Heat succeed with crowded crease
Jordan Sigalet can't help but chuckle when it's suggested that his job has taken on an extra layer of complexity this season.
The Abbotsford Heat's goalie coach has presided over a three-headed netminding monster this season, comprised of Barry Brust, Danny Taylor and Leland Irving.
All three are seasoned pros, and the situation – a byproduct of the NHL lockout – has certainly tested Sigalet's versatility as a coach.
"You've got Barry, who's pretty aggressive and has a totally different style, pretty unorthodox," Sigalet said with a grin, reflecting on the varied goaltending styles he's responsible for sharpening.
"Leland's obviously a really athletic goaltender – he got some NHL experience last year, so he's really hungry to get in there.
"And then there's Danny, who's nice and calm and controlled. It's a great mix."
Conventional wisdom holds that it's unwieldy and unworkable to carry three goalies on a roster, but against the odds and with only a limited number of hiccups, the Heat have made it work for them. The numbers don't lie – Abbotsford is tops in the AHL in goals against, allowing just 1.96 goals per game.
Within this unique goalie ecosystem, Sigalet has detected some interesting growth.
"They pick up different things from each other, and you can see it in their game," he said. "Watching Barry poke check, the other two are starting to pull out the odd poke check here and there. It's exciting to see that, because it shows they're students of the game."
BRUST A RECORD-BREAKER
Brust's signature accomplishment this season was breaking Hockey Hall of Famer Johnny Bower's 55-year-old AHL record for longest shutout streak. He kept opposing teams off the board for 268 minutes and 17 seconds comprising parts of five games, surpassing Bower's mark of 249:51.
Along the way, Brust became a folk hero among Heat fans for his aggressive style of play and his gregarious nature – after breaking the record, he attributed his success to a "strategically placed horseshoe." He's also a humble gent, deflecting the kudos at every opportunity.
"I can't say enough about how well-coached we are and how well-structured we are," he said. "One of the nice things about the streak is, it put a spotlight on that."
Brust has won seven of eight starts, and his numbers are off the charts – he leads the AHL in both goals-against average (1.12) and save percentage (.951).
While Brust's shutout streak has hogged much of the limelight, Taylor also deserves kudos for his strong start.
He earned the No. 1 job out of training camp, which considering the level of competition is a huge feather in his cap. And while Taylor's numbers don't sparkle quite as brightly as Brust's, they're still beyond reproach – his goals-against average (1.69) is second-best in the AHL, and his save percentage (.933) ranks fourth.
"I think we're all adults here," Taylor said, reflecting on the three-way competition for playing time. "We all want to be the guy, but at the same time, you have to be respectful of everybody else. It's healthy competition, and I think the way it's been so far has been good. Barry and Leland are not only great goalies, but great people."
Irving is the only goalie on the roster with a two-way NHL contract, but he's been outplayed by the other two to this point, as his numbers would indicate (3.33 goals against average, .884 save percentage).
But both Sigalet and head coach Troy Ward assert there's no cause for alarm as far as Irving is concerned. He's been lit up in his last two starts (vs. the Toronto Marlies on Nov. 18 and vs. the San Antonio Rampage on Dec. 5), but prior to that, his save percentage was a solid .922.
"I believe Irv can win 10 straight for our hockey team," Ward said. "But right now, the other two (Brust and Taylor) seem to make the game a little simpler and seem to have better control at this point in the season."
Irving has seen just five starts this season, and he acknowledged it's been tough to stay sharp with such a light workload.
"All of us are kind of used to being the guy, being in there every night," he noted. "That part of it is kind of tough. You've really got to focus on your game-day routine and try and get in a rhythm as best you can.
"But that's part of the business. It doesn't matter what the situation is – you're always going to have to battle for your spot."
Since Jay Feaster was hired as Calgary Flames general manager during the 2010-11 season, "merit" has become an organizational buzzword.
That's a philosophy Ward has bought into in Abbotsford, and it's the deciding factor in how he doles out playing time to his three goalies.
At the start of the season, Ward tapped Taylor for four of the first five starts. Since then, it's seemed to morph into more of a rotation.
Ward sorts out his rotation based on a number of considerations – a goalie might get the start if he's had a lot of historical success against a particular team, for instance.
"We play out our strategic plan based on some of those intangibles," Ward said. "But in general, it's still been merit-based.
"As we move towards the Christmas holiday, we're getting more towards merit-based, where we could have a guy go two, three, four games and not dress at all, not even back up. That doesn't mean we don't necessarily believes in him – it's kind of like managing a bench during a game."
The competitiveness of a three-goalie system could easily boil over and become a distraction; that it hasn't, Ward said, is a credit to the trio.
"One of the most critical things that's transpired with this is, all three are really solid citizens," he said. "They're all going to have their personal slant on the situation, but it hasn't hampered our progress as a team.
"They're good friends, they respect each other, and they all know they're fighting for the same cause, and that's to make us the best team they can."
-- All photos courtesy Amy Williams Photography