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Sports Saturday

Meet Peter Aubry, the man turning the Blackhawks’ goaltending pipeline into a team strength

Aubry, the Blackhawks’ developmental goaltending coach, has helped Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen develop into two of hockey’s best goalie prospects.

Peter Aubry (right) never misses a chance to utilize video, even during an on-ice session at Blackhawks development camp.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Peter Aubry felt the butterflies fluttering in his own stomach on Dec. 29, 2017, as 32-year-old Jeff Glass skated out for his NHL debut.

It wasn’t too dissimilar from his own playing days.

“I’d say the third shot was Connor McDavid coming down the off wing, cuts to the middle and Glass makes the save,” Aubry said in a conversation with the Sun-Times this week. “You almost feel like you’re right in there with them.”

That emotional investment/personal connection in every player he coaches has helped Aubry, the Blackhawks’ developmental goaltending coach since 2015, create an organizational strength out of a formerly barren wasteland.

While the Hawks wait for recent selections Alexis Gravel and Dominic Basse to develop enough to turn pro, an unsightly streak of poor goalie drafting continues. Not since 2012 has the franchise drafted one who eventually made it to the AHL. And not since 2003 has it drafted an NHL goalie, save for one lone appearance by 2010 second-rounder Kent Simpson. That has meant minor-league journeymen such as Glass have often made up a sizable part of the so-called goalie depth.

Yet Aubry, 42, has manufactured such an impressive duo out of two undrafted, overaged prospects — Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen — that the AHL’s fourth-best goalie in 2019, Anton Forsberg, was traded because the Hawks had nowhere to put him.

“He’s more than just a coach,” Delia said. “He really cares about the human aspect of his goaltenders. He’s very in touch with the nuances of the game still — he obviously played professionally — but he’s very aware of what we’re going through mentally and physically. He really nurtures the human side of the position.”

Aubry bounced around the low minors and European leagues as a player, but has found his niche in coaching.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks

Delia describes Aubry’s mentorship as “one of the main reasons” he has made it this far professionally.

Aubry pushed general manager Stan Bowman to sign Delia after two strong showings as an undrafted development-camp invitee. He saw Delia’s explosiveness in net and good skating ability — a rarity for goalies — and figured he could build on those strong suits while searching for the save-to-save reliability that was missing in his game. He figured correctly.

“[Delia has] always shown those lion flashes, where his skill is as good as anyone, but when he’s been able to add that consistency on the routine plays, mastering the simple situations, he’s really been able to do well,” Aubry said. “I like to think I helped him simplify some areas in his game.”

While aiding Delia’s surge to second in the AHL with a .922 save percentage, Aubry simultaneously watched over Lankinen, who struggled early in his first North American season after signing as a 23-year-old Finnish undrafted free agent last summer.

Buried beneath Delia and Forsberg, Lankinen ultimately made only 19 appearances for Rockford and had a .910 save percentage. Still, Aubry saw plenty of growth.

“Kevin, throughout the year, got a lot more together in his play, moving his body together as opposed to having a limb here and a limb there,” Aubry said. “Everything just worked as a unit of one.”

Again, Aubry had seen something well ahead of the masses. Lankinen erupted at the World Championships in May, leading undermanned Finland to a gold medal with an impressive .942 save percentage. He’s now considered one of the Hawks’ top prospects.

So let’s recap: The Hawks boast two of hockey’s more NHL-ready goalie prospects — plus Gravel, who has great potential — in spite of a horrendous lack of draft effectiveness.

Aubry attributes that state of affairs to the fact that he can focus on a few players at a time, unlike other position coaches who have to manage dozens.

But that’s a benefit every goalie coach enjoys.

The Hawks’ goalie guru is clearly doing something different, something better, something special. Perhaps it’s his all-encompassing devotion to his players, which unlocks an almost telepathic connection over time.

“Because there’s fewer numbers, you can really get in there, get to know guys,” Aubry said. “It’s a double-edged sword a little bit — you feel for them when they’re not in there, or they have a tough night, or they do play well but things still don’t go their way. Sometimes you feel like you’re right there with them stopping pucks or getting scored on and fishing it out of the back of the net.”

Players sense that connection, too.

“There’s so much specific dialogue that goes on about why we played this situation the way we did,” Delia said. “He really knows exactly what we’re going through, and he is very engaged in everything that we’re doing, whether it be a practice, a skills session or a game.”

Aubry will admit the end goal is to become an NHL goalie coach one day, but it’s not foremost on his mind — Jimmy Waite need not quake in his skates.

For now, Aubry enjoys the dirty work in the minor leagues, grooming the Hawks’ suddenly flush pipeline of goaltenders. The pride that fills his soul when a pupil makes it to the NHL provides plenty of fuel for the grind.

“When we look over video, and they make a comment like, ‘Oh, that’s the drill we did!’ or ‘This is what we’ve been working on!’ it does give you a little high,” he said, smiling. “But the highest of highs is when they do get called up. Whether it’s Jeff Glass or J-F Berube or Delia, and in their first game, they’re able to do well, you feel like, ‘Boom!’ ”