Vegas goalie coach Dave Prior explains ‘old school’ approach
Vegas Golden Knights goaltending coach Dave Prior is a fascinating focal point of the Stanley Cup Final because of his history with both teams, having drafted Braden Holtby while with the Washington Capitals, and chosen Marc-Andre Fleury to backstop the Vegas expansion.
That has led to a lot of talk about Prior’s preferences and philosophy when it comes to stopping pucks in the NHL, so InGoal Magazine thought it would be worthwhile to share our 20-minute conversation with the 61-year-old goalie coach from earlier in the season. It provides a deeper look at a style and system that helped the Golden Knights find the goalies that helped them reach the Cup Final in their first season, including why Fleury fit those preferences so well.
First, though, a little history lesson for those still unaware of Prior’s past and path to Vegas.
Prior spent seven years with the NHL Central Scouting Bureau before starting an NHL coaching career that included working with the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets before joining the Capitals in 1997. In 17 seasons with Washington, Prior helped coach the Capitals to their only other Cup Final appearance in 1998 and Olaf Kolzig to the Vezina Trophy in 2000 while playing a role in the drafting a development of a deep list of skilled goalies that included Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer, and Holtby.
Prior was let go by then-Capitals general manager George McPhee in 2013, however, because he didn’t want to implement the changes that Adam Oates, the head coach at the time, wanted to make in Holtby’s style and approach. Three years later, after new Capitals goalie coach Mitch Korn made many of those changes, but his way and with other changes of his own, Holtby won the Vezina.
Prior was then hired by McPhee in Vegas and, using those same positional principles he refused to compromise in Washington, helped Fleury to the best season of his career while also guiding the first-year franchise through an injury-filled season that required using five different goaltenders.
It’s further proof there is never just one way to play the position, and makes Prior’s preferences worth a closer look. InGoal got that look during a mid-November conversation that started with Prior praising McPhee for allowing him to choose goaltenders that fit his philosophy:
Prior:“I’m old school and I’m not sure everybody agrees with how I coach but for me, I’ve had an advantage in organizations where I do the scouting. I am looking for goaltenders that possess qualities that I think allow them to play the way I want them to play.”
InGoal: So, what exactly are those qualities and how do you want them to play?
Prior:“I am looking for people who have demonstrated the courage to wait out situations longer than goaltenders that just default to the ice and it’s not always fair to the guys who default to the ice because they have been schooled that way. Some of them need to do it sooner than others because they are not quick enough to wait situations out, so I am trying to find guys that have that and can get over the discomfort level of when a guy gets in so close you start to lose that time to react and it’s unsettling and you want to back off. Some guys seem to be willing to hold in there longer.”
InGoal: Most take that to mean being more aggressive; is that the case?
Prior:“Every one of them has a different starting point depending on their own physical capability. I don’t draw lines and say this is where we are playing. We are trying to fine tune sweet spots depending on the shooting situation. I am more complicated than a lot of others, our game is a little more intricate, there is a lot more maintenance keeping it on track.”
InGoal: Malcolm Subban said you stress hold your ground, not retreating with an attack.
Prior: “I don’t encourage backwards momentum. Rather than getting out farther and backing off with momentum, which I am not going to dispute assists you if there is a lateral pass sometimes, but it also complicates your ability to make the save on the shooter, you are shrinking in net, you are not stationary. You are not able to just focus on directing your rebound or you have made the save and you still have momentum away from the puck that is right in front of you and you can’t compete for it.
“We’re more patient on the shooter and attempt to turn the tables on the shooter to solve us more than we try to solve them because shooters are too good in this league. You get picked apart if they wait until you respond. They wait you out and whoever goes first they are good at exploiting your misjudgment or impatience. We’re trying not to get seduced into what the shooter is doing and stay the course and just keep trying to wait it out and try to shield the net once they are in tight as best we are able to.”
InGoal:By reacting, not defaulting to a block?
Prior: “No, at a certain point I believe you have lost the chance to react but if you back off you end up trying to figure out where they are going to go with the puck and you get fanned out in the net through no fault of yours – you are trying to be able to react but you create holes and the puck funnels through you. When that puck hits a hole, it is not going to go wide. If you are still in a positon where you are in front of it and can maintain a tight center core that’s when they have to beat you outside and maybe you can still react and get a piece of it on the outside
“It’s hard to do.”
InGoal: So how do you coach it?
Prior: “I’ll be honest, these three guys, (Oscar) Dansk, (Maxime) Lagace and Subban, they are all in a similar age group and are easier than Varlamov, or Neuvirth or Holtby at that 20-year age. I think because they have probably encountered failure in their careers, it’s not quite as devastating. We don’t emphasize stopping the puck in practice. I believe if you want to be successful stopping the puck in practice, you have to cheat on situations so we focus on our execution and it’s hard. We’re still trying to ingrain it. Those three mid-20 year olds (Dansk, Lagace and Subban) were easier to coach than (Dylan) Ferguson is, or Varlamov or Holtby. If Ferguson is out there and gets beat, he is more frustrated because he hasn’t gone through that. Those three still believe in themselves but clearly the rest of the world doesn’t believe in them.”
InGoal: What about Dansk, for example, made you believe in him?
Prior: “I took a flyer on Dansk. I had not seen him play in five years but my recollection of him was he possessed qualities that I believed would be helpful. Both goalies (Dansk and Lagace) and their agents agreed they’d be willing to go to the ECHL if things didn’t work out and that made it easy to sign but told both of them hopefully this is long-term relationship. It wasn’t just we have to sign somebody; we thought they had upside and they have both exceeded my expectations to this point. As you know there are lots of flash-in-the-pan type goaltenders but they have earned their successes. I told Dansk when we signed him, ‘I don’t like Swedish goalies because they play a passive game, things are more obvious, the ice is bigger, more passing, you can read it.’ He adapted quite well and worked real honestly through his games. We were pleasantly surprised what he delivered on such short notice. He demonstrated an ability to give up a goal that maybe I think he should have but it didn’t disrupt the rest of playing his game.”
InGoal: How hard has it been to work with so many different guys so early in a season?
Prior: “No disrespect to the AHL but you can have them doing well but shooters are not as good so things don’t get exposed. You can leave there thinking you have them ready for a call up but you don’t get to work in these environments. With [Fleury, Subban and Dansk] all injured [at the time of this interview], Lagace gets to play loose and know he’s going to play again and every practice I am seeing things I know would not have gotten exposed at the American League level so it’s kind of a unique opportunity to fast track his development and assessment because I tell the shooters, ‘shoot to score, take them to school’ because I need to see those deficiencies so we can try to find them a plan to better them.”
InGoal: Sounds a lot different than drills where goalies know how every shot ends?
Prior: “One of the things I do in reverse is I am more about getting places, control is secondary. First, we try to achieve A to B to be in the way of the puck and the more we train that, then the more we improve the technical part of the arrival, that you are under better control or not still drifting out on a guy. We train on our skates. In a game, we let the brain take over. We are not going to try to stand up if the puck is half way by us or we have to shortcut it but …
*At this point, Prior stops to diagram a crease movement on a cross-ice pass at the point and explains he doesn’t agree with prioritizing angle over depth by coming across to the post first*
“On a lateral play at point, I want you to get to your spot, don’t retreat towards post and then come out and take ice. We train to have that in our repertoire of moves so we arrive where we would want to be if the puck started there, rather than choose to be deep and on angle and then move out. We do the opposite. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to control.
“Track the puck as if it was being carried, not as if it was being passed.”
InGoal: Do you change how they make those movements to facilitate any of that?
Prior: “I don’t get deep into the mechanics of how they play. I don’t practice it, whether it’s how they stand at the post or whatever. I may have my own preferences but we just deal with what is not working so if the guy can stand on his head on the post and do it well I am not going to re-invent him.”
InGoal: Do you look to add tools and let them decide what works, like VH or RVH for example?
Prior: “I don’t care what he does. I don’t even know that terminology, quite honestly. At this stage, it would be different if I was teaching kids but these guys, I respect what they’ve already accomplished, they are all better goalies than I ever came close to being, and I respect the work the goaltending coach has done with them. I say all the time I have never met a goaltending coach who did not have good intentions. The difference is a lot of guys get prepared for lower levels. I want them to be able to succeed in the NHL and it’s hard work, and I say that with no disrespect to other NHL goalies; there are guys in the League that I have found less attractive to me than these two guys (Subban and Lagace) might be.”
~ On Thursday, we hear from Fleury on the hardest part of making the adjustment to Prior’s style, and why he thinks the adjustment has ultimately paid off so well.