The old saying goes if you want to become a good goaltender, it is best to play for a bad team. If that adage has any bit of truth, Mathieu Corbeil of the Halifax Mooseheads should have a strong future in hockey.
At 6’6, Corbeil literally stands head and shoulders above his fellow 2010 draft eligible goaltenders. With his lanky frame, he easily covers a large portion of the net by simply being in position. But when paired with surprising athleticism and a quick glove hand, Corbeil has the ability to be almost impenetrable between the pipes.
Cam Russell, the coach and general manager of the Mooseheads captured him as follows: "I see him as a guy who is obviously big in stature, he looks bigger and bigger every game, which can be intimidating for forwards as they try to score on him. His quickness has improved; his off-ice work ethic has improved. I see a guy with tremendous upside and a great attitude."
But with that size comes some drawbacks. Corbeil has a tendency to lose track of the puck in tight, leaving the opportunity open for a quick tap in if any attackers are close by. It’s a sentiment that Corbeil agrees with, while also pointing out that he wants to improve his puck handling.
"In minor hockey, I wasn’t really taught how," he said. "The coaches didn’t really want me to play the puck because of their systems and I never really had the chance. So now I’m lacking in that particular field."
Meanwhile, his mental focus has also been brought into question, as Kim Houston of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau noted, "I really like his athleticism and his quickness, I think what he has to work on is his concentration and his focus. Situations like the game is on the line, let’s not let the next one in and let’s give the team a chance to get back into it. I think he has to be mentally tougher."
Corbeil agrees and explained that it is something he is working on.
"I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself. I used to do that and it just got in the way. Now, I just go out there, I’m confident in what I can do and I just go do it."
As a rookie in 2008-09 playing behind veteran Mark Yetman, Corbeil appeared in 24 games, but his record of 3-14 was nothing to write home about. Neither was his 4.44 goals-against-average and his .873 save percentage. The freshman often appeared gangly and uncoordinated in the net, with his long limbs kicking out just as many juicy rebounds as they did saves.
Finishing last in the league with a record of 19-41-3-5, the Mooseheads scored just 193 goals (third worst in the league), while allowing 290 goals against (again, third worst in the league).
Despite his minimal experience, Corbeil was handed the starting duties nearly by default for the 2009-10 season. It was far from an ideal situation, as Russell admitted.
"We didn’t have a backup goaltender, a goalie had to come in and make the team as the backup, so Mathieu was kind of given the job as the starter, so our expectations and our hopes were that he would be able to carry the ball and do that, and I think for the most part he did. But he didn’t have a lot of experience coming into this year."
After struggling early on, it was a different Corbeil who stepped between the pipes for the Herd in his sophomore season. No longer awkward and clumsy, the effects of a summer-long training program to improve his core strength shone through, with the lanky netminder being much more controlled in his movements.
As Corbeil explained, "The older you get, the more you can use [your size] to your advantage, as you get used to it. As the season went on, I got to depend on my body a bit more and just know how to use it."
From his view behind the bench, Russell saw it as a player who was improving not just game-by-game, but even shot-by-shot.
"I think you see a very big difference from the goalie you saw at the beginning of the season. He came in and I think he put a lot of pressure on himself, a lot of expectations. We kind of threw him into a No. 1 role, which wasn’t fair, when you consider the team we had this season with a young group of guys and especially a real young group of defense playing in front of him. So it was tough for probably the first six weeks, baptism by fire, but in the end, I think it’s paid off for him, I think it’s going to make him a stronger, more durable goaltender and mentally tougher. His improvement has been very steady, if you look at where he’s at now, compared to where he was at the start of the year, his composure in the net, his confidence, if we’re giving up a lot of high percentage shots, you just see him get better as the night goes on. I just think you see a stronger, more mature person than you saw at the beginning of the season. It’s been a good education for him this year."
Corbeil’s improved play shone through when, in mid-November, he was honored with two consecutive QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week awards. But as the season wore on, playing behind a porous defensive team like Halifax with little help to supplant him proved to be both a physical and a mental challenge for goaltender. As the goals and the losses piled against him, Corbeil began to play deeper in his net, reducing the advantages that his size and speed gave him and leading to further struggles.
Looking for a solution, the Mooseheads were to acquire 19-year-old goaltender Peter Delmas for minimal cost near the end of the winter trade period to help share the load between the pipes and give Corbeil a break. According to Russell, the move was one of necessity.
"It was something that we thought that Corbeil would start to wear down as the season went on if we didn’t have a backup that we could throw in there on any given night. We also thought that if there was ever an injury to Corbeil, we would really be in trouble, so that really played into it as well. We needed to bring in somebody else to put in the net, because we felt that we were playing Mathieu too much. We needed a good one, first we were looking for a backup and then the opportunity came up to pick up Delmas and the price was more than fair. We feel very happy with the trade that happened there."
Though he saw his starts drop in the second half of the season, Corbeil welcomed the addition of Delmas to the Mooseheads as the workload was starting to be a burden.
"I was playing so much; I was exhausted at Christmas time. When I got home at Christmas, I was just happy to be home and happy to have a break, I was really exhausted. And now that I came back and he and I are sharing the net, I’m still playing a lot too, I think I’m playing my fair amount of games, but I can get the rest and when I do play, it helps me out."
Adding a player like Delmas, who at the time was hoping for an entry-level deal from the Colorado Avalanche, helped benefit Corbeil in other ways too.
"Delmas is just a great guy for Corbeil to practice with and it’s a great opportunity for Corbeil just to see how hard Delmas works and competes on ice and off ice," said Russell.”How hard you have to work to try to make it to the next level."
It’s a sentiment that Corbeil shares. "He’s been through NHL camps, definitely has experience. He’s a great guy, teaches me a lot. Even by what he does, just the way he acts, you can see that he’s been through a lot."
The duo shared the goaltending duties with almost a 50-50 split to finish the year, but in the end, the Mooseheads again finished last in the league with a record of 13-48-3-4, scoring a league-low 171 goals, while allowing 288 goals against (which was fourth worst in the league). This was far from an unexpected result for the club, as Russell explained.
"We knew what we were getting into from the start. We kind of approached last year, where we went to rebuild, but didn’t and patched holes with band-aids of 18 and 19-year-old players. This year we stuck to our guns and we decided that we were going to bring in young players and let them play and build and take our lumps in the process, which we knew was going to happen and has happened. It’s going to pay off for us down the road, we know we have to take the short-term pain for ultimately what will be the long-term gain for us."
Although Corbeil’s record wasn’t much better from his rookie effort, at 8-39 and both his save percentage and goals against average were only slightly improved at .883 and 3.83 respectively, he solidified himself as one of the top QMJHL talents between the pipes.
This growth was recognized both by NHL Central Scouting, who invited him to their Draft Combine and by Hockey Canada, who invited him to their Program of Excellence goaltending camp as one of the candidates to play for the National Junior Team at the 2011 World Juniors. While it is unlikely that Corbeil will be selected to play for Canada in the winter tournament (nine other CHL goaltenders were also invited as candidates and due to his late-1991 birthday, this is his last year eligible to participate in the under-20 tournament), this opportunity is a testament to how far his game has come in such a short time.
The struggles that Corbeil has played through in Halifax are nothing new for the goaltender, who has a bit of a history of playing for poor teams, but he does his best to keep a positive attitude.
"I haven’t played for a winning team in five years or so," he said. "It’s hard to keep up and stay happy to come to the rink when you’re always losing, but I’m doing what I like and I know there’s a future, that I could have a chance to go somewhere, so that’s what I look forward to."