With Jared Coreau, Eddie Pasquale and Cal Heeter working between the pipes, the Griffins have had three of the best goalies in the AHL this season.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
For a goaltender, the most important shot is always the next one. Whatever happened in the past is the past.
But if and when the Griffins’ goalies look back on the first five months of the 2016-17 season, they can’t help but be pleased by their good fortune and the success they’ve enjoyed in the process of helping the team reach the top of the AHL’s Central Division.
In fact, Griffins goaltending is in the hunt to capture the organization’s third AHL award for Outstanding Team Goaltending (Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award), having previously won the award during the team’s first two seasons in the league (2001-02 and 2002-03).
Other than four starts by Jimmy Howard during two conditioning assignments from Detroit, the work between the pipes has been handled by the terrific trio of Jared Coreau, Eddie Pasquale and Cal Heeter, all of whom are enjoying seasons to remember:
• Ranked among the AHL’s Top 10 goalies, Coreau, 25, has spent more than two months with the Red Wings in Detroit, where he recorded his first NHL wins and shutouts;
• Entering March, Pasquale, 26, was enjoying the best goals against average and save percentage of his professional career, a vocation that has already spanned several seasons in the AHL and ECHL;
• With a 21-3 record compiled between Toledo and Grand Rapids this year, Heeter, 28, has recorded his most wins in a season since he was a teenager playing junior hockey.
They are the not-so-holey trinity – a triumvirate of triumph in the net that has succeeded like few others have in the Griffins’ 21-year history. Although each has his own distinctive style, the trio share a bond fueled by the drive and determination to improve.
Whether the rotation has been Coreau and Pasquale or Pasquale and Heeter, Griffins goalies have been posting the kind of statistics that would stand out on any team, more so on a squad that ranks among the highest scoring clubs in the AHL, thanks in part to the league’s best power play.
“When your team is on a stretch where it’s scoring a lot of goals, it makes the goaltender’s job a lot easier,” Pasquale said. “If you make a mistake, it’s not going to cost you the game. Plus, you don’t want to win every game 2-1 – that’s a lot of stress. When your team is scoring a lot, it takes the pressure off.”
The Griffins’ goalies also have a strong defensive corps to thank, a group that is represented by an exceedingly good mix of veterans (Nathan Paetsch, Brian Lashoff, Conor Allen) and young prospects (Robbie Russo, Dan Renouf, Joe Hicketts).
“Our guys have been great in the d-zone all year,” Heeter said. “Our defensemen have been great blocking shots, clearing out rebounds, lifting sticks, eliminating second opportunities. A big part is verbal communication, which happens all over the ice, but you definitely hear it in our end.”
All three goalies are in different stages of their careers, but all three are focused on the same goal – to take their game to the next level. Coreau got his opportunity in Detroit when Howard was sidelined with a serious knee injury, and the Northern Michigan University product has made the most of it.
Coreau recorded his first NHL win on Dec. 23 at Florida, then registered his second win on Dec. 29 at Ottawa, playing in front of his 92-year-old grandmother for the first time in his career. Three days later, he was the starter for the NHL’s Centennial Classic in Toronto on New Year’s Day.
“I was very honored to get the start – there’s only going to be one Centennial Classic, right?” Coreau said. “It was a great experience. It really settled in on me when the fighter jets flew over us before the start of the game, and it was awesome to play against up-and-coming stars like Auston Matthews.”
Coreau started seven games in January and nearly wrestled the No. 1 job from a struggling Petr Mrazek. His first NHL shutout came on the road against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 5 and he notched his second shutout against Montreal on Jan. 16 in Joe Louis Arena.
“Obviously when you’re playing a lot, you start feeling the puck more, you get into a groove,” Coreau said. “At times, I think I’ve shown that I can play at this level and other times I’ve felt I could do better. The biggest thing I need to do is find the consistency to play well night in and night out.”
Mrazek reasserted himself in February, pushing Coreau back onto the bench. Coreau made only one start in the entire month of February, dropping a 6-3 decision in Minnesota on Feb. 12.
“It’s been pretty good, but you can always be better,” Coreau said. “So far, the NHL has been everything that I’ve wanted and worked toward. Just to be on the ice with the guys in Detroit, practicing every day, is great, and when you do get the chance to play, it’s exciting. You want to make the most of it.”
Coreau has done a lot of watching from the bench, but he hasn’t minded because he’s learning. “During the past two months, I’ve learned so much about my game, where I need to be, what I need to do going forward,” he said. “When I don’t play, I still get to watch the best players in the world. I get to see guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. I get to see how they play and how quick they really are. Even when you sit, you try to pick up something you can learn.”
In late February, Coreau returned to Grand Rapids to play a pair of games on a conditioning assignment. He needed to shake off the cobwebs, and he looked a lot better in his second start than he did in the first. Working with Red Wings goaltending coach Jeff Salajko in practice cannot compare to facing rubber in a game, as Coreau knows only too well.
“Off the ice, we watch old tape to review games in order to see the things that I did well along with the things I didn’t do so well,” Coreau said. “In the gym, you work out to make sure you don’t put on any pounds, and in practice you come in a little earlier and stay a little later with some of the guys to stay sharp.
“I just have to be ready for the opportunities I do get.”
Coreau’s promotion has provided Pasquale and Heeter with the chance to establish themselves after less-than-stellar campaigns a year ago.
Pasquale struggled last season, his first since hip surgery forced him to miss the entire 2014-15 campaign. He split last year between the ECHL’s Brampton Beast and the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps, the latter being his home for the prior three seasons.
Goaltending requires a lot of muscle memory, so the extended layoff had its effect on Pasquale’s play. “In total, I was off 18 months, so it was really tough playing last season,” he said. “Last season I was just trying to get through the year healthy. This year, I’m feeling a lot better and more confident, and I’m able to do extra work off-ice to keep everything working properly.
Pasquale’s transformation has not been all physical. He has fine-tuned his play with the help of Griffins goaltending coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson.
“I’m playing a little more conservatively. I’m not chasing the puck around so much any more,” he said. “I’m also playing a little deeper and approaching post coverage a little differently. Beemer’s really helped me out and it’s paid off.”
Beemer (Mahoney-Wilson’s initials are BMW) has also given new drive to Heeter’s play.
“He’s been fantastic,” Heeter said. “Beemer really helped me simplify things in my game, sharpen up some areas that needed sharpening.”
Specifically, the coach helped Heeter with his focus and concentration.
“We worked on head projection, which is keeping your head down and following pucks into your body,” Heeter said. “If you give up a rebound off your blocker or pads, it’s keeping your head down and eyes on the puck and everything just stems from there.”
Mahoney-Wilson also worked with Heeter on what he calls his “hinge.”
“It’s making sure my shoulders and hips stay square to the shooter. As they move laterally across the ice, I’m always square to the puck,” Heeter said. “There are times when you can be in the right spot but you’re flat to the shooter, so ‘hinge’ is keeping everything square to the puck.
“It’s one of those things you never master. You have to continually work on it every day and it’s something I’ll continue to work on the rest of my career. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and repetition to create muscle memory.”
Heeter entered the season with high hopes of getting his career back on track after two years overseas. He split last year between Zagreb Medvescak, the Croatian entry in the KHL where he had played the previous season, and the Hamburg Freezers in Germany’s top league.
“Coming out of camp, I had aspirations of starting in Grand Rapids,” Heeter said. “I thought I had a really good camp and when I was sent to Toledo, I made sure I kept the right attitude and dedication to the game. Toledo wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I made sure I kept the same work ethic.”
Heeter won his first eight games with the Walleye in Toledo, providing a welcome boost to his self-worth. “I struggled with confidence last year,” he admitted. “When I played well in Toledo, I began to turn things around. For a goalie, confidence is 90 percent of the game, probably more.”
With Coreau in Detroit, Pasquale and Heeter became a tandem, eventually alternating starts between them.
“Each of us wants to play every night and obviously that can’t happen,” Heeter said. “We have a really good relationship off the ice and we push each other to perform better on the ice. You can’t take a day off, not even a practice, because the other guy is giving his all.”
If there’s a rivalry between Pasquale and Heeter, it’s a friendly one.
“It’s great to have that competition, but it’s equally important to have a healthy relationship and be friends off the ice,” Heeter said. “We can talk to each other about whatever is going on, tell jokes. It’s healthy to be good buddies and I can say that Eddie is a good buddy of mine. When he gets a shutout, I’m just as excited for him as when I get one.”
Pasquale said the feeling is mutual.
“We have a really good relationship,” he said. “People don’t know what you’re going through unless they’ve actually gone through it themselves, so it’s good to have a good partner with whom you can share stuff, bounce ideas off and be good friends.”
Coreau said he had a good relationship with Pasquale before he headed to Detroit, and although he hasn’t played as much with Heeter as Pasquale has, Coreau is on equally good terms with the former Ohio State University netminder.
“I can honestly say that everywhere I’ve played, whether it’s been Toledo, Grand Rapids or Detroit, I’ve had a really good relationship with all of my goalie counterparts,” Coreau said. “I’ve been very fortunate to play with guys like Eddie and Cal and people like (former Griffins goalie) Tom McCollum.”
Coreau and McCollum trained together during the summer. “You want to be better than him and he wants to be better than you and it just keeps you both going,” Coreau said. “Even established NHL starters want a little competition. You’re going to keep working to be elite when somebody is coming behind you.”
Healthy competition, Pasquale agrees, is good.
“Everyone is here because they want to get to the next level,” Pasquale said. “If you give one guy too much of the reins, he might slack off in practice, so it’s good to always have somebody chasing on your tail.”
In today’s game, the days of a team leaning on only one goaltender are long gone. Workhorses are now more the exception than the rule.
“You look at this league and we’re playing a lot of back-to-back nights or 3-in-3s with road trips and travel,” Pasquale said. “It’s tough to play a lot of games in a row. I’ve done it before and it’s really tough on your body. You need a two-goalie system where you have a second goalie who can give the starter a night off.”
With all three goalies doing well in Grand Rapids, the Griffins can count on one or the other on any given night and expect them to do the job. The goalies, in turn, are bursting with confidence, thanks to the Griffins’ offensive firepower.
“We’re winning a lot right now, so that it doesn’t matter if we’re down two or three goals early, we know we have the weapons to come back,” Pasquale said. “It’s the way our confidence is right now, which is a tribute to the way this team is built.”
Success breeds success and new opportunities.
“It’s been a good year to prove my worth,” Heeter said. “I’ve been up and down between the AHL and ECHL, which is not where I planned to be at this stage in my career, but I think I’ve been making the most of my opportunities this year. I think I’ve shown to this organization as well as anybody else that might be watching that I am capable of playing consistently well at this level.”
Like Coreau and Pasquale, Heeter said he is trying not to look ahead.
“I’m focused on the moment,” he said. “I’m not looking ahead to where I might be next year. In retrospect, I hope I’ll be able to look back and see that I had a good year, but we still have a lot of the year left. Our work is not over. We have to continue to work every day.”