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LaBarbera: imitation flattering but not always good in goal

Jason LaBarbera found himself in Phoenix, literally and figuratively.

Though he has struggled a bit early this season, LaBarbera says he rediscovered his game since arriving in the desert as the Coyotes backup behind star Ilya Bryzgalov two summers ago. The really interesting part for goaltenders everywhere is how he lost his game before, and why he found it in Phoenix.

LaBarbera blames his loss of form on his former playing partners – Mathieu Garon in Los Angeles and Roberto Luongo in Vancouver – and subconsciously imitating their playing styles. LaBarbera says the more he practiced with and watched those two goalies play, the more he started to look like them himself.

“I think the goalie you play with, you adapt some of their habits,” LaBarbera told InGoal Magazine. “I know when I played with Garon in L.A., he’s a guy that likes to be on his knees sliding around and I found myself doing that and I was like ‘wow, I don’t play like that.’ I get myself in trouble that way.

“And when I was playing with Louie, he makes a lot of saves falling back on his butt and I never used to do that, but I noticed myself doing that just because I would watch him do it. And you don’t even realize you are doing it until you see it and it’s like, ‘oh man, what am I doing?’ It’s just one of those subconscious things because you see it all the time. It’s funny how it works.”

Too many voices, says LaBarbera

Getting a job in the NHL is hard enough for a goalie these days.

Bouncing around can make it even harder, especially if each new stop brings new ideas from that organization’s goaltending coaches and consultants. Add in a different coaching voice for most during position-specific summer training sessions and it’s easy to see how some goalies lose their way.

Michael Leighton has mentioned it in past conversations with InGoal as he bounced from team to team before find a home – and his game – in Philadelphia, where Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese got him to try playing a bit deeper to shorten his movements and use his size more effectively. It worked, but came after Leighton had bounced around seven different NHL organizations.

“You work with so many guys and everyone has their ideas and opinions and you kind of go through them,” said LaBarbera. “Especially when you are younger. All the stuff was new to me so I kind of picked up different things and got all the stuff going through my head and you don’t really know where you kind of fit in. Now that I’m 30 I have a better understanding of how I want to play.”

It’s hardly a new trend. Online goaltending scout Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild labeled it “shadowing” when he noted a couple of years ago that younger NHL goaltenders were imitating their more established partners. LaBarbera sees it as more a case of “transference” because it wasn’t a conscious attempt to imitate. In a lot of situations it can simply be linked to working with the same goaltending coach during an NHL season.

For examples of the latter, look no further than Chicago, where backup Corey Crawford was set to make his third straight start Tuesday ahead of veteran newcomer Marty Turco. According to long-time Blackhawks goalie coach Stephane Waite, both are learning from each other, with the free-flowing Turco adding a little more structure to his movements and shot preparation in the search for consistency, and Crawford learning a lot about the importance of battling.

“Marty has a lot of good things for Corey: being unpredictable, reacting and challenging shooters,” said Waite. “And Corey has a lot of good things for Marty: being set, more on balance, under control and square to the shooter.”

The younger goalie is eager to soak it up, either by watching or talking.

“We talk about stuff when we do drills, or we talk about stuff in games when there are certain situations, but it’s not rally ‘what should I do here?’ or anything like that,” said Crawford. “We just kind of chat about stuff.”

Which brings us back to LaBarbera finding his old form in Phoenix.

The Coyotes goaltending coach since arriving as a free agent has been Sean Burke, whose game evolved late in his career after working with goalie coach Benoit Allaire in Phoenix. LaBarbera also worked with Allaire for one season in the New York Rangers system. And Bryzgalov refined his game in Anaheim under the tutelage of Allaire’s brother, Francois, now with the Maple Leafs.

While there are differences in the Allaire brother’s teachings, there are also enough similarities that when LaBarbera gets on the ice now, he sees a lot of himself – his true self – in the play of the other goaltenders around him.

Jason LaBarbera (right) has found a voice and a style that he can relate to in Phoenix goalie coach Sean Burke.

“The best thing for me is the three of us play similar: We’re pretty big, on our feet, patient,” LaBarbera said. “You watch Bryz and a lot is on his feet, so you watch him and subconsciously you start doing some of the same things. That’s why it’s nice to have another guy on your team that plays similar to you because you see them every day, you practice with them, and you watch them in games.”

In Los Angeles that led to LaBarbera spending more time on his knees instead of the short, quick, on-the-skates movements developed under Allaire. In Vancouver he found himself being a lot more aggressive than the conservative initial depth he was using so successfully in the AHL while playing in the Rangers system.

“I was in an in-between kind of place where I just really didn’t know really how I wanted to play,” said LaBarbera, adding that his skating improved under goaltending consultant Ian Clark in Vancouver after not working at it at all in Los Angeles, but his positioning changed in large part because of watching Luongo.

“Louie can get overaggressive and not really set when he’s making saves. He’s always moving and that’s what I was doing too, I was moving a lot, whereas here I find myself more `push, get square and make a save.’ It’s more like Benoit’s philosophy: `beat the pass and give the right answer.’ I’m a lot more patient on my feet, not going down so much and making more saves off of my feet, which is how I played and I kind of got away from that for a couple years. I think I got back to being myself.”

Turns out it’s a lot easier when you see yourself in those around you.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Matt in Montreal

    Marty Turco is awesome!