I had the chance to catch up with Robb Tallas, the Panthers’ goaltending coach, while at this weekend’s rookie tournament, and I talked to him about the team’s improved goaltending depth as well as the team’s top prospect between the pipes.
The Panthers had to make some quick decisions this off-season with regard to their most important position on the ice: the goaltender. Roberto Luongo underwent surgery on his hip after suffering an injury early on last season and playing through it the rest of the way.
The front office moved quickly and added Reto Berra in late-June from Colorado in exchange for the once-budding forward Rocco Grimaldi, and they proceeded to sign highly-sought after free-agent James Reimer to a 5-year deal worth $17 million when the market opened on July 1st.
Many have argued that the moves give the Panthers a “1A, 1B” situation in net, where both Luongo and Reimer are both capable of being the starter on any given night.
“By signing Reimer, we really added a ‘1B’ goalie,” agreed Robb Tallas, who’s been with the Panthers for the past 7 years. “Sometimes in the past you really manage the schedule. Now, you can say, ‘Ok, he’s gonna start 1, 2 games and then the third game go right back to the other guy,’ so you can get a good momentum of two guys playing on a consistent basis.”
Over the past few seasons, Reimer has split time with Jonathan Bernier as the Maple Leafs struggled to find a goaltender to play consistently behind their often ineffective group of forwards and defensemen. At the most recent trade deadline, Reimer was dealt to the superior San Jose Sharks where he attained an impressive 1.62 goals-against average and 0.938 save percentage, including 2 shutouts, in 8 total games.
Reto Berra also brings a solid package to the Panthers as he played very well in net for Calgary and Colorado over the past few seasons despite being exposed to a high volume of shot attempts and inconsistent defensive cores.
“We really truly have a ‘1A’ and ‘1B’, and I’m not leaving Berra out of the equation,” said Tallas. “Berra is a young guy, hasn’t played a ton in the NHL, 5-on-5 analytically he’s extremely good, and there’s upside there. Seeing him move on the ice, he’s got excellent lateral movement. There’s a lot of unknowns about him, but you see a lot of potential in him, too.”
At 5v5, Berra ranks first in the NHL among goalies over the past two seasons with a high-danger save percentage of 0.881, which is almost 2 points higher than Carey Price who is second. Berra and Reimer were near the top of the league last season in high-danger save percentage as well, which is a stat that quantifies a goaltender’s ability to save shots taken from high-percentage scoring areas such as around the crease and slot
With there being some uncertainty surrounding Luongo being ready for the start of the upcoming season combined with wanting to keep him more fresh over the course of the long campaign, the Panthers opted to make these moves to stabilize the team’s depth in net, which was admittedly a bit worrisome beyond Al Montoya last season.
“We’ve got two guys that can kind of keep rolling,” said Tallas. “It’s almost like we have one guy extra right now but if something should go wrong anywhere, we’re good.”
Luongo has been working hard to get ready for the new season, and he’s been training in and around the Panthers’ Ice Den for months already since undergoing surgery in May. Most don’t realize how much of a workhorse the veteran goaltender is – he’s usually one of the first players to hit the ice in the summer – and this year, he’s had to put even more effort into getting ready for the season.
“He’s an early bird,” said Tallas. “He’s been at the rink every day since the season ended and he’s put in a lot of time and a lot of effort and he’s really worked extremely hard to get where he’s at.”
The surgery forced even the meticulous Luongo to take things at a much slower pace than he’s used to in order to get back to where he was before the injury, and the fact that he’s “a very controlled, structured goalie” rather than one that relies on flexibility and reflexes had Tallas confident that he’d be able to return from the surgery without any issues.
“In past years, we could get on the ice and work the rust off, get him moving correctly and feeling the puck, and get him going into training camp,” said Tallas. “This year was a real progression; we had to really take steps back as far as slowing it down, working on his skating, working on his movement, and then starting to bring the pucks in and the timing in.”
“I’m telling you right now, if anybody came here in July and saw him drive in and the effort that he’s put in to get where he’s at is absolutely amazing.”
He explained that going into the offseason, the Panthers had a goal of figuring out how to get Luongo more rest over the course of the season in order to “get even more out of him” even though Luongo boasts an impressive 0.933 save percentage at 5v5 over the past two years. Last season, Tallas says they planned for him to play about 55 games, but injuries forced Montoya to miss time, adding unplanned starts to Luongo’s schedule and taking away rest that he and the team hoped he’d be able to get.
While planning a schedule for a number 1 goalie and a backup is easy, Tallas says, he does acknowledge that there can be some difficulties when it comes to getting two number 1-capable goaltenders – like Luongo and Reimer – the right amount of starts. Fortunately, he has some experience with this type of situation from the Panthers’ 2011-12 season.
Said Tallas: “I dealt with this before when I had Theodore and [Clemmensen] together where both guys played a lot of games that year. It becomes a bit more difficult because now you don’t want to leave one guy hanging where he’s not playing and now he’s getting into the game and he’s feeling cold. He’s not feeling more of a consistent basis where he’s getting the games in and feeling confident.”
What these offseason acquisitions also did for the Panthers is bolster goaltending depth, and it creates a type of competition that the team has almost never had at that position. After Luongo, the Panthers have Reimer, Berra, Mike McKenna, Sam Brittain, and Colin Stevens who have all played pro hockey. Last year, that 3rd spot was a real question mark because although McKenna is a solid AHL performer, his time at the NHL level is almost non-existent while Brittain has never played a game here.
McKenna was very reliable for the Panthers’ former AHL affiliate Portland Pirates this past season posting a 2.45 goals-against average and a 0.921 save percentage to go along with a career-high 33 wins in 55 games played an All-Star honors. He was recalled to the NHL squad at the end of February on an emergency basis after Montoya became injured, but McKenna’s stay was short-lived as the Panthers’ back-up returned shortly after.
“We’ve got solid goaltending throughout our organization,” Tallas says. “We’ve got a lot of depth and now we can have a young guy come in and he’s gonna work hard for it, nothing’s gonna be given to him.”
Tallas also says that this new-found depth can make the Panthers appear crowded at the goaltending position from the outside, but he also feels that it’s necessary in order to create competition in the lineup and throughout the system while also providing a safety net should anything go wrong at any time.
He went on to admit that in the past, the team would rush goaltenders and other position players to the pros if they performed well for a bit and there was an open spot, a situation which sounds a lot like that of Jacob Markstrom who, for years, was billed as the Panthers’ goaltender of the future. The Panthers have a lot of depth at the pro level right now, and that means they can afford to let their younger prospects develop, and one of those is Sam Montembeault, a 19-year old goaltender whom the organization has high hopes for.
“He’s an excellent young goalie prospect,” said Tallas without hesitation. “The big thing is not to rush him. I think it’s really important that we look at what’s best for him, and I think we’re in a situation now where we don’t have to look at what’s best for us.”
“He’s incredibly strong at catching pucks across his body, and once he does that, he controls the play now. He can get the puck moving or take a whistle, and that’s a huge part of his game.”
Tallas wouldn’t say whether Montembeault, who signed his entry-level contract in May, would return to his junior team for his final year of eligibility or turn pro, but he did make it clear that the team wants him to get as much playing time as possible. With the Panthers being so deep up top, the Quebec-native probably wouldn’t see enough time at any level aside from juniors. Not only that, but playing in the QMJHL enables him to face a lot more shots compared to other leagues, so putting him up against a higher level of competition isn’t as big of a deal.
“With that contract, I can play in the [AHL] next year which I would like,” said Montembeault at the Panthers’ development camp in July. “When Pierre Groulx was still here, I used to talk with him on the phone and he was talking to me about both options. He said there was good and bad of me going back to junior or [playing in the AHL], but we’ll see. I gotta see in September what [the Panthers’] decision will be.”
I’ve covered Montembeault extensively in his first season as a prospect of the Panthers and I’ve been nothing but impressed with his abilities having watched him on several occasions. If you’re interested in finding out more about him, you can check out my overview of him here and his season review here.
Elsewhere in the system, the Panthers have Sam Brittain and Colin Stevens, and both could be running out of time to make an impression on the Panthers’ brass. Brittain served as McKenna’s back-up for the entire season in the AHL, and while he was good at times, he was not-so-good at others. The 23-year old went 8-10-1 with a 2.79 goals-against average, 0.906 save percentage and 3 shutouts, and having watched several Portland games throughout the season, it was apparent that the team played much better in front of McKenna than they did Brittain.
Considering he’s someone who is became used to playing on a consistent basis – whether it was as a starter at the University of Denver or in the ECHL during the 2014-15 season – Brittain didn’t get that same time this past season, and that could be what caused him to struggle at times. Despite that, he’s a pretty decent goaltender, and his frame and mobility – which is reminiscent of Jean-Sebastien Giguere – allows him to cover the net well, especially down low. Brittain was signed to a 1-year deal this offseason, so he’s back in the fold for now at least.
Stevens shared time in the Manchester Monarchs’ net with two other goaltenders. At the end of the year – his first in professional hockey – he had compiled a 15-9-2 record, a 2.77 goals-against average, and a 0.908 save percentage to go with 2 shutouts. Like Brittain, he was very inconsistent but did get a majority of the starts, which is somewhat surprising considering the two other goaltenders, Doug Carr and Michael Houser, have more pro experience than Stevens. The 23-year old is entering the final year of a 2-year contract he signed in March of 2015.
Ryan Bednard, who was drafted in the 7th-round of the 2015 Draft, spent the past season in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms, where he recorded a 2.38 goals-against average (good for 8th in the league) and a 0.918 save percentage (7th in the league) as a rookie in 39 games. Although he’s still fairly raw, he’s got really good size at 6’5″, 200 pounds, and his positioning is above-average. Both of those things will help tremendously as he makes the transition to NCAA hockey this upcoming season at Bowling Green State University, a team that has an starter opening between the pipes.
Evan Cowley was the Panthers’ lone goalie playing college hockey last season, and his year at the University of Denver was an interesting one. Despite a solid 20-game campaign during the 2014-15 season which saw him post noticeably better numbers compared to starting goaltender Tanner Jaillet, Cowley was relegated to the role of back-up this season.
In 16 games, he recorded an impressive 2.07 goals-against average, 0.929 save percentage, and 3 shutouts while Jaillet achieved lower numbers and the same amount of shutouts in 15 more games. He is an athletic goaltender with good mobility and a quick glove hand, and there’s certainly a chance he could become an NHL goaltender in the future, however it is unclear why he didn’t get the time he probably deserved given his performance.
Before Roberto Luongo returned to the Panthers in a blockbuster deal at the 2014 trade deadline, the Panthers struggled between the pipes. The list of starters – which featured names like Tim Thomas and Jacob Markstrom – was lackluster and the lack of depth doomed the Panthers on many occasions. Over the last several years, however, the organization has added goaltenders to the system through the draft and free-agent signings, and the re-addition of Luongo really brought stability to the crease while also buying the Panthers some time to identify their starter of the future.
It’s widely known that goaltenders are incredibly tough to project when it comes to potential mostly due to the nature of the position and the fact that they have longer development curves. In the past, the Panthers have struggled mightily to identify goaltending talent with names like Sergei Gayduchenko, Marc Cheverie, David Shantz, and Brian Foster struggling to make it anywhere in the hockey world.
Since 2010, the Panthers have slowly added more viable goaltending prospects to the system like Sam Brittain, Evan Cowley, Ryan Bednard, and Samuel Montembeault. Of course, not all of these prospects will become starting goaltenders in the NHL – or even back-ups – but the quality of the goaltenders chosen has improved and there’s certainly the potential for at least 2 of them to join the big club at some point in the future.
The Panthers realize that they have yet another chance to not just make the playoffs, but to go far and give their opponents a run for their money. This is a team that saw first hand this past April how goaltending can win a playoff series, so it’s clear they realize the importance of having a strong plan in place between the pipes.
“We look at our team, we look at us as definitely a playoff team,” said Tallas. “We look at us as a real contending team and we can’t afford to go down, especially a major piece of the position in goaltending, a month or two. Even though [Luongo] is healthy now, to lose him we need not just one guy to step up, but two guys to step up and help us to make sure we’re getting into those playoffs.”