Quality goaltending in Vancouver has become as reliable as rain in February on the west coast.
What started with the club’s fateful trade for Roberto Luongo in 2006 accelerated further during goaltending coach Roland ‘Rollie’ Melanson’s tenure. In the five-and-a-half seasons since Melanson was hired, Canucks goaltenders—and there have been a lot of them—have combined to stop 91.7 per cent of all shots faced. That’s the third best mark in the league.
The Vancouver Canucks have developed homegrown talent under Melanson’s watch, from highly-touted first-round pick Cory Schneider to a previously unknown and undrafted free agent in Eddie Lack. Experienced veterans like Luongo and Ryan Miller worked with Melanson to refine and modernize their technique.
And this season, Melanson has helped Jacob Markstrom – once a highly-regarded prospect who came into this year with a career save percentage south of .900 – unlock his potential.
That the Canucks have managed to get so much out of so many different goaltenders sets the club apart from the other teams that have enjoyed elite-level goaltending over the past half-decade, like the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Montreal Canadiens. Where those teams have seen one key star throughout that time frame, the Canucks have had four different starting goaltenders.
Melanson’s technical preferences are somewhat rigid – he likes his goalies to play with their skates firmly in the blue paint, ideally at a three-quarters depth – but he’s had to be flexible to cater to the wide variety of aptitudes and personalities that he’s coached.
“I adjust to them,” Melanson says. “We start tweaking at little things from a gradual stand point.
“When (Miller) came here he was very aggressive… I let him play his own game for the first couple of months and then we started tweaking a few little things and trying to clean some things up.”
Miller is an old-school technician, a goaltender who, in his owns words, “lives and dies” at the top of his crease. The 35-year-old veteran is still making aggressive reads when challenging shooters, but he’s changed the way he moves east-west across his crease to be more angled toward the post. He’s also on his feet for more saves on in-zone play, which allows him to get into his post-integration techniques more fluidly.
“When you’re looking at it from one perspective for a long time and you can shift and look at it from a different perspective, you can pick up some things,” Miller said of working with Melanson. “The last year and a half has been trying to blend his perspective with what I’ve learned about myself and trying to build that into my game.”
The wins haven’t quite been there for Miller this year, but his save percentage numbers would strongly suggest that he’s been tougher for shooters to beat.
“You just have to be patient, and we’ve gone over a lot, and I think it’s been a little bit frustrating as far as getting the wins this year, but (the work we’ve done) has translated a little more this year than last year,” Miller said. “I think I’m playing a more modern game, which is my intention. I just have to keep going.”
While Melanson has done well to develop blue-chip goaltenders and help veteran goalies update their game, if Markstrom can continue to play the way he has in 20 starts so far this season, he may well be Melanson’s Mona Lisa.
Acquired in 2014, Markstrom had been unable to put it all together against NHL shooters despite starring at every other level of professional hockey. Of the 81 goaltenders who had played at least 2,000 minutes between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Markstrom’s .896 save percentage ranked 78th.
When he first arrived in Vancouver, he didn’t play much. He just worked with Melanson everyday. He was effectively reprogrammed.
“(Melanson) just wanted me to play deep in the net, and me and him talked and I was open to everything,” Markstrom, 26, said. “I was in a position where I was getting traded, and I didn’t play much at all, so for me it was kind of like ‘I’ve got to be open to everything.’
“I’d tell him if I didn’t agree, but I gave everything a chance for sure, and if it could help my game then I’d want to do it.”
One of the key changes that Melanson and Markstrom have worked on is for the 6-foot-5 netminder to lock his elbows tight to his body, with his glove hand in front of him. It’s a more compact stance, designed to help him take advantage of his huge frame and squeeze more pucks.
“We’ve been doing a lot of deflection drills to help keep the elbows tight,” Melanson said. “We know we’re going to give up goals, we just want to give up the right type of goals. We don’t like stuff going through us… If shooters make great shots we’re willing to live with that.
“Markstrom has a really good understanding of that,” he continued. “Where before his adrenaline and (desire) to compete sometimes got him in more trouble than he needed to be. When he was able to learn to play a quiet game and let the game come to him, he learned that he wasn’t burning as much fuel and could be more efficient.”
For Markstrom, it’s been a process that he’s had to learn to trust.
“He’s so passionate in everything he does and believes in everything 100 per cent,” Markstrom said. “When he explains it, it helps you a lot. Even though some stuff the first time I heard it I thought “oh my god, what is this guy talking about”, but then you try it and see the video and experience it in the games and you come to agree. So then it’s so much easier when he says something crazy, to try it on and see how it feels.
“For him getting me to take the next step, he’s helped me for sure.”
Melanson’s current tandem of Miller and Markstrom won’t win the Jennings and neither goaltender will earn a Vezina nomination. The Canucks currently rank 16th in the NHL by save percentage, which is modestly below average. The days of riding Luongo and Schneider are firmly in the past.
Quietly though, the performance of Vancouver’s goaltenders this season is every bit as impressive as what Luongo and Schneider managed during back-to-back President’s Trophy-winning seasons.
Factoring in Vancouver’s far-too-permissive defensive play helps to contextualize what Markstrom and Miller have achieved. The Canucks are currently surrendering scoring chances against at the highest rate of any NHL team, according to war-on-ice.com. The club has still managed an above average save percentage though, partly because Miller and Markstrom both rank in the top-15 in the league by war-on-ice’s high-danger save percentage metric.
So even as Luongo and Schneider and Lack have moved on, Melanson, Miller and Markstrom have managed to extend a golden age of Canucks goaltending.