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Vesa Toskala #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs kicks out a puck during action against the Boston Bruins during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre September 16, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario.(Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images) (Dave Sandford/2009 Getty Images)
Vesa Toskala #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs kicks out a puck during action against the Boston Bruins during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre September 16, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario.(Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images) (Dave Sandford/2009 Getty Images)

Jeff Blair

Goaltending guru has motivated students Add to ...

This morning it will go beyond just good intentions and notes and suggestions and maybe even some pre-conceived notions. This morning, François Allaire will have some evidence of how well Vesa Toskala has healed from a series of surgeries on his hip and groin. He'll know more about Joey MacDonald. He will have videotape.

Even a guru needs to trust his eyes. And for those who have already decided that Toskala's height will work against him co-opting at least a few of Allaire's butterfly style notions?

"It's a concept," the Maple Leafs goaltending consultant said before last night's 3-2 preseason loss to the Boston Bruins. "There's a lot of space for guys to work within it."

This much is known about the Maple Leafs goaltending situation: last year, the team had the worst combined goals-against average in the league, and for all the talk about how much a beefed-up, savvier defence is going to help the team's forwards by freeing up time that was usually spent in their own end, real defensive improvement will require better goaltending.

Allaire laughed when he was asked about the weight of expectations in Toronto. He comes by his guru status largely because of his work with Patrick Roy, whom he met in the mid-80s when Roy played for the Montreal Canadiens' Sherbrooke affiliate. Allaire moved up to the Canadiens and stayed there until the 1995-96 season, during which Roy won three Vézina Trophies and his second of two Stanley Cups.

Allaire moved on to Anaheim, where under his tutelage Jean-Sébestian Giguère won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003 and Jonas Hiller developed enough to push Giguère out of a job. It was in Anaheim where Allaire worked for general manager Brian Burke.

"In Montreal, our first meeting of the year always went the same way - with the president and general manager saying 'Okay, here's how we're going to win the Stanley Cup,'" Allaire said.

"I don't know if that's pressure … but, ah, it sure makes things simple for you."

It is generally conceded that Allaire was brought in mainly to help Jonas Gustavsson, the Swedish free-agent goalie who was widely considered the best goalie not playing in the NHL. Gustavsson, of course, has been sidelined by a non-invasive heart procedure that necessitated an incision through his groin. Toskala started last night and played 24:01 and stopped 14 of 15 shots and his workload this weekend will be determined by how he feels today.

"Been awhile," Toskala said afterward, grinning. "I'm not 100 per cent comfortable yet. But that's normal. I just wanted to have fun, to play again."

Burke describes Gustavsson as a "B-plus," goalie. "What we mean by that is a butterfly-plus guy," Burke said. "Gustavsson plays the butterfly but he is still very athletic but can make saves with his feet or his hands.

"Most guys are butterfly guys. Even the hybrid guys are 80 per cent."

Allaire goes out of his way to avoid being doctrinaire as he discusses his role. His job, he says, is to stress controlled movement - "how, when and where … timing is important," he said. He is a consultant; Corey Hirsch is still listed as goaltending coach.

Toskala is used to a details man overseeing his game: when he was with the San Jose Sharks, he was tutored by the late Warren Strelow, a much-beloved coach who was the mentor of Miracle On Ice hero Jim Craig. "They're different styles," Toskala said.

"But I have a lot of respect for Frankie and what he does. We have to be smart … but for sure there's stuff I can learn."

Allaire stresses that the 'butterfly' style has evolved over time because what passed for a good season 25 years ago no longer does.

"François has two basic elements to his system," said Burke, who refers to Allaire as being - simply - the best. "It's a battery of drills that do two things: make a goalie position conscious at all times, so they never lose their net. It also incorporates a high-level of work, so your goaltenders are in shape.

"His theory is that the butterfly goalie does not make saves; he blocks shots. So your job is to get into position to present the most surface area to the shooter and let the puck hit you and then, hopefully, control the rebound."

Toskala is in a money year (only eight Leafs are under contract for next year.) MacDonald is trying to end his vagabond days, and Gustavsson must surely know that for all the hype around him, he is playing for an organization and a GM that will not be afraid to cut its losses. If nothing else, then, Allaire has motivated students. "I'd be silly not to listen," Toskala said. True, that.

 

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