Zac Bierk is determined to help the Ottawa Senators make a net gain next season.
Installed as the club’s new goalie coach last month, Bierk, 44 has spent the last six weeks getting to know the organization’s netminders and now he’s hopeful a new approach can help the Senators make strides to start next season.
Though, Bierk, a former NHL goalie, was brought in to work with all the goalies on the club’s depth chart, a key focus for him is trying to get No. 1 goalie Matt Murray back on track. Acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins and signed to a four-year, $25 million contract extension last October, it’s paramount for him to get back to the form that secured him two Stanley Cup rings.
Murray, who turns 27 later this month, is out with an undisclosed lower body injury but his numbers had improved in the five games he played after spending a couple of weeks working with Bierk. The possibility exists Murray could suit up for Ottawa’s final regular season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs Wednesday at home.
“I don’t know if there was anything in particular (he wanted to work with Murray on),” Bierk said in his first Zoom call with the local media Thursday. “I met Matt for the first time Apr. 6 and part of my mindset coming in was to start fresh with him. It wasn’t about re-inventing or re-discovering, it was just about taking it on a day-by-day basis.
“Like I said, it was about making a connection with him. Going into this, if him and I could get on the same page with a couple of things that we wanted to work on, that would be a good starting point. It’s a small sample size, but he showed a willingness to make some adjustments and with some success.”
The Senators got off to a 2-14-1 start to this shortened season and you can point at any area to talk about what went wrong, but in my opinion the issues started and ended with the goaltending. By the time the first month of the season was over, Murray and backup Marcus Hogberg had two of the worst statistics in the NHL.
Yes, we’re well aware that ifs and buts are meaningless, but despite a recovery Murray is the 69th-ranked goal in save-percentage this morning while Hogberg is No. 77. Was that coaching? No, you can’t blame the goalie coach and it doesn’t make sense but the reality is this area has to be better to start next year or the Senators have no chance.
Looking back now if the Senators had just gotten a save or two then they’d be in the middle of playoff race in the all-Canadian division rather than preparing to pack their bags when the season ends next Wednesday. Coach D.J. Smith felt the timing of this move was important to give Bierk an opportunity to get to know the goalies.
Who knows if the coaching staff will have access to the players in the off-season? The likes of Anton Forsberg, Filip Gustavsson and Mads Sogaard will likely head back to their homes overseas so it will be difficult to see them if travel bans continue.
But, Bierk does live in Peterborough and it would be a short drive from Murray’s home in the Muskoka region if they are allowed to do spend time together in the summer.
“It’s a complicated scenario for everybody in the organization and everybody in life so we’re all trying to figure this out as we go,” said Bierk. “We’re all trying to figure this out as we go, but as we get into the summer. When we get into the summer and we have some communication on technical points and off-ice training, having a buy-in from the goalies individually is what the short-term goals are for the summer.
“The timing allowed for the relationships to develop and those connections to happen which is a good thing going forward.”
It helps Bierk has a relationship with Smith. They won a Memorial Cup together in 2015 with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals and understand how they can work together. In his first week on the job, Bierk spent pretty much all his time with Murray while the expectation is Hogberg won’t be brought back next season.
Bierk hasn’t tried to make wholesale changes to the foundation the goalies have in place from working with former goalie coach Pierre Groulx or Belleville coach Justin Peters.
“First of all, it’s important to have a digestible message with attainable and manageable goals,” Bierk said. “In my playing days, the goalie coaches I responded the best to were the ones that gave me a couple of steps rather than 10 or 15 things to work on.
“There has to be reciprocal communication. It’s not about having everybody play the same way or having set rules. It’s about understanding each individual and what makes them tick plus their strengths and weaknesses. Once the goalie and the coach get on the same page with a couple of points that tends establish the connection and make working together easier.”
Bierk is confident this group of goalies can get the job done.
“These things have a way of playing themselves out and a lot of guys have made really good cases for themselves by earning playing time,” Bierk said. “It’s a good problem to have and we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.”