by Todd Crocker | AHL On The Beat Archive
Prior to the season starting, the easy thing to do in assessing the Toronto Marlies would have been to look at their young goaltending and surmise that more than a few losses would be piled up due to inexperience in goal. After all, NHL goaltending is just now getting better acquainted with the 90s, by birth years.
While that doesn’t always determine outcomes in the big league, in goal — especially in goal — wisdom comes with experience and that experience is learned most times in the AHL. That this particular growing pain hasn’t afflicted the Maple Leafs’ Go-To Department is a testament to the talent, but mostly the maturity, of Christopher Gibson and Antoine Bibeau.
“They have to be focused every game,” said Piero Greco, the Marlies’ goaltending coach. Greco is the equivalent of fresh pasta: the hidden ingredient but one that makes the end results much better. “The team started out not scoring a lot in front of them so each game they know that even if they give up two goals that could cost them and has cost the team two points. Pressure like that is a good way to find out who can get the job done.
“Beebs is a quality kid and so is Gibby. We haven’t had to be as patient with these young guys as we thought we might. They absorb so much.”
Greco talks about the netminders in Leafs development with great respect for the way they are playing and how they handle the game. Last season the Marlies rotated Gibson and Garrett Sparks to Orlando in the ECHL, as they both tried to pry time out of the incredible year Drew MacIntyre had in goal. An injury took Gibson out of the equation for a time and Sparks soaked in a lot more AHL games as result from the backup position.
This year, Sparks began Marlies training camp in some minds with a toenail-length lead on the starting spot, when an injury rotated him into the starting job in Orlando. It might have been easy to surmise that the three bodies would create a lot of Florida travel between them all.
“These guys (Gibson and Bibeau), the way they have played, they haven’t given any reason to make changes,” Greco said. “Intense competition. Being pushed. If they wanted it any other way they’d be junk.” Greco jabs the air with two fingers, pauses for agreement, nods, then smiles broadly. He likes the passion all three netminders have shown for the jobs at hand.
The Marlies’ main two puck protectors this season arrive at the MasterCard Centre for a day of practice together. They aren’t chatting. They aren’t animated. There is nothing overtly obvious that they get along so well. There is subtly though. Thoughtfulness without thinking. Connectivity without strings. The very fact that they drive in together every day at all.
“I’m a little bit older, so I guess it’s up to me now,” Gibson laughs, but quickly points to MacIntyre’s open-share policy last season as one of the many reason that he connects so well with Bibeau.
“Learning from a guy like Drew last year was invaluable,” Gibson said. “He was generous with his knowledge and time. Yes, both of us compete for the NHL, but we see things in each other’s games and talk about what might work for us. We know we can help each other.”
Gibson has had to make his own way for a bit longer too. When he was 14, he stated from his home in Karkkila, Finland, that he wanted to play hockey in Canada to get better. He had just come back from the Wayne Gretzky tournament. His coach at the time heard of the famous Notre Dame hockey school in Saskatchewan and soon Gibson was on his way.
“I hated it at first. I called my mom for two weeks wanting to come home. But I stuck it out. It got better.”
Now Gibson has lived in Canada for so long — after school he played four years of major junior with Chicoutimi — he feels at home here. Not that he could easily move back home anyway.
“I don’t even have a room in our house in Espoo anymore.”
Gibson doesn’t mind. He is set on his course here in Toronto. The Finnish finisher has also hit a comfort level with his on-ice partner.
“We talk about all sorts of things and about goaltending too,” said Bibeau. “We help each other all the time with things we notice.”
Bibeau, the head-turner at last year’s Memorial Cup with Val d’Or, goes on to say exactly why he and Gibson are fast friends.
“He has helped me with getting used to this,” — referring to professional hockey after a junior career in the QMJHL.
Bibeau is a sixth-round pick that right now is looking like the Leafs’ talent experts had some inspiration and foresight at the draft table. He is on track to set the Marlies’ shutout record in a season, as he has already tied current Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer’s mark of four.
“I think we just work hard,” Bibeau said. “We speak French, we both played in the Q, we both play goal, and we work hard together.” He isn’t being redundant, he is being thorough. Not that he needed to convince anyone who has watched him this year that he isn’t thorough.
“We have calm in the net from both these young guys,” said Marlies head coach Gord Dineen. “Very calm. It’s a great relief for the guys out front and for me as a coach to have that lack of panic in goal. We’ve been lucky with that here in Toronto.”
Dineen might have had some reason to panic earlier this season during a losing skid but the keepers wouldn’t let him.
“I just like to be out on the ice,” Bibeau said. “I like to be in goal, from the first time I tried it.”
Bibeau speaks about a situation familiar to most young Canadian hockey players. He was rotated into the goalie position at an age when the pads looked like they would swallow him up.
“Everyone got a turn in net at that age, but I wanted to stay there.”
That’s a thought that runs through all the Leafs goaltending prospects. They want to stay between the pipes.