By HOWARD BERGER
TAMPA (Mar. 14) – Am I the only person beginning to wonder how awful the Leafs would be if they didn’t have a goaltending consultant? Or, for that matter, what a goaltending consultant actually does?
This is not meant to be an indictment of Francois Allaire, who has three Stanley Cup rings from his days in Montreal and Anaheim. But, if Allaire’s claim to fame is working with Patrick Roy, shouldn’t the Leafs be trying to lure Glen Sather away from New York as a “scoring” consultant after all the years he spent with Wayne Gretzky?
What I’m getting at, here, is simple: Goaltending – like scoring – is a gift… inherent in the DNA of those that do it best. It may be possible to refine the positioning of a goalie. But, there is no way – in my view – to teach reflex, anticipation and style: all of which are God-given. In that realm, your fat, bald uncle could have worked with Patrick Roy, among the most innately-skilled goalies in the history of hockey. Likewise with the greatest natural hitter I’ve seen in baseball. George Brett of the Kansas City Royals was a desciple, in the ’80s, of batting coach Charlie Lau and Lau therefore became a guru. The fact Brett could have hit a baseball while blindfolded seemed not to matter.
As such, the real challenge for someone in Allaire’s position is garnering a level of progress and reliability among pupils not rubber-stamped for the Hall of Fame. Or, at least ensuring that such acolytes do not plummet from distinction in the span of a calendar year.
Given such criteria, it is nearly impossible to detect any advantage the Leafs have procured with Allaire as their goaltending consultant. During his time in Toronto, no single aspect of the hockey club has been in such disarray. The promising career of Vesa Toskala – teetering amid waning confidence – was destroyed in Allaire’s first season (Toskala’s last) with the Blue and White. Jonas Gustavsson has been up and down like a yo-yo under Allaire, but has made no discernable progress with a penchant to allow soft, untimely goals. Even Allaire’s old Stanley Cup apprentice in Anaheim – J.S. Giguere – had to leave town at the end of last season and is enjoying a renaissance in Colorado.
A story that has made the rounds in Leaf circles – unsubstantiated, yet told with consistency – involves Allaire’s introduction to Toskala. Apparently, the coach’s initial words to the Finnish-born goalie went something like this: “I’ve won three Stanley Cups and you haven’t won a thing. So, you’ll do as I say.” Nothing like garnering trust and kinship.
That brings us to James Reimer. I have difficulty recalling a Leafs player at any position that has regressed so enormously in the span of one season. It is not uncommon for a second-year pro in the NHL – particularly one that flourishes without expectation as a rookie – to encounter a bump in his sophomore campaign. When that bump, however, is the size of Mount Fuji, other elements must be considered.
Reimer is an emotional wreck at the moment and that’s significant, given how grounded and mature he appears in any other circumstance. Randy Carlyle, who’s been around the NHL and AHL for 35 years, emphasized after Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss in Sunrise how fragile and nervous Reimer appeared upon making his first start in goal for the new Leafs coach.
Afterward, surrounded by a group of empathetic reporters (perhaps an oxymoron to some), Reimer seemed to be fighting tears while trying to explain how it has all gone so wrong this season. His unwavering Christian faith and tight, loving family – he maintains – is pulling him through an otherwise-dreadful situation. At no point, however, could Optimus Reim suggest when his game might re-appear.
JAMES REIMER, IN CONTEMPLATION BEFORE TUESDAY’S GAME IN SOUTH FLORIDA.
So, we ask one more time: What conceivable benefit is the hockey club deriving from Francois Allaire? Better yet, why is he tagged a “consultant” with the Maple Leafs? Allaire is at every practice and home game, and he travels with the club on virtually every road trip. In that regard, he is no more a “consultant” than Carlyle or Brian Burke. The dictionary defines “consultant” as “a person that periodically gives expert advice or information.” Allaire does nothing “periodically” for the Maple Leafs and there’s an urge to suppress laughter when considering the second part of the definition. All we can tell you – for certain – is that Reimer has suffered a rapid, excruciating demise under the Leafs so-called guru.
Consider the best goalies in recent NHL history: Ken Dryden; Bernie Parent; Billy Smith; Grant Fuhr; Roy; Dominik Hasek; Ed Belfour; Martin Brodeur; Tim Thomas; Henrik Lundqvist.
Were any of the aforementioned the product of a consultant? I’m told by a number of NHL people that the best way, historically, to coach a netminder is to leave that person alone. Work, if you must, on restoring and maintaining confidence. But, if the player is appropriately skilled and competitive, chances are he’ll overcome a rough patch on his own. Under no circumstance, I’m told, should a coach impose his style on a goalie.
Hasek played the position like a drunk. Can you imagine what his response might have been to an advisor demanding a more conventional approach? Has it ever been necessary to teach Brodeur how to play goal? On more than one occasion in my presence, the New Jersey veteran has chuckled at those, such as Allaire, that demand the “butterfly” technique – perilous for the abundant area of upper-net it provides good shooters and executed well by only a small percentage of puck-stoppers in the big league.
Brodeur has never ascribed to a lone method. He’s been primarily a stand-up goalie during his unparalleled career, but has simply done whatever is necessary to thwart the opposition. If the butterfly is working, he’ll use that; if flopping around like a beached whale – ala Hasek – is the way to go on a given night, he’ll flop. Jacques Caron worked successfully with Brodeur and the Devils for a number of seasons – presumably by allowing his star goalie to improvise; to perform in a manner that seemed most natural.
In that realm, Brodeur has stood clear of the crowd. He wore much-smaller equipment than his NHL brethren until this season, when he increased the dimension of his goal-pads to the league maximum in an effort to offset advancing years. When such colleagues as Giguere and Garth Snow were allowed to don jerseys that would cover the infield of a ballpark, Brodeur felt more comfortable in a conventional size.
For every Leafs goalie since Belfour, comfort is not a word that applies even marginally.
As mentioned off the top, however, this blog is not meant to discredit Allaire. I have nothing against the man – he seems quite friendly whenever we meet – and I’ll readily acknowledge that a person advancing to the world’s best hockey league in any capacity warrants respect.
But, that doesn’t answer the underlying question I’ve posed today: Given that Allaire was hired by Burke to aid and abet the Leafs’ goaltending picture, where does there exist even the tiniest evidence of such expertise?
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Now, my photo-catch-up from the past three days of travel, and the Leafs game in Florida:
WHILE FLYING FROM WASHINGTON TO FORT LAUDERDALE ON MONDAY, WE PASSED OVER THE COAST OF SOUTH CAROLINA (ABOVE) NEAR CHARLESTON. THIS AREA IS AMONG THE MOST-FREQUENTLY RAVAGED BY ATLANTIC HURRICANES THAT MAKE LAND-FALL IN THE SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES.
WHEN LINING UP FOR FINAL APPROACH TO HOLLYWOOD-FORT LAUDERDALE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, THE USAirways FLIGHT BARRELED OUT 15 MILES WEST, OVER THE FLORIDA EVERGLADES, PASSING DIRECTLY OVER-TOP THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER (ABOVE) IN SUNRISE – HOME OF THE NHL PANTHERS – BEFORE TURNING LEFT FOR THE RUNWAY.
“ALLIGATOR ALLEY” (ABOVE-LEFT) – THE STRETCH OF INTERSTATE-75 BETWEEN SUNRISE AND NAPLES THAT CROSSES THE EVERGLADES. AND, INTERSTATE-95, LOOKING SOUTH TOWARD MIAMI (ABOVE-RIGHT), SECONDS BEFORE TOUCHING DOWN.
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL EARLY-EVENING IN SUNRISE ON TUESDAY, AS I DROVE TO THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER FOR THE LEAFS-PANTHERS GAME – PHOTOS ABOVE AND BELOW OF THE TROPICAL PLANT-LIFE SURROUNDING THE ARENA.
FLORIDA PLAYERS EMERGE FROM THE JAWS OF A PANTHER (ABOVE) FOR THE HOCKEY GAME.
MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI JOINED MARCEL GOC FOR A CEREMONIAL FACE-OFF (ABOVE) BEFORE THE NATIONAL ANTHEMS, PERFORMED BY SCANTILY-CLAD ERIN BOYLE (BELOW). GRABOVSKI LATER SQUARED OFF IN THE CIRCLE AGAINST STEPHEN WEISS.
POOR JAMES REIMER KEPT THE GAME SCORELESS FOR ALL OF 59 SECONDS BEFORE SEAN BERGENHEIM BEAT HIM WITH A WRIST-SHOT (ABOVE AND BELOW).
BACK IN THE LEAFS LINE-UP AFTER SITTING OUT IN WASHINGTON, JAY ROSEHILL DROPPED THE GLOVES (ABOVE) WITH HAMILTON NATIVE KRYSTOFER BARCH AT 5:16 OF THE OPENING PERIOD. MOMENTS LATER, BEFORE A FACE-OFF (BELOW), THE TORONTO FIVE-SOME OF DION PHANEUF, GRABOVSKI, NIK KULEMIN, CARL GUNNARSSON AND CLARKE MacARTHUR HUDDLED TO DETERMINE SUPPER PLANS FOR TONIGHT HERE IN TAMPA.
AFTER A LONG DAY AT GENERAL MANAGERS MEETINGS IN NEARBY BOCA RATON, THE BOSS COULD BARELY WATCH (ABOVE-LEFT) AS HIS CLUB FELL BEHIND EARLY ONCE AGAIN. BUT, HE PROBABLY ENJOYED THE FIESTINESS OF TRADE-DEADLINE ACQUISITION CARTER ASHTON.
IT WASN’T A GREAT NIGHT FOR ASHTON, AS THE LEAFS WERE SCORED ON BOTH TIMES HE WENT TO THE PENALTY BOX. HE WAS ESCORTED TO THE BIN (ABOVE) BY LINESMAN JONNY MURRAY FOR SLASHING AT 12:42 OF THE MIDDLE FRAME.
PHANEUF AND REIMER LINED UP TO KILL THE PENALTY (ABOVE), BUT WATCHED IN DISMAY AS JASON GARRISON’S TIP-IN (BELOW) GAVE FLORIDA A 2-0 LEAD AT 14:43 – ONE SECOND AFTER ASHTON’S PENALTY EXPIRED.
VIEW FROM THE PRESS BOX AT BANKATLANTIC CENTER AS THE PANTHER’S GOAL-SCORER IS FLASHED ON THE VIDEO-BOARD ABOVE CENTRE-ICE.
IT HAPPENED AT 19:02 OF THE SECOND PERIOD: TYLER BOZAK RE-DIRECTING A PUCK PAST JOSE THEODORE FOR THE LEAFS FIRST GOAL AFTER A SILLY DROUGHT OF 196 MINUTES AND 26 SECONDS. LEAFS APPEARED ON THEIR WAY TO BEING BLANKED IN THREE CONSECUTIVE GAMES FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE THEIR INAUGURAL NHL SEASON OF 1926-27.
ASHTON WAS BACK IN THE BOX (ABOVE) FOR HIGH-STICKING AT 5:17 OF THE THIRD PERIOD AND IT TOOK THE PANTHERS 50 SECONDS TO RESTORE THEIR TWO-PUCK ADVANTAGE (BELOW) ON A GOAL BY TOMAS KOPECKY.
MATT LOMBARDI AND JERRED SMITHSON GOT CLOSE WHILE FACING OFF AT CENTRE-ICE (ABOVE), WHILE BARCH AND JOEY CRABB JOSTLED FOR POSITION.
THERE WERE PLENTY OF UNOCCUPIED SEATS AT THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER, AND LOTS OF ROOM FOR UBIQUITOUS LEAF FANS – MOST OF WHOM WORE LONG FACES (BELOW).
PHANEUF GRABBED A HANDFUL OF MARCEL GOC’S JERSEY IN THE THIRD PERIOD (ABOVE-LEFT) WHILE TIM CONNOLLY POSITIONED HIMSELF (RIGHT) FOR A REBOUND.
LINESMAN MURRAY APPEARED TO BE WAITING PATIENTLY (ABOVE) FOR BOZAK AND WEISS TO END THEIR CHIT-CHAT.
CARTER ASHOTON MADE A THIRD VISIT TO THE PENALTY BOX AFTER ENGAGING SHAWN MATTHIAS IN A SCRAP (ABOVE AND BELOW) AT 11:40 OF THE FINAL FRAME.
DURING A TV BREAK, THE TEAMS GATHERED AT THEIR RESPECTIVE BENCHES (ABOVE-TOP) WHILE THEODORE WENT THROUGH HIS USUAL ROUTINE OF STRETCHING BESIDE THE GOAL.
THE EYES OF LEAFS NATION WEREN’T AT ALL PLEASED WITH THE THIRD-PERIOD SCOREBOARD (ABOVE).
GRABOVSKI PROVIDED HIS TEAMMATES A LITTLE SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT BY SCORING WITH 6:10 LEFT ON THE CLOCK. PHIL KESSEL WAS CLEARLY ENAMOURED BY THE VIDEO-BOARD REPLAY, WHILE RANDY CARLYLE’S ASSISTANT – SCOTT GORDON – APPEARED TO BE GRABBING 40 WINKS (BELOW).
IT IS 1996 RE-VISITED WHEN THE PANTHERS WIN TODAY – FANS RE-ENACTING THE CRAZE FROM THE PLAYOFFS THAT YEAR BY THROWING PLASTIC RODENTS ON THE ICE AT THE FINAL BUZZER. FLORIDA, IN ONLY ITS THIRD NHL SEASON AND COACHED BY DOUG MacLEAN, MADE IT TO THE ’96 CUP FINAL ONLY TO BE SWEPT BY COLORADO.
JASON GARRISON HAPPILY TOSSES HIS STICK OVER THE GLASS AFTER THE GAME.
BANKATLANTIC CENTER SEATS (ABOVE) FROM THE CORNER ZAMBONI ENTRANCE.
THE USUAL MOB OF REPORTERS SURROUNDED RANDY CARLYLE (ABOVE AND BELOW) FOR HIS POST-GAME COMMENTS, WHICH WERE JUSTIFIABLY CRITICAL OF THE TEAM.
THE LEAFS TEAM BUS AWAITS PLAYERS (ABOVE) IN THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER PARKING LOT FOR TRIP TO AIRPORT AND THE SHORT FLIGHT HERE TO TAMPA.
WEATHER WAS BEAUTIFUL, ONCE AGAIN, AS I ARRIVED FOR MY NOON-HOUR FLIGHT TODAY FROM FORT LAUDERDALE TO TAMPA.
AND WHAT A GORGEOUS VIEW WE HAD WHILE TAKING OFF ON SOUTHWEST AIRLINES OVER FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH (ABOVE AND BELOW) FOR THE SHORT HOP ACROSS THE STATE.
TURNING LEFT TO HEAD WEST, WE PASSED DIRECTLY OVER-TOP THE MAIN DRAG OF FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH (ABOVE AND BELOW) – THE STREET EXTENDING WESTWARD AT RIGHT IN TOP PHOTO IS SUNRISE BLVD., WHICH LEADS DIRECTLY TO THE PANTHERS HOME ARENA.
LESS THAN HALF-AN-HOUR LATER, APPROACHING TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT FROM THE SOUTH, WE FLEW PAST DOWNTOWN ST. PETERSBURG (ABOVE), DOMINATED BY TROPICANA FIELD, HOME OF BASEBALL’S TAMPA RAYS.
LOVELY SHOT OUT MY HOTEL-ROOM WINDOW (ABOVE) OF DOWNTOWN TAMPA AND THE TAMPA BAY TIMES FORUM (BELOW), WHERE THE LEAFS AND LIGHTNING FACE-OFF AT 7:30 THURSDAY NIGHT.
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