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Q+A: The coach behind the Golden Knight goalies’ next-man-up success

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AP Photo / John Locher

Vegas Golden Knights goalie Maxime Lagace blocks a shot by Winnipeg Jets right wing Joel Armia, right, during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Las Vegas.

By Jesse Granger (contact)

Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 | 2 a.m.

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Dave Prior

A lot of factors have contributed to the Vegas Golden Knights’ shockingly good start to their inaugural season, but nothing has been more instrumental than goaltending.

Whether it has been three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury or rookies Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk or Maxime Lagace (each of whom has earned the first win of their careers this season), the Golden Knights have received spectacular play in front of the net.

The man behind it all is Dave Prior.

The 61-year-old goalie coach worked with Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee during his tenure with the Washington Capitals from 1997-2013. Prior coached for the Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars before that, as well as a stint with the German national team.

McPhee, who hired Prior as the Golden Knights’ director of goaltending and goaltender coach in August 2016, said he is the best goalie coach in the NHL.

Prior has the résumé to back up that claim. He coached the Capitals’ Olaf Kölzig in 2000, the year he won Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league's most outstanding goaltender. He later helped develop the Capitals’ Braden Holtby, who took the Vezina Trophy in 2016, and boasts a long list of other successful goalies under his tutelage.

Prior spoke with the Las Vegas Sun about how he’s gotten the most out of his goalies this season.

In all of your years of coaching, have you ever seen anything like the Golden Knights’ goalie injuries to start the year?

I came into the league 35 years ago and have been coaching for 27 years, and I don’t remember anything like this.

How impressed have you been with the goalies? Every guy who steps in seems to rise to the occasion.

We handpicked them with the belief that they had upside to them, despite accomplishing little to this point in their careers. They all worked very hard through training camp, and I was encouraged by what I saw. I didn’t expect to have to implement this early, but I can’t say enough about how willing they’ve been to follow directions and how they’ve worked. They’re now reaping the benefits of their hard work.

The goalies have told me they like your coaching because you don’t try to change their style of play, only make tweaks to improve them. Why is that important?

I do change things that are, in my opinion, broken — that are costing them goals. But I don’t dictate the style they play. Goaltenders all come in different shapes and sizes. I’ve coached guys from the size of Artūrs Irbe (5-foot-8, 190-pound goaltender for the Soviet Union and four different NHL teams from 1991-2004) to Kölzig (6-foot-3, 220 pound goalie nicknamed “Godzilla”). To ask either of them to play like the other would be a real injustice to them.

I’m not as dependent on their style as much as we try to establish a strategy of how they play.

You go from a veteran in Fleury, who makes a lot of reactionary saves, to Subban, who is a big kid who uses his body and angles to make saves. Was it tough to adjust to that, and does the rest of the team have to change the way it plays?

I don’t think so. I think some of the goaltenders rely a little more on their defense to clean up in front of them in terms of rebound control. Obviously when Subban comes in, I would guesstimate he has a thousand less practices in the NHL than Fleury, so to expect that he will be as refined of a goalie is wrong.

He certainly reacts well for his size. Marc-Andre has a very experienced eye for the puck, whereas these other guys are running more on manual pilot. It’s not ingrained in them yet.

How exciting is it for a coach who has molded goalies into stars to have a prospect like Subban who has all of the physical tools and the potential he has?

The way I ask our goalies to play is more difficult than many coaches’ systems, so I only look for guys I think are physically capable of delivering those abilities. Subban was drafted high, and Dansk was out of the same draft and only a few picks later.

I wasn’t as familiar with Dansk so it was taking a bit of a gamble in suggesting we offer him a contract, but he hasn’t disappointed me in any way. It appears that he does have the upside that will allow him to someday land a job in the NHL, whether it’s here or elsewhere.

We don’t want to give away all of your secrets, but what do you mean when you say you ask your goalies to play different?

I’m old-school and I believe a lot in staying on your feet longer than many coaches do in the modern era. I think it helps develop decision-making skills.

This isn’t new to me in terms of what we’ve been able to do. We did a heck of job with the staff in drafting and developing our goaltenders in Washington, and I’m very proud of fast-tracking young men to the NHL.

I’ve actually found working with these guys is far less difficult because they’ve experienced a lot of lows in their careers already. Failure isn’t as devastating to them because they know the sun shines again. It’s easier for them to apply the things I teach them quicker.

Has it surprised you at all how well Subban, Dansk and Lagace have played right off the bat after being thrown into the fire?

I am. They’ve exceeded my expectations is the best way to put it. But having said that, I don’t think I could expect anyone to work harder than all three of them have and that includes (19-year-old backup) Dylan Ferguson.

It was a big benefit for Subban to watch Marc-Andre Fleury playing some of his best goal in his career for us, and you realize what it takes and how exact you have to be. Oscar then got to see that with Malcolm and then Lagace with Dansk. They’re all a little different in how they play, but they’ve all worked really hard to get it right.

McPhee said one of your best assets as a goalie coach is you know when to stick up for your guys and when to assign blame to the goalie. Can you explain that relationship between you and coach Gerard Gallant?

I stress that we need to be accountable. As a goaltender, your value comes from bailing out your teammates when they screw up and make mistakes. But you’re going to make mistakes too. I’d like to believe I set a very high standard for my goaltenders.

I describe myself as very critical but also very supportive, and I would say that’s what goaltenders recognize. Initially it’s a little unsettling to hear so much negative about how you’re doing things. But once they start to get it, they recognize it. I don’t throw praises around until they earn them, so that when they get them they know it’s deserved. It builds a lot of confidence if you know you aren’t artificially being praised — you know you’re good.

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