emery going from the defensively-tight, Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks to the more open Eastern Conference and a decidedly looser Philadelphia Flyers team – might have to adjust to the changes.
InGoal: Do you see yourself having to change how you play tactically at all behind the Oilers?
LaBarbera: “I think it’s something that you might have to adapt, and something you might have to work with [Edmonton goaltending coach Frederic Chabot] on, and see how it goes. I’ve talked to Freddie a few times over years. [Ex-Oilers goalie] Nik Khabibulin would skate in Phoenix in the summer and Freddie would come down there. So I’ve never really worked with him, but I have talked to him and I do know him a little bit, so I’m excited for that too.
“As for adjustments, last year, especially more towards the end, I started getting away a little bit from the stagnant, deep, trying to be patient thing in Phoenix. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t comfortable with it. It worked for a while, but when you are a little bit deep in practice – and that’s all I was doing for long stretches, is practicing – there is a lot more time and space for them to shoot and it’s a little easier for them to score goals if you are a little bit deeper.” [LaBarbera talked late last season with InGoal about his battle for confidence in practice, especially while playing deep and giving up so much space].
“So I changed a little, took another step or two out, maybe had a little more movement. I felt real comfortable doing that and some of the games I played towards the end of the year I played well doing that. So there are always adjustments you have to make on the fly. You are going to stick to your basics and fundamentals and who you are, but there is always room to make adjustments.”
InGoal: We’re guessing the style of play and system in front of you plays a role as well.
LaBarbera: “I would imagine it might be a little different in Edmonton this year with a new mindset and new coach and I think adding guys like [free agent defenseman] Andrew Ference and [free agent center] Boyd Gordon are going to be a big help, but it’s still a lot of skilled guys there that are young and going to want to make plays and a lot of times that create turnovers. You are definitely going to have to make an adjustment. I don’t think I will be as deep as I was in Phoenix and I am fine with that. I am comfortable with that, as I said I started doing it towards the end of last year anyways, so I think it’s a good fit.”
InGoal: It’s a fit that should give you a chance to play a bit more too.
LaBarbera: “It was definitely a one-pony show down in Phoenix, which is fine. That’s kind of how Tip [Coyotes coach Dave Tippett] is, he likes to ride one guy and all four years there with Bryz and Smitty, they obviously played great and deserved to play. I just always felt like I could play more and get more of an opportunity but that’s just how it was there and that’s fine. But I feel like I still can do more and I can play more games and be a part of a team that can win. I just think this is a good opportunity to play a bit more games and hopefully play really well and give the guys a chance to win.”
InGoal: And yet you seem to recognize the support role for Dubnyk is an important part of this.
LaBarbera: “I think he’s a really good goalie and he’s taken steps and I think he took a big step last year and I think he’s just getting better. I played with Bryz at a time when it was kind of the same thing and he took a big step, and Smitty was the same way. I don’t know how much I had to do with it, but I think I helped as far as peace of mind for those guys and giving them confidence and being a good teammate and helping them along the way, so hopefully I can help Devan do that because I think he’s a good goalie and it think he’s been undervalued the last few years.
“Obviously it comes down to wins and losses, but at the same time you have to remember the team in front of him hasn’t been great defensively. They are young, they haven’t been overly responsible with the puck, they have given up a lot of scoring chances. I think he’s played quite well. But if you don’t win there are always question marks.”
InGoal: How do you balance staying competitive with your playing partner while also always having his back like that?
LaBarbera: “There are only two of you and only two of you to know what each other is going through and you have to be on the same page. Yeah it sucks if you don’t play, but you are part of a team and this is what you are supposed to do, and if you don’t play you need to be a good teammate, working as hard as you can in practice to try and make the guys on your team get better shooting against you and being a support for the guy that is playing.
“That’s just the way it is, that’s what you have to do if you want to be a good goalie, or backup or teammate. A lot of it depends on what type of person you are. Some guys can do it and some guys just can’t. It’s not an easy job, but it’s something I shouldn’t say I have gotten used to, but I have kind of adapted to and I still feel I have a lot more hockey in me.
“I still say I can play a lot more but at the same time I know what my role will be too.”
It’s a role – and a situation in Edmonton – that LaBarbera seems perfectly suited for.