Jeff Salajko coaches goalies with drastically different skill levels – peewees and the pros. But oddly enough – just like with offensive and defensive skill work – he does a lot of the same drills, games and exercises with both groups.
The Detroit Red Wings goaltending coach and goalie parent Jeff Salajko spoke with USA Hockey about all things goalies and goaltender development.
USA Hockey: How important is it for coaches to pay more attention to their goalies instead of just sticking them in net?
Jeff Salajko: To me, obviously, in the goalie world, you find more people that tell you that it’s the most important position on the ice, part of the team, and it’s no different than these skill coaches working with players in shooting situations or power play, penalty kill. You work on all these systems and all these special skill sets and goaltenders – I’ve coached youth hockey for a lot of years, I have a son that’s a goalie – they need, on a regular basis, the specific instruction. They definitely need to work on their technique, whether it’s 10 minutes out of a 60-minute practice or whatever it is. Some people have resources to do private lessons on the side – every kid’s situation is different – but they need a little one-on-one time. They need somebody in their corner, for one, that has been through it and knows the position and knows what they’re going through. That’s the biggest thing – not just the physical part of it, but the mental and emotional part.
USA Hockey: How do you like to see a goalie incorporated into a practice?
Salajko: Well, you know what, it’s something we’re going through this year even in Detroit. I do my thing with the goalies, and whether it’s pro or youth hockey, we have our specific amount of time – we obviously have more resources here, unlimited ice when we’re home, really – we do more goalie-specific stuff, depending on the day and where we are and how much we’re playing, where it’s 15, 20 minutes, but I get with the other assistant coaches and we find a happy medium. They want scoring drills for the shooters, but for the first couple drills, we want them geared toward the goalies, whether it’s long shots, shots from the outside – these guys are facing shots from the middle of the ice hardly ever, everything’s on an angle – so you want tailored drills. Goalie touches are big, getting them to handle the puck on dump-ins and then we get them to work with their defense, together not only with puck movement but two-on-ones, communication and stuff, so I think you have to keep the goalie in mind. There are times, too, where the guys need to score, and they need to work on the power play. We had a goalie in there today, Petr Mrazek, who was in there for 10 minutes and it sucks, but they want to shoot on a goalie. It’s kind of ‘scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ kind of a deal.
USA Hockey: When the goalies aren’t involved in drills, what are your favorite activities for goalies in those situations?
Salajko: It’s great for the goalies to skate as part of the team. I’m a big believer in that, but I don’t think they need to be doing that every day. They need to be doing their movements, they need to do their shuffles, their T-pushes, butterfly slides, on-ice recoveries, all of that stuff. When they get familiar with that, whether it’s a pattern of drills, like the four-puck box drill, you just need four pucks or in a triangle, different sequences, the kids learn it and it becomes muscle memory, but it’s something they need to practice all the time. The best goalies in the world are the ones that move best on their feet, and I guarantee you that they did a ton of skating at a young age, even through college or pro. They just have to have that motivation, for one, instead of just standing around. There are times where they can shoot pucks or stickhandle pucks, maybe the older kids can work on puckhandling and incorporate that while the team is doing their stuff, but I always like seeing goalies doing things on their own, and depending on the age and level, that varies in that department, too.
USA Hockey: For the younger goaltenders like 8U and 10U, what kinds of things do you want to see coaches working on with them?
Salajko: Definitely moving on their feet. I just did a webinar with USA Hockey last week where we referred to it as holding your edges – staying on your feet as long as you can. The only way you can have that confidence and trust in your feet is to work at it. I’m a big believer in forward-backward skating, shuffles, T-pushes, and then, from there on, that will lead you into a lot of drills. Even with young kids, incorporate skating into the shooting drill, whether it’s a one-push or two-push, pre-shot movement, kind of getting disguised as part of the drill but you’re working on your feet and your movement and then you’re getting maybe a stick steer, steer the puck to the corner, working on shots in the body, they have to absorb it and get pucks to hit them in their body cavity to absorb the puck, smother them on their body – we call it body smothers. A lot of simple drills like that where they get to feel pucks. It’s predictable where the shot’s going, but it gives them the opportunity to work on making the save correctly and controlling the rebound.
USA Hockey: What things do you do with Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek that you do with your own kid’s team?
Salajko: I’ll tell kids, if they come to one of our practices, they’re going to see a lot of the same things that I do with Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek. We have a routine that we have on game day, it’s simple short-side stick steers on the ice, far-side stick steers on the ice. We’ll do shots in the body, we’ll work the hands, guys will walk off the circle so they have to shuffle and be patient on their feet, and then we do one little post play with a dead angle shot and a wraparound. It’s a routine we do. It’s so simple but the guys love it. They feel like they’re ready for the practice, and it covers all the major food groups. Gets everything warmed up. We do that every day.
Obviously there are going to be times where we challenge them. I have access to five or six shooters where we can do more, but a goalie coach on a youth team doesn’t. For example, I do about 90 percent of the warm-ups on our goalies, I do it myself. I know some goalie coaches in the NHL will not let guys shoot on their goalies to warm them up. I know Carey Price’s coach is that way, he will not let anybody shoot on them. I’m not like that, it just so happens that oftentimes, guys are in meetings, so we’re out there doing it.
USA Hockey: Encouraging more kids to try the position – what’s your sales pitch?
Salajko: I think the first thing is that USA Hockey has taken big strides in doing that. Each organization, getting gear accessible for kids to try it – you don’t want to have a kid going into the net without a blocker or without a glove, without the proper gear. That’s part of the mystique for them, putting on actual goalie gear. I know that as a kid and seeing my son go through it. When they do try it, it has to be fun for them the first time. We can’t go out there and skate for an hour straight without any shots. Let them try to catch pucks and do fun drills, some challenges to keep it fun and maybe a little game time. I know in Columbus with my son, there’s a shortage of goalies, and it used to be the other way around. Kids wanted to play goalie, and I think I’m starting to find that kids don’t want to play goalie. It’s not for everyone. It’s a tough position to play mentally and emotionally, but we just have to expose them to it and give them the opportunity and platform to do it. Here’s a goalie kit for anybody who is interested, it’s free, come out and try it and we’ll have some fun. I’ve done that at clinics before, and it works.