Commentary: Veteran Mentorship
Let me start this commentary by throwing out some Lightning trivia. Did you know the maximum number of appearances made in an NHL season by a goaltender the Lightning drafted is 16 by Zac Bierk? Did you know that in total goaltenders drafted by the Lightning have made 94 total appearances, 382 less than Nikolai Khabibulin alone? In fact, did you know John Grahame has played in more NHL games (122) than every goaltender drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning combined?
This week the Lightning signed goaltenders Jonathan Boutin and Gerald Coleman to entry-level deals in hopes of turning the tide on 13 seasons worth of draft futility between the pipes. Both could have talented careers as pros, but something troubled me this week that I want to talk about. The team has been floating the trial balloon that both goaltenders may split time in the team's ECHL affiliate in Johnstown. Let me explain why I think that trial ballon should be shot down, flogged, lit on fire and then buried.
First, lets be blunt, the Lightning's history in terms of drafting and developing goaltenders is abhorent. Were they children, DCS would've taken the Lightning's goaltending prospects away from them permanently 'round about the year 2000 when the Lightning's only semi successful goaltending prospect, Zac Bierk, was snapped away in the expansion draft by Minnesota and sent to languish in the minors for much of two years. Given the fact the team has been so incredibly inept at cultivating netminders, they should be extremely mindful of the few successes they have had recently in development and bend over backwards to try and emulate them.
Brian Eklund was a 7th round draft pick out of Brown University. When he came to the Lightning he was coming off a season where he had lost his starting job to sophomore Yann Danis and in which he only appeared in 9 games posting an attrocious .871 save percentage. "Down and out" is the best way to describe the shape in which Eklund was in as he sputtered into his entry-level deal and assumed a spot on the depth chart behind floundering Evgeny Konstantinov.
In the three years since Eklund has all but established himself as the Lightning's number three goaltender and should see the lion's share of starts in Springfield next season. With a .911 save percentage and a 3.01 GAA Eklund was named the Falcons' MVP in his first full season at the AHL level. Understanding how Eklund was developed is key to understanding how Boutin and Coleman should be developed.
In 2002, his rookie season of professional hockey, Brian Eklund only made 22 appearances for the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the ECHL. His numbers were modest but he learned a great deal about preparation and approach to the professional game from veteran mentor Maxime Gingras. The Lightning did not rush Eklund to the AHL level, nor did they rush to make him a starter at the ECHL level. They provided a strong, experienced leader to help mold Eklund's practice habits and to support him in his rookie season.
In 2003, Eklund applied what he learned becoming the clear cut starter for the Ice Pilots and setting ECHL records for wins and saves in a season. His .921 save percentage marked a .25 improvement over the previous season and rather than calling up Eklund to press him into AHL service (although to be fair there was no full affiliate at the time to call him up to) the Lightning allowed Eklund to make full use of the opportunity in the ECHL in pushing the Ice Pilots to give Eklund an unprecedented 62 appearances as a sophomore pro.
After putting Eklund in a situation where he first received veteran mentorship as a rookie and second saw more rubber than a mechanic at Firestone the Lightning knew it was time to bring Eklund up a level to the AHL full time. But, and this is key, they did not simply throw him to the wolves. They once again gave Eklund veteran mentorship first in the form of NHL veteran Jamie Storr and later in AHL veteran Jean-Marc Pelletier. The Lightning took their time with Eklund, starting him sparingly at the start of the season allowing Storr to take most of the lumps for the struggling young team.
By midseason Eklund was ready to step up and assume tandem responsibilities. By the end of the year he and Pelletier were splitting starts and showing the promise of the budding Falcons team. The common ingredients in Eklund's progression were patience and veteran mentorship. To ignore these lessons now, especially considering the franchise's history of failure between the pipes with goaltenders, would be an act of folly.
When I think of a potential Boutin/Coleman tandem in Johnstown I'm reminded of the growing pains of the Lightning team in the 2000-2001 season. At that time the team was simply throwing its youth together without veteran leadership and blindly hoping talent would overcome inexperience. Coach Steve Ludzik regularly played a pairing of Paul Mara and Cory Sarich who, between them, had just 64 games of NHL experience going into that season. Not surprisingly, they were chewed up and spit up by every NHL veteran under the sun. An appropriate analogy for those two at that time: the blind leading the dumb. Without a veteran to lean on they struggled mightily and although both have become great players since, I have little doubt the experience of that year stunted their growth in the short term.
Putting Boutin and Coleman in a tandem in Johnstown would be another case of the blind leading the dumb. Ideally a veteran ECHL goaltender should be brought aboard with the Chiefs to tutor one young netminder while another is loaned to another team to be tutored by another veteran. Given the great job they did with Alexei Glukhov, I would suggest the Victoria Salmon Kings would be an excellent choice for the latter.
Another scenario would be for the Lightning to start one in Springfield backing up Eklund and another in Johnstown under another veteran goaltender and forgoing any opportunity to bring JM Pelletier back aboard. And while I like this better than having both goaltenders at the AHL level I must confess that, in my personal opinion, neither of these prospects is ready for the AHL. The idea of throwing one of them into the AHL to play behind our youthful Falcons squad invariably gives me flash backs to Evgeny Konstantinov beginning to road to Bustville behind a Detroit Vipers IHL team where half the players could barely tie their own skate laces let alone play the game. Let Coleman and Boutin get their orientation in the ECHL in their first season. Let them see plenty of starts and plenty of shots as sophomores. And then bring them to the AHL and wean them slowly onto the league with another veteran mentor. The development of Brian Eklund proves it works. Lord knows nothing else we've tried has.