In the four seasons before 2018-19, the Carolina Hurricanes finished around 29th in the NHL on average in team save percentage. Their goaltending has been like an anchor, holding them back from rising up the Eastern Conference standings. In seasons when their offense was respectable, the performances they'd get between the pipes would help ensure that more pucks were entering their own net rather than those of their opponents'.
That's changed in a big way this season. The Hurricanes are 12th overall in team save percentage (.905) after finishing 31st last season. After Saturday's win at Florida, Petr Mrazek (16-12-3) and Curtis McElhinney (17-7-1) have become the first goaltending duo in franchise history to each record 16 wins in the same season.
"Obviously the goalies have been good," said goalie coach Mike Bales, in his second season with the Hurricanes. "Our system this year ... we pressure the puck a little bit more than last year. When there are breakdowns, it's clear where the breakdowns are and who's responsible for what. Everyone's a little bit better defined this year, and that makes the goaltenders' jobs a little bit easier."
Bales, 47, played 23 games in the NHL with Ottawa and Boston from 1992 to 97 before embarking on a career of goaltending in Europe. He arrived in Raleigh with a heck of a pedigree: Serving as Pittsburgh Penguins goalie development coach from 2011-13 before taking over as goaltending coach. His work with Marc-Andre Fleury helped the goalie stabilize his career, and Bales managed the Penguins' netminders during the team's Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.
And then, just as Fleury was going to be sent packing to Vegas in the expansion draft, Bales was let go by the Penguins -- the day after their Stanley Cup parade in 2017.
"They called me into the office. I've always been a positive guy, so I knew I'd probably be in another job soon. At the end of the day, you just move on. If you're not wanted, you're not wanted," he said.
We spoke with Bales about the Hurricanes' impressive goaltending, managing the mental part of Mrazek, the sad journey of Scott Darling, his coaching philosophies and what Marc-Andre Fleury is accomplishing in Vegas.
ESPN: Before we get into specifics on players, I was wondering about your general approach to goalie coaching. I've spoken to Mitch Korn on a number of occasions about the advanced stats he uses, etc. Are you an analytics guy? What's your approach?
Mike Bales: I pay attention to the stats. Every team uses analytics. I don't get too much into the numbers with the guys. I think sometimes when you fill a guy's head with the numbers, it can overwhelm them. I just like them to go out and let them play.
When I'm dealing with my guys, my basic philosophy is that I'm trying to help them be the best version of themselves. I don't have a particular style. Some ideas, I feel, are more conducive to having success than others. But I'd say that's my basic philosophy. Everybody processes the game a little bit different. Everybody is built a little bit differently. Guys are more comfortable with certain save selections. I understand that guys have gotten to this level for a reason. Let's see what makes them successful and build off of that.
ESPN: Did you have any say in the acquisitions of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney? Like, does GM Don Waddell come to you and ask for your take on them?
Bales: They always come and ask. You give your opinion on guys. Goalie coaches have their take on most guys in the league. But ultimately, they're making the decisions.
ESPN: From everyone I've talked to, Mrazek is a goalie with all the tools but didn't always have the mental game down. Is that a fair assessment, and how did you work with him to get him on track?
Bales: I don't know if it's as much on the mental side as it is the emotional side. Petr's a pretty emotional guy. You could see it [in Saturday night's win over Florida] where he makes some big saves in overtime and helps us win. You can see the emotions are there.
✨ Mrazek is magic ✨ pic.twitter.com/umkkA3L0eL
- Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) March 3, 2019
Being emotional is fine, but you have to be in control of them so they don't overtake you. We talk about the mental side of the game. One of the things early in the season was that we don't give up a lot of shots. Some guys struggle with that a little bit. We talk about the fact that some games you might not get 10 shots before you see a Grade-A chance. It shouldn't affect you. You don't need to make 10 saves before you can save a Grade-A chance. You're a good goaltender. Go out there and make the save.
ESPN: Where did you learn to handle the mental side of things?
Bales: I've read books, I've listened to different podcasts. "Freakonomics" is a good one. They've got some good psychology on there sometimes. But the biggest thing is that you're dealing with human beings here. You have to try to connect with the athletes.
ESPN: What do you like about McElhinney's game, and what adjustments did you make there? What's the process like to get a guy in basically after training camp?
Bales: Curtis has been around a little bit. To be honest, I'm not interfering at all with what he's doing. He's an older guy. He knows how he wants to play. If there's something in his game he's not comfortable with, something I haven't picked up on, he can bring it to me and we can work on it. Some guys do change a little bit as they get older -- changing their style due to injury or because their body gets older. But for the most part, if they're older and still in the league, it's been working for them.
ESPN: Obviously we can't talk about the Hurricanes' goaltending situation without discussing Scott Darling. How difficult was that for you, as his coach? Were there signs that maybe things weren't right with Scott before he took his leave of absence?
Bales: In the summer, he committed himself to coming into camp in great shape. He was down considerably in his weight, and had a great training camp. Then he got injured, and he had some good games and bad games. He went down to the American League, and we hoped he could find his game, and he ended up having to take a leave of absence. It's unfortunate that it didn't work for him.
I had an open dialogue with Scott. As I said, I'm trying to make everyone the best versions of themselves. I was just trying to help him as best I can. Sometimes there's only so much you can do as a coach.
Look, there are a lot people that are going to say what they're going to say about him. But what I know about Scott is that he should be proud of what he accomplished up to this point. He's done something that very few people have done, which is play goalie in the National Hockey League. On top of that, he's also won a Stanley Cup. That's a hell of an accomplishment. I really hope that things work out for him, that he gets back to the level he was at before. But if he doesn't, he should be able to hold his head up high.
ESPN: You're best known for your work with Marc-Andre Fleury with the Penguins. Viewing it from afar, what's your take on his play in Vegas?
Bales: I'm thrilled for him. He's exceeded the original expectations for what would happen out there. He's played great on the ice for them, but for Vegas to get a person of his caliber off the ice was such a coup for them. He's such a good guy. He encourages his teammates. He works hard. He comes to practice every day with a smile on his face. At the end of the day, all he wants to do is win. They really lucked out in the way it worked out for them. He's got one thing on his mind, and that's climbing up that all-time wins list, and I'm cheering for him every time he does it. Well, except for when we play against him.
ESPN: You said he comes to practice with a smile on his face, but I know for a fact that he's one of the single most competitive guys in practice in the NHL.
Bales: One hundred percent. And sometimes it's too much. You can't get him to stop. 'Flower, you gotta get off the ice. Conserve a little energy here.' But he just loves the game. At the end of the day, he's just a street hockey goalie in his heart.
ESPN: Do you think if Fleury had been protected in the expansion draft, you'd still be in Pittsburgh?
Bales: I don't know. It's hard to say how everything would have played out without the expansion draft. It was a huge competitive advantage to have both Flower and [Matt] Murray during those Cup runs. It's hard to say what would have happened. But I would think trying to make it work with two guys there was the best case scenario.
ESPN: Finally, on a lighter note: Do wish the goalies were more involved in the Storm Surge celebrations that the Carolina Hurricanes have made famous?
Bales: [Laughs] I hadn't noticed they're not. I'm usually in the elevator to come down when the celebrations are going on. But I love them. Obviously, the players love doing them, the fans embraced them.
I played in Europe for a good portion of my career. It's not quite exactly the same, but there's always a celebration there after you win. The players leave the ice, they come back out, they bring their kids out. It was a different experience over there and it's good to see some of that flair over here.
You watch the clips on YouTube from games over there, and you see the goalie break dancing and stuff. And some people might be like 'look at this donkey, dancing around' and what they don't understand is that the fans will call you out by name to come out and do a dance. If you didn't go out, you're insulting your own fans. If you've gone over there and experienced it, you know it's something different.
ESPN: Wait ... did you have to do a dance?
Bales: No, but there are other things you can do that the fans were fine with. I never danced, because I can't dance at all. People always joke about 'dad dancing." Well I was dancing like a dad long before I ever was one.