LAS VEGAS — Over the course of a 14-year NHL career, even the most steady, levelheaded goaltender suffers the occasional slip-up.
In a pre-season drill last fall, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had joined the expansion team from the Pittsburgh Penguins, vented his anger after allowing a series of goals.
Fortunately, Fleury had David Prior on his side.
One part father figure, another part psychologist, Prior has made a career of helping the league’s top goaltenders channel their emotions in the right direction. So when Fleury slammed his stick to the ice in frustration, Prior took him aside to provide some reassurance.
“He said it doesn’t matter — they have no one on them,” Fleury said outside his locker Wednesday. “They have time to shoot from the slot. They won’t have that luxury in games. If you keep doing the right things in practice, it will show up.”
While Prior has made tweaks to Fleury’s game, it is his mental approach that has had the most discernible effect on the former No. 1 overall pick’s resurgence in the desert. Entering Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Monday against the Winnipeg Jets, Fleury has a 1.74 goals-against average in 11 playoff games, along with a .943 save percentage. He leads the league in both categories.
A more detailed analysis of Fleury’s performance quantifies Prior’s impact. Facing 182 low percentage shots through two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Fleury made stops on all 182 attempts, according to data from Clear Sight Analytics. The trend underscores a Prior maxim that he has imparted on goaltenders for more than three decades: Stay patient and force the shooter to beat you with an exceptional shot.
“The way Fleury is playing right now, pounding the net with a high volume of low percentage shots would be doing him a favour by walking right into the strongest part of his game at the moment,” said Todd Higgins, vice president and chief operating officer with Clear Sight Analytics.
Such exquisite goaltending may have been difficult to predict around this time last year. Fleury, now 33, had lost the Penguins’ starting job to Matt Murray. Even after Fleury ably filled in for an injured Murray in the early rounds of the playoffs, Murray regained the No. 1 role during the Eastern Conference finals and helped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
But Fleury had a supporter in Prior when the Golden Knights worked feverishly to construct a roster before last June’s expansion draft. Prior wanted Vegas to choose Fleury over Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whom Prior mentored in Washington.
Fleury, who was on three Stanley Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh, was the No. 1 pick in the expansion draft, and immediately became the face of the new franchise.
“He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way they’re playing the game,” Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said of Prior. “He really advocated for him in our meetings and thought he could make him even better.”
McPhee’s relationship with Prior dates to their upbringing in Guelph, Ont., a small manufacturing city about an hour southwest of Toronto. While Prior’s playing career stalled in the junior ranks, McPhee captured the 1982 Hobey Baker Award, given to the best player in NCAA men’s hockey, then appeared in 115 NHL games with the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils through 1989. Prior, a fan of the Maple Leafs teams of the 1960s, which included famed goalie Johnny Bower, developed an eye for spotting burgeoning young goaltenders while spending seven seasons with the NHL’s Central Scouting bureau.
The two reconnected in Washington years later when McPhee, then the Capitals’ general manager, hired Prior as the team’s goaltending coach before the 1997-98 season. There, Prior helped revitalize the career of Olaf Kolzig, a peripatetic goaltender who spent the better half of his first eight years as a pro in the minors.
Using a Zen-like approach, Prior instilled the confidence in Kolzig that he could raise his game to an elite level. Prior also moved Kolzig deeper into the crease in an effort to rein in some of his aggressiveness. The minor adjustments resulted in Kolzig’s first appearance in the NHL All-Star Game.
But when Kolzig dropped five games in a row after the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, his confidence began to wane.
So, Kolzig said, Prior spliced together a clip of every goal surrendered by Kolzig over the losing streak. As the coach and pupil watched the film session, Kolzig came to the realization that the majority of the goals were not his fault. Kolzig won seven of his next eight games as the Capitals prepared for the post-season.
Kolzig then went toe to toe with the Buffalo Sabres’ Dominik Hasek in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals. He outplayed the future Hall of Famer as the Caps prevailed in six games to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the only time in franchise history. By that point, Prior had earned the nickname Moses in the Caps’ locker room.
“I’m sure a lot of people in the organization looked at it as if Moses resurrected a former first-round pick,” Kolzig said.
Prior worked for the Capitals until 2013, and was also a coach for the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Jets. He was among the first coaches hired by the Golden Knights, more than a year before they played their first game.
Prior faced a big challenge early in the team’s first season when Fleury missed nearly two months with a concussion. During Fleury’s absence, Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk were 16-8-1, prompting McPhee to anoint Prior as one of the league’s top goalie coaches.
One of Prior’s top qualities, Subban said, is his ability to bring out a goaltender’s natural talents, rather than to require him to drastically alter his technique.
Under Prior, Kolzig and Braden Holtby won the Vezina Trophy, given annually to the league’s top goaltender. The Golden Knights did not make Prior available for an interview for this article.
Victories by the Golden Knights and the Capitals in their conference finals would set up a matchup against Prior’s old team with the Stanley Cup on the line.
“If we don’t win the Cup, I certainly hope Dave and George do,” said Kolzig, who is the Capitals’ professional development coach. “I think what they’ve done is one of the greatest stories in sports.”