When the news came out that Dan Cloutier had been hired by the Canucks as a goaltending coach, fans were quick with the jeers, jabs, and jokes. For most Canucks fans, the main memory they have of Cloutier comes from the first round of the 2002 playoffs, when Nicklas Lidstrom scored from centre ice.
That goal broke the 1-1 tie in game three with the Canucks up 2-0 in the series. Detroit would go on to win the game 3-1, the series 4-2, and the Stanley Cup.
In the 2003 playoffs, Cloutier lost his composure in the second round against the Minnesota Wild, going after Dwayne Roloson in a melee at the end of the second period of game five after giving up 6 goals already. The Canucks were up 3-1 in the series at that point; the Wild won that game and the next two to comeback and win the series, scoring 9 goals on Cloutier in the final two games.
In 2004, after the best season of his career, Cloutier was robbed of the chance to make amends for his previous playoff collapses with an ankle injury that took him out of the playoffs. The subsequent NHL lockout took away another opportunity for redemption and injuries ended his 2005-06 season. After that, the Canucks acquired Roberto Luongo and Cloutier was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, leaving his only legacy as a Canuck one of bitter disappointment.
None of that matters one bit when it comes to the Canucks hiring him as a goaltending coach.
A coach’s previous life as a player is almost completely irrelevant to how successful he will be in his next life.
Francois Allaire is one of the greatest goaltending coaches of all time, mentoring Patrick Roy and leading to the “Allaire Style” becoming the standard for goaltending in the 90′s. He may have recently left his position with the Toronto Maple Leafs in an acrimonious way, but he’s respected across the NHL as a goaltending guru. He never played professional hockey. Heck, there’s no evidence available online that he ever played at all.
His brother, Benoit is the goaltending coach of the New York Rangers, and has worked with Henrik Lundqvist since he entered the NHL. Lundqvist, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is very good. Better than that, he’s been consistently good and some credit has to be given to his coach for that. Like his brother, there’s no record of Benoit ever playing either.
Mitch Korn has been presiding over the Nashville Predators goalie factory since 1998, working with Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, and, of course, Pekka Rinne. Prior to joining the Predators organization, he worked with Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Olaf Kolzig, and Martin Biron, giving him one heck of a CV. He briefly played for Kent State University, but never made it into professional hockey, going directly into coaching with KSU.
Former Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark was a major influence on Roberto Luongo from his days with the Panthers. He’s even co-written a book with Roberto’s brother, Leo, as well as one with Dan Cloutier. He’s now the goaltending coach of the Blue Jackets (and I’m sure he’ll be able to do some good work with them as soon as they get an NHL goaltender). The only record of his playing days is the 1983-84 season with the Penticton Knights of the BCJHL, where he played in 26 games, posting a 3.94 GAA and an .875 SV%.
While the ranks of NHL goaltending coaches does include successful NHL players like Bob Essensa, Kirk McLean, Tom Barrasso, and Bill Ranford, there are many more with minimal playing experience at the NHL level. Some bounced between the NHL and AHL, while others played professionally in Europe. Some, like the ones I’ve mentioned here, played a little bit of junior or college hockey, but never went further.
This isn’t limited to goaltending coaches. Alain Vigneault played a grand total of 42 NHL games. Mike Babcock played a couple seasons in the WHL, then 4 years of Canadian university hockey, and one professional season in Britain. Mike Keenan bounced around minor professional and amateur leagues for a few years before moving on to coaching. The legendary Scotty Bowman never played higher than Junior A hockey. Ken Hitchcock didn’t even reach that level.
Someone’s skill at playing hockey is only tangentially related to their skill at coaching hockey. Often the best players don’t make good coaches, with Wayne Gretzky being the prime example. Sometimes, those who can do, can’t coach. It wouldn’t matter if Dan Cloutier was the worst goaltender in NHL history, as long as he can think the position well, is observant enough to spot the problems in a goaltender’s style, and is good at communicating what needs to be corrected.
The fact is that Cloutier wasn’t the worst goaltender in NHL history. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t phenomenal either, but he managed to carve out an 11-year NHL career for himself, with his best years by far being with the Canucks. During that 11-year career, Cloutier went through almost every situation that a goaltender can go through. He struggled through groin, hip, knee, and ankle injuries as well as at least one concussion. He went through a lockout where he played in Europe.
These experiences can only help Cloutier as he mentors the Canucks’ young goaltending prospects, particularly his time in Vancouver. Simon Wilson had an excellent take on his hiring that spells it out:
Perhaps most importantly, if Cloutier is going to be working primarily with the prospects in Chicago, it makes perfect sense that he shares his experience with them on playing in the fish bowl that is Vancouver. He’ll be able to provide with valuable insight on how to get themselves mentally prepared to play and stay in Vancouver. While Vancouver has been termed the ‘goalie graveyard’, few goaltenders have been as heavily criticized and ridiculed like Cloutier which is something he’ll be able to draw upon when working with the Wolves.
Look, I get it. It’s hilarious that the Canucks, home of Cloutier’s biggest gaffes as a goaltender, hired Cloutier as a goaltending coach. You can joke that he’ll teach Eddie Lack and Joe Cannata the best ways to handle a slapshot from centre ice or that he’ll give them advice on how to best punch someone in the back of the head with a blocker. But don’t write off the hiring for the sake of a few jokes.
As for Dan Cloutier the coach, he has some experience as an assistant coach under his brother in the Central Hockey League and acted as the goaltending coach for the Barrie Colts of the OHL last season. While it’s tough to measure how effective Cloutier was as a coach in that time, the three goaltenders for the Colts in the season prior to Cloutier’s arrival each had GAAs above 4.90 and save percentages below .880. While the Colts acquired two new goaltenders, all of their goalies, including one returning from the previous season, had much better statistics.
The team’s starting goaltender, 19-year-old rookie Mathias Niederberger, posted a 2.68 GAA and .918 save percentage during the regular season and, here’s the kicker, even better statistics during the playoffs. Under Cloutier’s tutelage, Niederberger thrived in his first OHL season after coming over from Germany. Niederberger was drafted by the Colts thanks to Cloutier’s recommendation, suggesting that he has an eye for talent. Considering he’ll be acting as a goaltending scout for the Canucks, that bodes well.
In my eyes, Cloutier is young and relatable, a bonus for dealing with prospects, and he has a solid, if minimal, track record so far. Hiring him now makes sense for the Canucks. Hopefully, it will make sense in the future as well.