Monsters’ tandem learning from each other

Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography; JustSports Photography

📝 by Patrick Williams

They make an interesting net tandem for the Cleveland Monsters, J.F. Berube and Daniil Tarasov do.

Different ages. Different career stages. But the pair have plenty to teach each other.

What can an established goaltender like Berube with a Calder Cup to his name learn from a 22-year-old?

“I think he’s helping me,” Berube said, “because the game is changing a little bit. There are things he does that kind of opened my eyes, and I’m picking up some new tricks from him, too.”

An 11th-year pro, Berube has long been a familiar name to American Hockey League fans. Taken in the fourth round of the 2009 National Hockey League Draft by the Los Angeles Kings, Berube has gone on to play 227 regular-season AHL games for six NHL organizations. He carried the Manchester Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup with a 13-3 postseason run, and his 37 wins led the AHL that season.

Playing the understudy role is Tarasov, the latest jewel in a Columbus Blue Jackets system that has already had several Cleveland-trained goaltenders advance to the NHL. Columbus grabbed Tarasov in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft, and he made his North American debut with a six-game stint in Cleveland last spring after beginning the season in the KHL.

With the English language and adjustments to master off the ice, gaining some familiarity with a different game on the ice via last season’s crash course served Tarasov well.

“Last year was really, really good for him, his first taste of North American hockey in a smaller rink,” Cleveland assistant coach Trent Vogelhuber explained.

“To get those games were really important from him, and you can see just coming into training camp this year and the start of the season his confidence level is just oozing out of him compared to what he was last year. He’s got all the talent and intangibles in the world, so we’re lucky and excited to have him, and he’s only going to get better as the year goes.”

That said, Columbus still knew that Tarasov would need an experienced hand to further that adjustment, and they found exactly that. In need of a mentor as well as a proven option for NHL recall duty, Columbus turned to Berube, who took the Blue Jackets up on a training-camp invitation and then earned himself a one-year NHL contract.

Columbus management knew Berube well: He spent 2018-19 in Cleveland, playing 43 regular-season games sharing the crease with Brad Thiessen and Matiss Kivlenieks. Thiessen, a fixture in Cleveland for six seasons — including the 2015-16 Calder Cup champion Monsters — retired after last season and is now the organization’s goaltending development coach.

“It was kind of a long summer and mentally kind of a grind not knowing exactly what was going to happen,” Berube said. “But I decided to just focus on what I can control, and to make sure that when the opportunity was coming that I was ready to go.

“And I worked hard. I know I had some good sessions on the ice, too, so I was prepared. I’m pretty happy about the way camp went and happy that I earned myself a contract.”

Berube’s second stint in Cleveland comes after playing in Ontario, Hartford and Lehigh Valley over the previous two seasons.

“I kind of bounced around from team to team in the last couple of years. So, I’m looking for a little bit more stability and trying to go somewhere [where] I knew how they worked. Columbus was always on top of my list.”

Berube and Tarasov again showed their worth this past weekend as the Monsters wrapped up a challenging run of six consecutive road contests. For the 4-1-1-2 Monsters, who return home this Friday for a two-game visit from the Belleville Senators, the tandem’s dependable work in net has alleviated the sort of early-season challenges that many AHL teams must deal with as their young rosters undergo the jelling process.

Tarasov began the weekend by pulling out a point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Syracuse Crunch, making 36 saves. From there the Monsters headed down I-81 to Hershey for a two-game layover against the Bears. Berube’s 34 saves pulled the Monsters into a shootout in the opening game on Saturday before he stopped eight consecutive Hershey attempts to nail down a 2-1 win.

“It wasn’t a pretty win for us,” Berube said, “but we found a way. And that’s the type of team we are. We find ways to win.”

Columbus selected Daniil Tarasov in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

On Sunday, Hershey peppered Tarasov with 38 shots, 31 of them in the final 43:27 of play. Tarasov managed to earn Cleveland a point in a 4-3 overtime setback, the Monsters’ seventh straight game with at least one standings point (4-0-1-2).

Berube has gone 3-0-1 with a 1.68 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage in his four starts, including a shutout at Belleville on Oct. 22. Tarasov (0-1-2) is still looking for his first win, but he has caught the eye of Chris Clark, the Blue Jackets’ director of player personnel who also serves as Cleveland general manager.

“He’s been great,” Clark said of Tarasov. “He’s so level-headed. Smart kid. He works… he’s been awesome.”

What has Berube seen in Tarasov so far?

“He’s got size (6-foot-5),” Berube started. “He can move. I’m learning a lot from him, too. I think it’s just a situation where he’s pushing me, and I’m pushing him, and that can only be good for the team.

“He’s a very good goalie, and he’s going to be having a long career. So, I’m going to help him as much as I can.”

But Berube the teacher is also Berube the student when working with Tarasov.

“Some technical post plays have improved a lot in the goalie world,” Berube said. “It’s something that’s so important to do well, and it’s such a technical aspect of the game that takes a lot of practice. Those young goalies have it to a ‘T’ because they grew up doing it.

“So for us older goalies, we’re kind of catching up a little bit on this. For myself, it’s been eye-opening how you can save your energy in a game just being more patient in your net.”

This willingness to take on that teaching — and learning — role in Cleveland made Berube an attractive, seamless fit for the Columbus organization, Clark says.

“We knew his personality,” Clark said. “We know what a character player, a person he is, from before. We wanted someone [who] was OK with a little bit of a back-up role to one of our young, talented goalies [who is] up-and-coming, and he was all on board with that.”