Jake Allen has been pulled in each of his past three starts and is mired in the worst slump of his career. But what causes a goaltender to hit a rough patch and how do they go about correcting it?
The recent difficulties facing Jake Allen have been well documented. Over the past month, he’s allowed 14 goals against in five appearances and he’s been pulled in each of his past three starts. None of those outings have been quite as agonizing as Allen’s attempt to right the ship on Thursday night, though.
Against the Capitals, Allen stepped in hoping to bounce back from three consecutive outings in which he served as Carter Hutton’s backup, but the night got away from Allen early. He allowed two goals on the first three shots against and, in a move rarely seen since Mike Keenan’s heyday behind an NHL bench, was pulled for little more than two minutes before going back into play. In the second, Allen allowed another two goals in less than eight minutes and was yanked again, this time for good.
Allen’s recent stretch of dreadful starts has seen him allow 13 goals against on 64 shots in roughly 129 minutes of play, and it’s getting to the point where the Blues are simply looking for an answer when it comes to Allen. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the team needs to find a way to “unlock” the 26-year-old.
But what goes through the mind of a goaltender who’s struggling to sometimes make even the most routine of saves?
“After a couple of screw ups, it’s common to try and play it safer, hang back and be hesitant,” said Matt Cuccaro, a performance coach with Telos SPC. “For someone to stay on their toes and continue to move well and be more assertive in those moments is key…You have to be willing to be that last man on the line and possibly let a few in the net.”
Being hesitant and failing to make plays quicker can undoubtedly lead to more mistakes. As those mistakes pile up, some athletes can deal with the difficulty of letting their errors go. Sports psychologist John Stevenson, whose stable of netminders includes Braden Holtby, said it’s not uncommon for a goaltender mired in a slump to start to feel the losses more than they should.
“A lot of guys take it personally as opposed to realizing it’s not a reflection on them,” said Stevenson. “But let’s just work on the on-ice behaviour that we’re seeing right now and address it. That’s what I try and do with the guys. They realize that it’s OK, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Getting back to a run of good play can be difficult for even the best goaltenders. An important thing to realize, however, is that there are supports in place. Cuccaro said one of the most important things is the understanding that the sport itself isn’t “a solitary endeavor.” Athletes can lean on teammates, coaches and even outside sources to fight through difficult periods. And Stevenson agreed, pointing to something as simple as a tap on the pads or some words of encouragement as something that can help a goaltender shake a bad loss.
One of the most important tools, though, is getting back to basics and finding a positive headspace. Stevenson explained that during his goalie coaching days he’d perform drills with the goaltenders that he knew they excelled at or enjoyed. He’d do that even if the drill itself wasn’t correcting an issue plaguing the goaltender. Simple things like puck tracking drills or goal-setting can help, too. The confidence boost from a strong performance in a drill could sometimes be enough to shake them out of trouble.
Another of Stevenson’s methods is goal-setting, and it can be especially helpful after a bad game. If a goalie can point to a few tough goals against and indicate how they’d correct that mistake, it can help reframe the experience as a positive, a way to learn. And when it comes to positive thinking, that should be the case regardless of the result.
“You have to treat winning and losing the same,” Stevenson said. “For the goalies I work with the first thing we do is always focus on what you did well. Last night, I would be talking to Jake and telling him he went back in. There’s always something. ‘You had some really good days of practice, your pre-game routine was really good.’ Always start off with what they did well.”
And in the darkest of days, it can help to take it out of the goaltender’s hands and show them the positives. A simple highlight reel that shows a goaltender performing at his best, making saves in different scenarios and situations, can reinforce the idea that a slump is only that: a slump. “That’s something I do all the time because I want them to know this isn’t who they are,” Stevenson said. “When you’re giving them that (positive) image, it helps tremendously.”
Sam Gagner struggled in consecutive years heading into 2016-17, but the adversity helped him get tougher and his belief he could still contribute has led to a bounce back season in Columbus.
There was a point during the 2015-16 season where it looked like Sam Gagner’s time in the NHL could be over. On a middling Philadelphia Flyers squad, Gagner was mired in the bottom-six, demoted to the AHL for a stint and finished the campaign having been in and out of the lineup while producing the worst point total of his big league career.
Worst of all, Gagner, 26, was supposed to be in his prime. The sixth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Gagner had consistently been a 40-plus point player and everything looked as though it was coming together in the lockout-shortened year when he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. But having followed that up with a 37-point campaign in 2013-14, Gagner found himself out of Edmonton, the only NHL city he had known, and on his way to Arizona come 2014-15.
Gagner’s points per game dropped for the second-straight season during his year with the Coyotes, and when he was shipped to Philadelphia ahead of the 2015-16 season, it was seen as another chance at a fresh start. Instead, it was one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
“It’s always hard to go through those struggles,” Gagner said of the consecutive down years in Arizona and Philadelphia. “But I truly believe that if you handle them the right way, the adversity can help shape you and help make you stronger. I feel like coming into this year I’m a lot stronger mentally than I maybe have been in the past.”
And if mental strength has been the biggest change in Gagner’s game, the 27-year-old might want to think about entering his brain into a strongman competition because the changes in Gagner’s play — and, most notably, his production — have been remarkable.
Entering the off-season as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he landed a one-year, show-me deal with the Blue Jackets. It pays $650,000, which is more than $4 million less than Gagner had earned during the 2015-16 campaign. Gagner couldn’t care less about that, though, because he only wanted the shot at showing his game hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I still felt like I had a lot to give as a player and if I was able to get some opportunity, that I could help a team be successful,” Gagner said. “I think coming into Columbus, I got the chance to do that, I’m playing some really important power play minutes and in a lot of different situations. It’s definitely helped me add another level to my game, and it’s been a good fit.”
Good fit? There’s an understatement. The Blue Jackets, looking for someone to produce in the bottom-six and possibly push some of the youngsters to earn their place in the top-six, called on Gagner and he’s been dynamite. Through 45 games, his 14 goals and 33 points have him on pace for the best offensive season of his career. It’s been eye-opening for those thinking Gagner’s time as a productive player int he NHL was over. Least surprised of anyone, though, is Gagner, who said he expected this of himself and knew he put the work in to make it a reality.
“I feel confident in my game,” Gagner continued. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows during a season in terms of offense and whether the puck goes in the net or not, but it’s just a matter of staying consistent with it and having a proper mindset. A lot of the struggles in the past help you with that mindset.”
Gagner’s focus is shifting as the season progresses, however. While maintaining consistency in his game, he wants to help the Blue Jackets take the next step forward. For the organization, that's going to mean not just a playoff appearance, but actually winning a round. And a Blue Jackets team that went on an unthinkable 16-game win streak has designs on a deep run.
Going on a month-long winning streak has no bearing on playoff success, to be sure, and there has been bumps in the road since Columbus’ win streak ended. Though if there’s anyone familiar with turning a tough time into a period of success, it’s Gagner.
“You learn a lot about your team in a streak like that, and I think all that pressure that comes on you when you start to build up those wins, that only helps you come playoff time,” Gagner said. “I think it was a good thing for us, and now you go through a little adversity and fight your way through it. It’s all part of an 82-game schedule, and you learn from everything.”
In applications to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, the CHL describes itself as "professional." That might prove crucial in deciding if a class-action lawsuit can proceed.
When the Canadian Hockey League tries to convince the courts that its players are amateur athletes and not paid professionals, and therefore don’t deserve minimum wage, it may want to consult its own application for trademark with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.
First, the news. None of this will be decided for another couple of weeks, Feb. 7 to be exact. That’s the day a Calgary judge will make a couple of crucial decisions. The first one will be whether the CHL will be granted a sealing order over all financial records, some of which the CHL made public media last week. The hearing for that was supposed to be held Tuesday, but has been pushed to Feb. 7, the same day the judge will decided if the plaintiffs have grounds to proceed with a class-action lawsuit.
Now, the context. The crucial question here is whether junior hockey players are amateurs or pros. Part of that answer might be contained in the CHL’s trademark application to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, a document that is being used as part of another lawsuit in which the CHL is involved involving a trademark issue. The trademark was last renewed in 2014.
Here’s a list of all the goods to which the CHL applied to be able to trademark: Coffee mugs, shot glasses, drinking glasses, flat glass, water bottles, bubble gum, bubble gum cards, trading cards, hockey cards, buttons, caps, hats, gloves, hockey pucks, sponge pucks, picture pucks, jackets, mitts, pennants, scarves, shirts, jerseys, sleep wear, stickers, bumper stickers, toques, vests, running shoes, jean shirts, t-shirts, neon t-shirts, shirts, muscle shirts, crew neck shirts, cut off sleeve shirts, sweat pants, sweat shorts, bunny jackets, v-neck sweaters, shorts, hockey t-shirts, sweaters, pants, jackets, tank tops, badges, sew-on crests, stick-on crests, hockey sticks, goalie sticks, hockey uniforms, hockey jerseys, hockey pants, hockey gloves, socks, dolls, toy figures, cardboard collector board, board games, opera glasses (binoculars), sunglasses, paper weight holders, cartoon comic books, magazines, greeting cards, autograph sets, lithographs, posters, sports bags, wallets, rod hockey games, towels, adhesive bandages, first aid kits, bulletin boards, calculators, clocks, lamp shades, calendars, embroidered picture frames, magnets, neck warmers, oil dip stick cleaners, playing cards, stained glass window ornaments, sun visor radios, sweat bands, vinyl stickers, wood plaques, wristbands, infants’ and children’s short sets, leisure suits, shots, sweat shirts, turtlenecks, belts, buckles, coasters, ear muffs, flags, inexpensive jewelry, namely lapel pins, stick pins, pendants, charms, earrings, rings, tie racks, cuff links, leather bracelets, key fobs/key chains, foam fingers, noise makers, place mats, towels, watches, phone cards, hip pouches, knapsacks, license plate frames, miniature bells, money clips, spoons, pens, pencils, bottle cap openers, soap (namely deodorant soap, skin soap, toilet soap and liquid soaps for hand, face and body), game of hockey played with cards, radio earphones, videos, video games, arcade and pinball machines, snack foods (namely ice cream, hot dogs, soft drinks, hamburgers, candy and popcorn).
Wow, that’s thorough. Because you never know when every man in the world is going to lose his mind and begin using leisure suits as a fashion statement. As thorough as it was, though, under the Services portion of the application, the CHL is responsible for, “(1) Operation of a hockey league and entertainment services through participation in professional and amateur ice hockey contests, and promotion and benefit thereof…”
Hmmm. Professional and amateur ice hockey contests? Not exactly sure what that means, but you’d have to think the word professional gives you an idea of what the CHL thinks of its players. I mean, the word is right there, isn’t it? Professionals are not amateurs.
Another area that would go a long way to making a distinction would be whether or not the players receive earning statements such as T4 slips. Well, there’s where the picture gets murky. It seems players did receive them in the past, but in the past few years the standard player contract has been altered to reflect that players are being “reimbursed” or paid an “allowance” to offset their expenses of playing junior hockey. But according to one agent who is also a lawyer, the semantics might not matter.
“This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised,” said Anton Thun, who has represented OHL players for about 25 years. “The definition is something that is relevant, but I would say it would go by however it would be defined by the Employee Standards Act. And part of the problem is, the employment laws might be different if you play for the Erie Otters or the Flint Firebirds than they would be if you play in Ontario.”
The good thing is, there’s only two more weeks of sleeps before we might start getting some answers to these questions.
The numbers released by the CHL would have you believe minimum wage for players would cripple some teams. But we need a lot more information.
In an effort to get out in front of the story and win the case in the court of public opinion, the Canadian Hockey League last night released some of the financial information it had previously been trying to keep from the prying eyes of everyone outside its inner circle. It’s a curious move to say the least. And when you look at the numbers, you get the sense that the CHL is cherry picking on the same level as an out-of-shape beer leaguer who constantly hangs out at the opponent’s blueline.
The CHL has crafted its message, complete with an expert opinion saying teams would have to consider ceasing operations if they had to pay players minimum wage, giving people just enough information to portray themselves as downtrodden philanthropists interested only in providing entertainment and helping young men realize their NHL dreams, without really telling us where the money trail actually leads. Well played.
For example, if we are to take the numbers of the CHL’s unaudited financial statements provided to an Alberta court for an upcoming lawsuit at face value, then we’re to believe that the Ontario and Western Leagues combined to generate revenues of $136.7 million in 2015, but cannot afford to pay roughly 850 of its employees minimum wage. The WHL claimed revenues of just over $80 million in 2015. The cost to pay the players minimum wage in that league would be about $300,000 per year per team for a total cost of about $6.6 million, which would amount to about 8.25 percent of total revenues.
What business in any part of the real world would be able to claim revenues of more than $136 million, then try to convince people that it couldn’t afford to pay 850 of its employees minimum wage? Welcome to the world of junior hockey where it seems no matter how much money a team makes, its expenses seem to rise at the same rate. How the heck are these people ever expected to make a go of it?
Let’s take the WHL as an example. According to the report done by the accounting firm KPMG, the league’s overall revenues in 2015 were higher in the five years between 2012 and 2016 than they were any other year, but somehow the league managed to lose more money that year than any other year. The numbers say overall league revenues were $80.2 million, with a pre-tax overall loss of just over $2 million. As far as expenses are concerned, $7.5 million went to advertising and promotion, $6.6 million to administration and a whopping $67.5 million to the ubiquitous “other operating expenses.” In fact, in 2015, other operating expenses increased almost $5 million from the previous year, then were cut by more than $6 million in 2016. Even though the WHL managed to trim $6 million in fat from other operating expenses in 2016, it posted a pre-tax profit of only $691,000.
So in order to get the entire picture, we’re really going to need to know what those “other operating expenses” are. And until we know them, we don’t know even close to the entire picture of whether the losses are real or a case of creative accounting. For example, has anyone stopped to ask how exactly the Erie Otters managed to lose $150,000 and be forced into bankruptcy while going to the OHL final and having one of the greatest players in junior hockey history in their lineup? Or how the people who purchased the team didn’t seem to mind forking over $10 million for a supposedly bankrupt, money losing team? It sure makes you wonder about the line in the CHL’s news release that said, “Goals around asset appreciation are lower/limited in the CHL versus other major sporting leagues.” It sure makes you wonder if that’s the case when the Sudbury Wolves can be purchased for $250,000 in the 1980s and sell for $11 million 30 years later, all the while appreciating by 4,400 percent. (And that’s for a team that generally underachieved, missing the playoffs nine of those seasons and one that plays in an antiquated building that needs to be replaced.) Franchise values and the fact that these teams are sold for many millions of dollars has to be part of the equation here.
The CHL earlier this year scoffed at a report the defense had done by a sports economist who had no access to its numbers because the league refused to provide them. That economist used economic modelling instead of creative accounting. Then the league releases a report from their sports economics expert that is based on financial records only it was allowed to see. Which one is more accurate? Well, it’s hoped we’ll find that out after the sides meet next week to determine whether the full financial picture can be made public, not just snippets of it.
Until then, a lot of this is white noise that should be taken with a mountain’s worth of salt.