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Should the Leafs get a Director of Goaltending like the cool teams have?

Is this a real job or just an ego-title for a few venerated goalie coaches?

New York Islanders v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs, as reported by Northstar Bets, are “parting ways” with goaltending coach Steve Briere. Naturally opinions will flow about who the team should hire, but that report also says they’re doing a full analysis of the department. The first suggestion I’ve seen is that the Leafs really need a Director of Goaltending, not a mere coach.

What the Other Teams (Cool or Not) Have

Before I dig into that and ask if the Director title is anything more that ego-pumping for goalie coaches with names like Allaire, what are the other teams doing? Is this really a thing now? I checked all their official lists of management and coaches to find out. (I may have missed some, since each team creates their own vision of an organizational structure and they don’t always specify the responsibilities of assistant coaches.)

  • Anaheim - their front office page is a 404 (lol), but their coaching page shows a goaltending coach only
  • Arizona - two goaltending scouts, one in Europe and a goaltending coach
  • Boston - a goaltending development coach and a goaltending coach
  • Buffalo - a goaltending development coach, and they list their goalie coach as an assistant coach
  • Calgary - a senior goaltending coach, a goaltending coach, and they list their AHL goaltending coach as well
  • Carolina - a goaltending coach and a goaltending development coach
  • Chicago - a goaltending coach, goaltending development coach and a goaltending scout
  • Colorado - a goaltending coach and a development goalie coach
  • Columbus - a goaltending coach and a goaltending development coach
  • Dallas - a goaltending coach
  • Detroit - a head of goaltending scouting and development and no coach because they just fired the coaching department
  • Edmonton - a goaltending coach
  • Florida - a goaltending consultant, a goaltending coach and an assistant coach, goaltending for their AHL team
  • Los Angeles - a goaltending coach
  • Minnesota - a goaltending coach
  • Montréal - a director of goaltending*, a goalie coach and a goalie scout
  • Nashville - a goaltending coach and a goaltending development coach
  • New Jersey - a goaltending coach, a director of goaltending development, European goalie scout and a goalie coach in the AHL
  • New York Islanders - a director of goaltending, a goaltending coach
  • New York Rangers - a director of goaltending who is also the head goaltending coach and a goaltending consultant
  • Ottawa - a goaltending coach
  • Philadelphia - a goaltending coach and a goaltending development coach
  • Pittsburgh - a goaltending coach, two goaltending development coaches and a “goaltending professional” who works out of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex
  • San Jose - an assistant coach, goaltending
  • Seattle - a goaltending coach
  • St. Louis - a goaltending coach and a goalie development coach
  • Tampa Bay - a goaltending coach and a goaltending scout
  • Vancouver - a director of goaltending who is also the head goaltending coach
  • Vegas - a goaltending coach and a goaltending development coach/scout
  • Washington - a goaltending coach and an associate goaltending coach in the AHL
  • Winnipeg - a goaltending development coach and an assistant coach who is the goalie coach

*The Canadiens’ Director of Goaltending is Sean Burke who reportedly works remotely from the USA.

Aside from Montréal’s work from home director, only three other teams list the position. The Islanders have Mitch Korn, the Rangers have Benoit Allaire and the Canucks have Ian Clark, who doesn’t seem to direct anyone but himself. It’s really hard not to see this as a title, not a job.

A Case for a Director

The article linked above is suggesting that the Leafs should get an actual management level person, a director in more than name:

Perhaps if an assistant manager/director of goaltending was in the office at the time Dubas entered negotiations with Mrazek, he could have been warned about the red flags that have come with giving the goaltending the money and term he received. But a Director of Goaltending goes beyond the short term. That person can help develop their goalies. That person can help develop a future goaltender from within that hasn’t been seen since James Reimer or Felix Potvin before him.

I think this idea is based on a couple of false premises. First that teams have these management level directors who don’t coach. That does seem to be true for the Islanders and the Canadiens, but not the Rangers and the Canucks. The second one is the big one. The idea that Kyle Dubas needed to be told at the time he signed him that Petr Mrázek was a gamble is dubious to say the least.

It’s very easy now to look back and definitively call Mrázek’s Carolina season a mirage, but at the time Dubas needed a starter, the choices in his price range was a very short list. You can legitimately say that getting himself painted into that corner was a mistake, but he made a move not to supplant Jack Campbell, but to be a stopgap if Campbell was bad or hurt or, even worse, so good he could never be re-signed by the Leafs. Overachieving Jack managed to do all three.

Meanwhile, many of the Leafs’ problems this year that led them to play an astonishing number of goalies throughout their system were common injuries. If you want to blame the goalie coach for pulled groins, you can. If you want to blame the medical staff for returning too soon — as all reinjuries are seen to prove — you can do that too. The Leafs need more than a blame-calling standing in for analysis. They need to know if they just got hit with bad luck or if their training and practice routines are not good enough. The analysis they are said to be doing is the right step before they make any hire with any title.

Too Much Management?

Let’s examine the idea of a management layer, a so-called “seat at the table” that is all about goaltending. It might be a good idea, and I don’t want to throw it out because I don’t find the reasoning above convincing.

Very large employers are going through a re-examination of their management structures and practices these days. The trend to lean and nimble business models got accelerated by the pandemic when companies handled the rapidly changing situation by cutting down the number of people involved in decision making. Many think this was a successful change, but in the aftermath as a large workforce is returning to work — or refusing to stop working from home — some employers are starting to miss the middle managers who could actually manage people.

Dig into the issue a little on the bloated management ranks in North American business, and you’ll find the Peter Principle might be the place to lay a lot of blame for disfunction. This old truism says that in large organizations employees rise to their level of incompetence. That means employees are promoted based on how good they are at their current job, and management ranks become filled with managers who could do it, but can’t manage the people who are still doing it.

Slapping a layer of management onto a problem is not a new idea. It’s often a bad idea meant to fix management ranks full of the incompetent. Sometimes it is because an executive wants someone they can consider an equal to talk to. I can’t help but think of Lou Lamoriello needing Mitch Korn to insulate him from the little people that actually do the goalie coaching. I don’t think Dubas needs that any more than he needs someone to explain variance and risk to him.

In this 2021 Atlantic article, Ed Zitron makes the case for abandoning the Peter Principle and embracing a new style of management:

The United States, more than anywhere else in the world, is addicted to the concept of management. As I’ve written before, management has become a title rather than a discipline. We have a glut of people in management who were never evaluated on their ability to manage before being promoted to their role. We have built corporate America around the idea that if you work hard enough, one day you might become a manager, someone who makes rather than takes orders. While this is not the only form of management, based on the response to my previous article and my newsletters on the subject, this appears to be how many white-collar employees feel. Across disparate industries, an overwhelming portion of management personnel is focused more on taking credit and placing blame rather than actually managing people, with dire consequences.

Taking credit and placing blame is exactly the way the fandom of management in the NHL sees things. Who gets credit for a player is the GM who drafted him. Who gets the blame is the coach right now behind the bench. If a GM didn’t draft Alex DeBrincat, and that’s a long list, they are as bad as the coach of the team that just lost. If you’ve ever started a Tweet with #fire... you’re a fan of the blame and credit system.

Zitron’s inspiration for a new form of corporate management might surprise you:

Successful sports teams generally—though not always—abide by the mantra that you put the best people for the job in the best position to succeed. That’s why you see a good number of former catchers in baseball end up as fairly successful managers—they’re workhorses who control the pace of the game, learning and directing the approach to each batter and, one might say, the entire field as a result. It’s a logical choice, because it involves a person who participates in both the strategy and the action, understanding the batting order and how to attack it—the same skill set a coach would need.

What Zitron advocates is talent promotion. Finding talent in young people and nurturing it. He thinks an ordinary white-collar workplace needs to mentor talent as an entrenched part of the job in the way sports teams have player development departments.

Goalies, Though — Who Understands Them?

In the NHL, goalies have often been the overlooked players in those departments. That list above has a goalie coach on every team — or will once Detroit and Toronto get to hiring someone — but that’s where it ends. Teams have an endless list of generic player development staff. The Leafs have more than most, and they cast a wide net, drawing in gold medalists, training specialist, skating coaches, and then they added nutritionists, consultants to teach people how to win, how to eat, how to do the mambo.

While the Leafs have been layering on staff and expanding their org. chart to epic proportions, they have done what hockey always does — treated goaltending like mysticism practiced by only a few cultists who know the secrets of the art. Maybe the question shouldn’t be does Dubas need a voice at the table who can tell him what to do about goaltending, maybe it’s do the goalies need more than one authoritarian voice.

What if the Leafs need a Director of Goaltending because they have an actual department to manage? The Leafs currently have Jon Elkin who works in goaltender evaluation and development, and they have a coach with the Marlies who is new this year — Hannu Toivonen. They don’t list a specific goalie scout, but it’s entirely possible they have one. They likely have assistants or support staff to their goalie coach as well. Is that enough to put a layer of management over top of? And if you do, is that just creating a triangle between the Director, Sheldon Keefe and Dubas?

I keep coming back to those injuries, and while I know that random chance can produce things we love to see as needing a cause to explain them when they all happen in a string, it’s possible there is a chasm between the medical staff, the coaches and the goalies themselves that needs bridging. The NHL has a history of a medical system that is responsive to what the team wants to happen, often at the expense of the reality of the players’ bodies.

I don’t know the culture of the Leafs hockey operations staff. I can’t guess if they have communication gaps, scouting gaps or if they are, like every other team save a very lucky few, victims of the variance of goalies. But if they aren’t finding goalie talent — as players and as coaches — and developing them in an environment that fosters success, then they aren’t approaching the position the way they do the rest of the team. Maybe they should.