Back in August, the Philadelphia Flyers made an under-the-radar staff hiring when they joined the ever-growing ranks of National Hockey League teams to hire a full-time goaltending development coach. The team hired longtime Victoria Royals (Western Hockey League) goaltending coach and Hockey Canada goaltending consultant Brady Robinson to fill the post.
One month earlier, new Flyers goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh brought Robinson along on an ad hoc basis to work together with the prospects attending the Flyers Development Camp in Voorhees, NJ. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall indicated at the time that the organization planned to hire a development coach and goaltending scout.
Robinson and Dillabaugh worked together in the past, primarily in conjunction with the Goaltending Development Institute (GDI). The GDI was founded by Ian Clark, now the goaltending coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, in 1996. Dillabaugh, who started out as a GDI student, became its British Columbia regional director.
Robinson graduated the University of Lethbridge in 2006 with a BA in kinesiology. He played his junior hockey for the BCHL's Trail Smoke Eaters. Although Trail, BC native Robinson is just 32 years old, he brought a wealth of goalie coaching experience to the table before the Flyers added him.
From 2006 to 2015, Robinson served as the goaltending coach for the Chilliwack Bruins and Victoria Royals -- the Chilliwack franchise relocated to Victoria in 2011. He was also selected to serve as the western regional goaltending consultant for Hockey Canada.
In addition to working with Flyers goaltending prospects below the NHL level and staying in frequent contact with Dillabaugh, Robinson also serves as a Flyers amateur-level goaltending scout.
Let go by the Flyers organization three days after the 2015 NHL Draft, former Phantoms and Flyers goalie Neil Little had served as the team's primary goaltending scout in recent years and was also the goalie development coach on a part-time basis as logistics and scheduling permitted. The scouting side was the primary focus of Little's job duties, whereas the player development side was the main objective in creating Robinson's role. Little landed on his feet quickly, being hired to scout for the Florida Panthers.
Although Robinson has only been on the job for a few months, several of the young goalies with whom he worked at Development Camp and/or Flyers training camp have benefited from their interactions. Robinson keeps in contact with all of the goaltenders in the farm system.
Most notably, Robinson has played a hand in the outstanding season that second-year Lehigh Valley Phantoms goaltender Anthony Stolarz has enjoyed. Stolarz's entire game has improved dramatically from his first season until now, and he has actually surpassed the expectations for how far he'd come up through this point of the current season. The improvement has been statistical -- 1.84 goals against average and .936 save percentage through his first 17 outings -- but, more importantly, also mechanical and mental.
"Brady has been huge for me," Stolarz said after turning back 19 of 21 shots in the Phantoms' 3-2 overtime win against the Hershey Bears on Wednesday. "We clicked right from training camp, and I'm seeing results in my game. He's helped me with my patience and with my angles. I think I have more composure back there. I'm not flopping as much as I did last year. I'm just letting the play come to me."
Both Robinson and Dillabaugh are big proponents of head tracking: a technique for surveying who is on the ice and where they're located. That is something Stolarz has worked regularly on with Robinson since training camp and even going back to the Flyers development camp in July. Stolarz said that it is another area where he feels he is seeing positive results.
"Last year, there were a lot of plays where they'd send it out to the high slot from behind the net, and I'd be kind of guessing where to go, like if it's lefty or righty," Stolarz said. "You don't want to be centered to his body, you want to be centered to his stick. That was a main focus in training camp. If you have a chance, just take a look. If you go cross-crease, just take a look back to see where guys are at. I think I'm tracking better and it's helped me for sure."
The idea of having Dillabaugh and Robinson working side-by-side is to have as much uniformity as possible in how the organization wants its goaltenders to play as they rise up the ranks from prospects to potential NHL pros. Nothing messes a goalie up more than being giving conflicting advice. While no two goaltending coaches are identical in all ways, Dillabaugh and Robinson are on the same page of being steeped in the GDI methods.
Even at the NHL level, in fact, Dillabaugh is working on some of the same things with Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth that Robinson tries to instill in the prospects. Mason recently discussed how the work flow of his practice routines work with Dillabaugh generally go as compared to the way he worked for two-plus seasons with Jeff Reese, now the Dallas Stars' goaltending coach.
“It’s changed in terms of the drills. The overall time [at practice] hasn’t. We’re always out there working, but Kim has brought in new ideas and new drills. He sees things in my game that he wants to have improvement on, and that’s what we work on before practice,” said Mason.
Mason said that Dillabaugh tends to focus on repetition not only of sound mechanics but also in staying alert to the puck as it moves around the defensive zone.
“A lot of what Kim keeps hounding on is tracking the puck. When you are tracking the puck, you’re cleaner. Your rebounds are better. So that’s what we work in, the majority is just clean tracking,” Mason said.
“Recently, we’ve been working on the tracking of players going behind the net and how we manage that, just so that there’s less confusion going on. When guys are behind you behind the net it’s hard to keep looking at where they are and also to keep track of where guys are in front of you.”
While Dillabaugh is generally the one to determine to focus of the drills, Mason said his player-coach relationship with the new coach is a two-way street just as it previously was with Reese. There have already been times where it has been Mason himself who set the work-day agenda.
“I’m the one who is out there, I’m the one who is feeling things,” Mason said. “I wasn’t feeling like myself earlier in the year. A lot of it was a mental thing, with the family issue I had to overcome. I was telling him how I was feeling and what I wanted to improve on. He came up with the drills to help on that.”
Robinson brings a similar approach to his work with the Flyers' prospects. In time, the organization hopes that coaching young goalies along a development path designed to emulate what they could expect at the NHL level will help them along the way. Of course, with younger goaltenders, there is often a need to adjust more things techique-wise, such as hammering out consistency in covering certain angles, his posture in the crease, and how he holds his blocker and glove.
Apart from Stolarz, the Flyers are getting very encouraging play this season from Harvard University sophomore goaltender Merrick Madsen (0.98 goals against average, .966 save percentage, four shutouts in seven starts) as well as World Junior Championship bound Swedish goaltender Felix Sandström (who is the only teenage goaltender to appear in more than two games in the pro-level Swedish Hockey League this season).
As 2015 draftee Matej Tomek recovers from injury, the University of North Dakota freshman hopes to see some action later this season. The organization also has a Russian prospect, Ivan Fedotov, playing at the junior level (MHL) in his home country.
While Robinson does not have the chance to work directly on the ice with all of these players -- Fedotov, for instance, was not at Development Camp in July -- he stays in frequent contact with most of them and is in charge of crafting their individual development plans for the Flyers.
The job has only begun. But the very early returns suggest that the Flyers not only made some astute draft picks as they have tried to restock the prospect cupboard in goal but the organization put their developmental oversight into very capable hands with Robinson.
Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.