If there’s anyone that had their work cut out for them coming into this year’s Carolina Hurricanes training camp, it’s goalie coach Mike Bales.
Goaltending has been an Achilles heel for the Canes for years, and the team bottomed out last season with the worst team save percentage in the NHL, when simply league-average goaltending would have gotten them into the playoffs.
Coming into 2018-19, the Canes’ hopes rest on two goalies needing a bounce back after sub-optimal performances last season in Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek. So far, so good on that front, as each has give up just one total goal in the preseason thus far.
“I think both guys have had strong camps to this point,” Bales said. “Both guys have looked really good in practice and strong in the games. It’s just one of those situations where we’re evaluating everything day to day and there’s been no decisions made on opening night.”
The Canes’ decision making process to fix their goaltending started with deciding what to do with Darling. After the team signed him to a four-year, $16.6 million deal last summer to be its starting goalie, Darling was statistically one of the worst goalies in hockey.
That raised speculation about the possibility of a buyout or a trade with retained salary, neither of which would have been an ideal solution. Instead, the Canes decided to work with Darling, charging him with spending the summer training with strength coach Bill Burniston to come in to camp in better shape. And that’s exactly what he did.
“For [Darling], obviously with him coming back, his biggest thing was to get back into shape from where he was two years ago,” Bales said. “He came into camp this year; he was 25 pounds lighter. He put in a lot of work this summer, and you can see on the ice how much quicker he is and how much work he can into practice and be able to sustain his practice habits. So far, as the goaltending goes, practice habits are of utmost importance. They need to practice like they’re going to play. For [Darling], that was something that we talked about and he obviously came back to camp in shape, ready to go.”
For Darling, Bales has been instrumental in getting him through a tough season and helping him prepare for what should be better days ahead.
“He’s been great,” Darling said. “We’ve known each other for a long time. Last year I definitely made his job a little bit harder. It’s nice to have him in your corner after a season like that.”
Next up was what to do with longtime starter Cam Ward, who played admirably for stretches last season in what has supposed to be his first year as a clear-cut backup. The Canes opted to move in a different direction, and Ward signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent.
“Cam was here for a long time,” Bales said. “Obviously one of the pillars of this organization for a lot of years. There was a lot of discussion on how to handle it. At the end of the day, it was management’s decision to figure out what they wanted to do. Cam obviously had a great offer in Chicago and it’s a pretty good fit for him there.”
That, of course, meant the team needed a replacement for Ward, and someone who could push Darling for starts if needed. In a free agent market with very limited options, the Canes signed former Red Wings and Flyers goalie Petr Mrazek to a one-year deal.
It’s a low-risk, high-reward gamble, as while Mrazek is coming off a rough few seasons, he flashed his potential two seasons ago with a 27-16-6 record, .921 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
“Petr’s had some very successful seasons in the NHL,” Bales said. “He’s still fairly young and he’s a guy with some potential there for upside too. Maybe be a number one if things work out for him. We looked at his talent level, what he’s done in the past and thought that there’s an opportunity for him to get back to that level again. It was a good fit for us.”
That’s a lot of promise in net for the Canes, but also a big gamble with the season both players had last year. Fortunately for Carolina, Bales’ approach should be able to help both players reach their potential.
“I always say I try to make them the best version of themselves,” Bales said. “I’m not a guy that comes in and says, ‘You have to do it this way, you have to play that way.’ I’m just [trying to find] what works best, find some weaknesses in their game and try to improve that but also emphasize their strengths and get them to play to their strengths.”
Bales brings a lot of experience to the table in his second season as the Hurricanes’ goalie coach. He previously spent four seasons in that role for the Pittsburgh Penguins working with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, including during the Pens’ Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and ‘17.
Bales also played in the NHL for parts of four seasons with the Bruins and Senators. That experience, along with the successful goalies he’s worked with, has taught Bales how to get the most out of the netminders he coaches.
“The biggest thing is, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with human beings,” Bales said. “Everybody has a different personality. You have to learn to adapt and find whatever it is that makes them tick and be able to get through to them. As much as there’s obviously a lot of technical stuff in the game, especially on the goaltending side, there’s also the human factor. You have to take all of that into account when you’re dealing with a player.”
Another tool to help Bales this year will be the complete trust of the Canes’ new bench boss. Rod Brind’Amour can use his playing experience to help players train better, teach centers how to win faceoffs, how to play a strong two-way game, etc.
How to help a goalie through his daily routine and preparations? Not so much. Brind’Amour leaves that to Bales.
“I stay out of it, to be honest with you, on the goalie stuff,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s not my deal; I didn’t play goalie. I kind of leave it up to those guys. I’ve got a lot of faith that he knows what’s going on.”
So, what’s the plan for the goalie splits this year? Ultimately, that’s up to Darling and Mrazek, but the hope is that each goalie plays up to his potential to give the Canes a tandem that can lead the team to its first playoff appearance since 2009.
“In an ideal world, both guys are playing great and they’re both going to play,” Bales said. “And then it would be a 1A and 1B but at the end of the day it’s performance that’s going to dictate who gets the playing time. Both goaltenders are aware of it. It’s an open competition from training camp right through to the end of the season. There’s no preconceived notion about who’s getting what. Nothing’s written in stone for sure, and these guys will just go out and battle it out everyday. Hopefully both of them are playing well and they’ll both get to play.”