Calgary Flames

Jason LaBarbera has a lot to offer to the new Calgary Flames goaltending department

The Calgary Flames announced last week that they were radically changing the structure of goaltending development and coaching in the organization.

Jordan Sigalet, who had been the Flames’ goalie coach since 2014, has been promoted to the title of Director of Goaltending, and is responsible for overseeing the new Flames goaltending department. Thomas Speer retained his position as Development Goalie Coach with Stockton in the AHL, and Jason LaBarbera was hired as the new Flames goalie coach.

Who is Jason LaBarbera?

LaBarbera was drafted in 1998 by the New York Rangers, and is a veteran of 187 NHL games 228 AHL games over 16 seasons of professional hockey in North America. He played for eight NHL teams and seven AHL teams and bounced around a lot during his professional career.

Though he didn’t find too much success at the NHL level, LaBarbera did rack up some key awards and accolades at the junior and AHL levels. In junior, he won the Memorial Cup with the Portland Winterhawks in 1997-98, and played in the Top Prospects game.

In the AHL, he won the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the league’s top goaltender twice, was named to the AHL’s first all star team twice, was a first team all star twice, and won the Les Cunningham Award as the league’s MVP. He was a very good AHL goalie, and had a lengthy pro career.

After retiring in 2016, LaBarbera began his coaching career as the assistant and goaltending coach of the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL. Most notably, he coached former Flames signee Nick Schneider during his time with the Hitmen.

In 2017-18, LaBarbera joined Hockey Canada as a goaltending coach for the country’s U-17 team in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. He has been part of Hockey Canada for four seasons now, and was part of the team that won gold last year in the Czech Republic.

LaBarbera is married to his wife, Kodette, and has two kids, Ryder and Easton. Ryder was diagnosed with autism, and the LaBarbera family does excellent work spreading awareness about the condition and sharing their story. Calgary has been their home base for a while, and the transition to the Flames organization should be a smooth one for Jason.

The new goaltending department

The Flames’ new goaltending department is a relatively new structure for an NHL team. The Florida Panthers were the first to overhaul their goaltending and establish a formal department, dubbed the Goaltending Excellence Department.

Headlined by renowned goaltending expert Francois Allaire and future hall-of-famer Roberto Luongo, it seems like the Flames are following in the Panthers’ footsteps. However, according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, this new structure has been on Brad Treliving’s radar for over a year, despite it coming to fruition just recently.

The move signals the organization’s commitment to the goaltending position, and the need for a team of dedicated staff members to help develop goalies at all levels.

From the Flames’ official announcement here, Treliving discussed what the creation of the department means for the organization.

This is something we’ve gone back and forth on and wanted to be strategic about it,” Trevling explained. “At the end of the day, goaltending is the most important position and for us we had to look at it at from a perspective where we could best cover each base to further build on that position. It all starts with identifying them, scouting, developing, to then coaching. 

“We wanted a system in place that covers all the different levels while also having them work closely together for the success of the organization as a whole. It’s critical to take time to groom goalies. They are so different and it’s a long runway with them; you can’t rush them. For us to now have this set-up, it’ll go a long way in getting them the support they need. 

“You’re always looking at ways to get better and this structure, I believe, does just that. It was a master plan we’ve waited to pull the trigger on and thankfully we were able to see it come to fruition.” 

What does LaBarbera’s role entail?

For LaBarbera, it looks like he will step right into the role vacated by Sigalet. LaBarbera will be the primary coach for NHL goalies Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich, while providing support for callups of Louis Domingue and potentially Artyom Zagidulin. Sigalet will provide guidance and direction to LaBarbera as this is his first time serving as a goalie coach at the NHL level.

All day-to-day duties with the Flames netminders is under LaBarbera’s job description, so he’ll be seen during practices, morning skates, skill sessions, and everything in between.

LaBarbera has a lot to offer

One of the key areas of strength for LaBarbera is his diverse career as a goalie. He played at a very high level in junior, had a very successful AHL career, and even played in almost 200 NHL games. That is no easy feat, and his experience in multiple leagues for multiple teams offers a wealth of knowledge to draw upon.

Playing for 15 different professional teams, likely with 15 different goalie coaches, means LaBarbera was given a lot of different advice throughout his playing career. Being able to pick and choose the things that he feels best complements each Flames goalie’s game is something that might give him an advantage over what Sigalet has provided for the past decade.

There’s a reason LaBarbera is so highly regarded in goaltending circles; not everyone gets to work with Hockey Canada, let alone on the team responsible for assembling and coaching the prestigious World Junior squad.

LaBarbera is also a student of the game. He recently sat down with InGoal Magazine to discuss his role and challenges as the goalie coach of the World Junior team. He identified the time around the 2004-05 season, the season after he won top goalie honours in the AHL, as a transformational time in his career. This was when the position underwent serious change from athleticism based to technical based, and LaBarbera had to be extremely open to learning new things even midway into his career.

He was a technically weak goalie at the time, and wasn’t able to perform many of the standard goalie slide position and slide moves known by modern day goalies. Moves like the backside push and butterfly slide were completely foreign to him, and he spent considerable time practicing and honing these skills so he could continue to compete at the highest level.

Best practice

All organizations strive to achieve best practice. That is, the best processes in the industry and those that most effectively lead to success. The goaltending position has been one that has not received nearly as much attention over the years as it deserves, and the establishment of a dedicated department is the right move.

The Flames’ move toward best practice is something to be proud of, and it won’t be long before other teams around the league set up similar departments as well.

LaBarbera has a lot to offer in his new role with the Flames and it will be interesting to see what a new voice can bring to the table after Sigalet was the goaltending guru for so many years. Keep a close eye on LaBarbera during the World Juniors over the next few weeks.

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