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Allaire's influence paying early dividends Add to ...

Goalie guru Francois Allaire's first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs ended up being one to forget.

So, when the time came last spring, he helped lead the search for new recruits.

The veteran goalie coach, regarded by many in the NHL as the best in the business, first landed with the Leafs in June of 2009, leaving the Anaheim Ducks to join his former boss in Brian Burke. Year 1 under Allaire, however, ended with the Leafs posting an .892 team save percentage, last in the league by a large margin and one of the worst marks of any team in the past decade.

Personnel was a major part of the problem. In Vesa Toskala, the Leafs' new goalie whisperer had a veteran starter who wasn't keen on hearing his message and the marriage was doomed from the start. The team's backup plan in rookie Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson, meanwhile, hit several speed bumps in the form of injuries and inconsistency.

It really wasn't until Burke landed Jean-Sébastien Giguère, with Toronto already firmly in the basement, that things finally turned around.

Finding more depth in goal became a key part of the off-season game plan for both Burke and Allaire, and the two teamed up to scout and recruit top talent. In April, Burke made his moves, signing two of the top prospects available in Finnish behemoth Jussi Rynnas and Cornell University star Ben Scrivens.

In both cases, Allaire was the key, as they found two pupils eager to spend time in the minors under his watch.

"This is all about Francois," Burke said from the team's rookie tournament, where Rynnas started in a 6-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks' prospects on Saturday night and Scrivens was in goal for a 2-1 loss on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins' youngsters.

"The fact we have him on staff, that's why Ben Scrivens signed here, that's why Monster signed here and that's why The Bus signed here. It's not my charm, I know that."

For the uninitiated, "The Bus" is Burke's pet name for Rynnas, a name stemming from his ability to park himself in front of and take up the entire net with his massive 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame.

Along with 22-year-old prospect James Reimer, who played well in 26 games with the Toronto Marlies before suffering a serious high-ankle sprain last season, Gustavsson, Rynnas and Scrivens are viewed as the future of the organization in goal.

They're all projects, to varying degrees, but Burke is confident Allaire can guide at least some of them to success at the NHL level - just like he did in Anaheim with Giguère, Ilya Bryzgalov and Jonas Hiller.

Allaire said he believes the organization's goaltending depth is vastly superior to what he had to work with a year ago.

"No doubt about that," he said. "At the end of the camp last year, we knew we had some problems at the position for sure. This year I feel we really have a good level of goaltending anywhere in the organization. We're way deeper than we were."

Rynnas is the most intriguing goalie of the bunch given his sudden rise. Never considered one of Finland's elite netminders at the junior level, he was playing in the second and third divisions as recently as two years ago in his hometown of Pori.

Rynnas's first shot at the top level (SM-liiga) came last season, and he excelled on a terrible Assat team, posting a .929 save percentage while facing nearly 40 shots a night. One of the Leafs' European scouts, Thommie Bergman, alerted the organization to his play during the season, and Allaire liked what he saw in the enormous, raw 22-year-old.

"Francois said we have to go after this guy hard," Burke said.

The Leafs did and ultimately beat out nearly 20 other NHL teams for his services, wooing the young goalie by having Burke meet with him overseas and sell him on spending at least one year on a modest $67,500 (U.S.) salary with the Marlies.

Rynnas said on the weekend that the biggest reason he wanted to play in Toronto was to work with Allaire, calling himself a "late-bloomer" with a lot to learn.

Burke said he feels they have found prospects who have the right attitude to develop under Allaire's strict and unrelenting system.

"The Francois Allaire path to stardom is not an easy one," Burke said. "They work like dogs, these goalies with him. And a goalie who doesn't buy in doesn't get better."

"All the guys we got in the system, it's all [young]guys with a lot of upside," Allaire added. "We're not at the end of the road. There's a long one to go in front of them."

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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