Where is Allaire's goalie magic?

Francois Allaire (centre) may be the

Francois Allaire (centre) may be the "best goaltending coach on the planet," according to Brian Burke, but he has yet to live up to that billing through James Reimer (left) and Jonas Gustavsson. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:39 AM ET

TORONTO - Brian Burke is not shy about calling Francois Allaire “the best goaltending coach on the planet.”

And he might be right. But when the Centre of the Hockey Looney-verse (great line, not mine) veers out of its orbit, then everyone and everything on Bay St. gets the equivalent of the Hubble Telescope.

That includes Allaire’s relationship with James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson, two stoppers who were poised to be Toronto’s top tandem this past season. But rocked by two head injuries and more twists than a Canada’s Wonderland roller coaster the past 13 months, Reimer’s future is uncertain. And Gustavsson, who overcame so much on the personal front in three years here, is likely gone via unrestricted free agency. He could never hold the job for more than a few games.

The Leafs, Blue Jackets and New York Islanders are the only NHL teams to have allowed 250 or more goals the past three seasons — the span of time Allaire worked here. In the bullpen are three youngsters — Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya — who came to the Leafs as free agents in large part because of the allure of Allaire.

So with Allaire poised to influence Toronto’s net results for years to come, should Burke start to worry about his methods? Is Allaire’s insistence on rigidity over reflex the right fit? Were Gustavsson and Reimer incompatible with him? Does Allaire’s long list of star pupils and Stanley Cup rings put him beyond reproach? Or can Allaire apply the best of his philosophy and let each goalie find a happy medium?

First, a little background for those not familiar with Allaire’s Quebec butterfly conservatory. In the mid-1980s, he became the Montreal Canadiens’ first goalie coach, Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley and Ken Dryden having done just fine on their own. His first project was a 6-foot-1 kid named Patrick Roy, who talked to his goalposts, but more importantly, listened to Allaire.

Allaire took the butterfly style a step further, teaching Roy to drop down, spread out and let the puck hit him, rather than fly by the seat of his hockey pants. Allaire stressed timing and distribution of equipment to make up for any deficiencies in acrobatics.

Allaire thus had a hand in Roy’s 1986 Cup win and the three Vezina Trophies that followed. Hogwarts for goalies was soon inspiring youngsters across the province who entered the NHL as juniors in the 1990s.

When Roy cut ties and stomped off to Colorado in 1995, Allaire was enticed to Anaheim by one-time Habs’ pro scouting director Jack Ferreira. He soon made unknowns such as Guy Hebert, Ilya Bryzgalov and Martin Gerber into quality NHLers. It’s something of a family firm, with brother Benoit the goalie coach for Phoenix and later the New York Rangers.

Francois’ top grads in Anaheim were 2007 Cup winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere and understudy Jonas Hiller. It was said Allaire did some of his best work with Hiller, briefing him on everything from game-day preparation to readying him for post-game media questions.

Allaire had arrived in the summer of 2009 half-a-year after Burke departed the Ducks with every intention of making the Anaheim Cup model work in Toronto.

“I think if everybody pushes in the same direction, it’s going to be easy,” Allaire told the National Post when he was hired. “If everyone wants to be better, it’s going to be easy.”

But Vesa Toskala proved too stubborn for Allaire to change. When the younger Hiller eventually forced a trade of Giguere to the Leafs, it was thought between Allaire, Giguere and Gustavsson, the Leafs would have a teacher, a veteran and a willing student.

But both goalies were hurt, leading to the arrival of Reimer, who won 20 games in half-a-season. In the summer of 2011, Burke decided to let Giguere go and hope Allaire could make Reimer and Gustavsson capable of holding the fort.

But neither man could stay healthy or consistent enough. When Gustavsson was on a roll, the Leafs insisted Reimer get back in the saddle. For three games, it worked, up to Feb. 7 in Winnipeg. It was a game the Leafs should have won in Reimer’s backyard, but turned into a one-goal loss and they dropped 15 of the next 17. Reimer was a mess, while Gustavsson never found his January form and the Leafs managed back-to-back wins only once the rest of the way. They finished 29th out of 30 teams with a 3.16 goals-against average.

“We have two young kids in the net, not a lot of experience,” Allaire told critics at one stage. “Nobody has more than 90 games in the NHL, so that is normal, sometimes you get some bumps in the road. We will see if we are strong enough to get through.

“We know we need somebody to take the lead and after that everyone will follow. But we’re not at that point right now.”

Like many, Allaire wondered how the year would have unfolded if Reimer had not been concussed/whiplashed after his hot 4-0-1 start.

“It’s something you don’t have usually for a goalie. It’s too bad. That breaks the momentum we had building in camp and during the season, but that is part of the sport. We have to deal with that and when you come back from that kind of injury, there are times when it is a little bit tougher to get through.”

Burke, who didn’t make a move at the trade deadline for a veteran stopper, felt the need to issue two public votes of support in Allaire as the Leafs’ goals against started to rise alarmingly. There had been a string of softies that Reimer and Gustavsson had allowed during the slide, but they had as much to do with mental errors, such as handling the puck and miscommunicating with defencemen, for which Allaire had no control.

“Francois is not going anywhere,” Burke told reporters in Montreal on March 3, the day he replaced Wilson with Randy Carlyle. “(Removing Allaire) is not changing our struggles in net. I’m not replacing a coach because we have two young goalies who are battling (confidence) right now.”

Yet there were 22 one-goal losses at season’s end, the sixth-highest in the league. It sounds simplistic, but reverse just half of those and the Leafs would have the same 92 points that put Ottawa into eighth place.

It should be noted that not all goalies are going to be ideal Allaire students, despite the best attempts to find the match before they arrive. Toskala certainly wouldn’t pay him heed.

“Vesa is not a guy who likes to be coached,” Allaire said the day Toskala went to Anaheim for Giguere. “He didn’t build a relationship with his last coach. In (today’s) NHL, you need as much information as you can get.”

But those who watched Gustavsson carefully in Sweden believe he fit the Monster label much better in his homeland before Allaire got custody of him. Gustavsson’s size and aggressiveness against shooters was evident in leading Farjestads to the SEL championship in 2009. Since coming to the Leafs, the same observers think Gustavsson sits back in his crease too much.

Reimer plays what Burke liked to call an “economical” style, but after coming back from the concussion, Reimer started springing leaks, especially over the shoulder and under the crossbar.

Yet both Gustavsson and Reimer remained supportive of Allaire right through the end of the season, while Scrivens has rallied behind him, too.

“I’m a different goalie than I was at school,” said Scrivens, the AHL goalie of the month in March. “I first got to work with Frankie between my junior and senior year (at Cornell) and put up the best numbers of my college career.”

Carlyle’s assistants will be shuffled next year, but Allaire will be back at practice and in his nightly press box perch. Carlyle said Allaire retained a say in the starting goalie each game night.

“He’s been around the game a long time,” Carlyle said. “He sees the little things I might not. But if you ask any coach, the No. 1 thing you want is (the coach to get the goalie) to stop the puck.”

Who has allowed the most goals against the past three years?

2011-12

Tampa Bay, 281

TORONTO, 264

Columbus, 262

NY Islanders, 255

Winnipeg, 246

2010-11

Colorado, 288

Edm/Atl, 269

NY Islanders, 264

Columbus, 258

TORONTO, 251

2009-10

Edmonton, 284

TORONTO, 267

NY Islanders, 264

Tampa Bay, 260

Columbus, 259


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