Ads with Three Great Goalie Options
By Jason Karnosky
Winning in the American Hockey League starts and ends with goaltending.
Few AHL teams are better equipped at that position than the Milwaukee Admirals, whose coach Dean Evason just happens to have three number one options at his disposal, Marek Mazanec, Magnus Hellberg and Scott Darling.
“It’s certainly nice to have those options (in goal),” Evason said his three goalies all have bright futures in the league and beyond. “I think a lot of teams are battling to find one guy who can play and we feel comfortable with all three—Mazanec, Hellberg and Darling. It’s a nice luxury to have.”
In case there was not enough competition for starts, Nashville Predators star goaltender Pekka Rinne returned briefly to the Milwaukee’s mix this past weekend, allowing just two goals while winning a pair of games during his conditioning stint.
It was a special homecoming weekend for the Predators’ franchise cornerstone, who once starred for the Admirals as a budding prospect from 2005-2008. During that time Rinne racked up 81 wins, posted a 2.54 goals against average and a save percentage of .911. Milwaukee rode the Kempele, Finland native to within two wins of a Calder Cup championship in the spring of 2006.
“The biggest thing (for me this weekend) was playing in games, and for Milwaukee it was two big wins and they really needed them,” said Rinne, who was named the top all-time Admiral last season. “I felt really good. It was so much fun to play (again) and good to be back in Milwaukee.”
Rinne, 2-0-0, 0.99 GAA, .943 SP with the Admirals this season, forecasts big things from Nashville’s top goaltending prospects that might challenge for his Predators’ spot in the coming years.
“I see (Milwaukee’s goalies) all having bright futures,” Rinne said. “They are really good goaltenders."
Current goaltending option number one for Evason is Marek Mazanec (9-7-3, 2.57 GAA, .914 SP with Milwaukee), a 22-year-old in his first year of playing hockey in North America.
Despite winning a Czech Extraliga title with Plzen (Mazanec backstopped his team’s 4-3 Game 7 title-clinching victory) the netminder was hardly a known quality when he arrived this fall.
But after a pair of stellar training camps at both the NHL and AHL levels, Evason knew he had something special in Nashville’s 2012 sixth-round draft pick. Mazanec proceeded to win each of his first five starts with the Admirals.
When Rinne suffered a hip injury and infection prior to Halloween, both Hellberg and Mazanec each got their shots to replace him with Nashville. It was Mazanec that took the ball and ran with it, seeing action in 25 games with the Predators.
“Maz(anec) had a real good experience during his time in Nashville.” Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. “Of the three, he is probably the most skilled guy, but when you start breaking down goalie skills it doesn’t always translate to success. He’s pretty controlled, catches well, handles the puck well and he’s won a championship in the Czech League.”
Mazanec’s first start in Nashville came on Nov. 12 on Long Island. He pocketed his first NHL win four nights later against Chicago. Finally, his first NHL shutout in Detroit rounded out a whirlwind week. Mazanec was later named NHL rookie of the month in November after going 5-4-1, with a 2.00 GAA and .932 SP.
“I appreciate that I got a chance to play and that coach (Barry Trotz) trusted in me,” Mazanec told reporters after his first NHL win. “It was really important for me.”
After posting an 8-10-4 record in Nashville, the Pisek, Czech Republic native returned to Milwaukee in January and has since become Evason’s top choice in goal on most nights.
“Maz has been great and he’s been giving us opportunities to win every night,” Evason said. “He’s been doing his part and carrying the load for us. There’s no question he’s been doing the right things.”
Evason second option in goal is Magnus Hellberg (5-13-1, 2.82 GAA, .911 SP), one of the AHL’s 2012-2013 breakout players. The lanky Uppsala, Sweden native, with a body-type reminiscent of Rinne (Hellberg’s 6-5, 196 lbs.), carried the Admirals on his back during last spring’s stretch run, helping Milwaukee earn its AHL-best 11th straight berth in the Calder Cup playoffs.
“Magnus Hellberg made great strides last year,” Evason said of the AHL Player of the Month for February 2013. “His development was absolutely tremendous.”
Hellberg has fared less well this season, but continues to work hard on his development. A special moment did come back on October 26 when the 2011 38th overall pick got into an NHL net for the first time with Nashville vs. St. Louis.
“It was a great experience to be up [in Nashville], practice with the guys, and see how it was in the show,” Hellberg said.
When healthy, if the 22-year-old netminder is called upon, the Admirals will have an elite back stop.
“Magnus Hellberg is probably the best of the three at using his body for blocking and conserving energy in terms of movement,” Korn said. “That’s his great strength. The areas we are working with him on are his skating, power and quickness, and his ability to catch and handle pucks.”
The third option for Milwaukee (hardly Evason’s worst choice), is minor league journeyman Scott Darling (8-4-1, 2.10 GAA, .931 SP), who is coming into his own with the Admirals.
When Hellberg was struggling and Mazanec was up filling the slot vacated by Rinne’s long term injury, Darling dazzled during his first extended AHL stint, posting wins by the bustle load and announcing to scouts that they really missed the boat on the 25-year-old. “Every time I get to play I’m just happy to play,” said Darling, who was drafted in sixth-round by Phoenix in 2007. “All I can do is make the most of my time in the (Admirals) net.”
Darling has done nothing but impress, earning plenty of accolades for his play, including his first AHL Player of the Week Award on December 30 and later the AHL December Goalie of the Month honor.
“Scotty Darling has had a great season, has really improved and I’m really proud of where he is considering he was the greatest unknown when we started the season,” Korn said of the Lemont, Illinois native. “He’s the most busy and active of the three goalies and handles the puck extremely well. (Now) he had to learn how to use his body like Magnus does instead of reaching for pucks.”
In his fourth professional season (which has included prior stops in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Wichita, Wheeling, Hamilton and Cincinnati) Darling has found confidence in himself as a goaltender.
“(Scott) has come a long way,” Evason said. “He caught a break with the injuries and made the best of it. He was great for us early, gave us opportunities to win (and) did everything that we’ve asked of him.”
Darling himself suffered an injury back in January, but he’s come back to make three more starts in February, posting his team-leading fourth shutout in a 1-0 shootout loss against Grand Rapids. Darling is presently battling Mazanec for the Admirals’ top spot with Hellberg still recovering from injury.
Even with Rinne back in Nashville and looking as sharp as ever, Evason knows he has some great goalie options as Milwaukee (25-19-6-6) enters the 2013-2014 stretch run.
“We’ll rotate our goaltenders based on how they play,” Evason said. “We have some quality (choices) with Maz, Hellberg and Darling.”
The question of which talented netminder, Mazanec, Hellberg or Darling, gets Milwaukee’s March and April starts will be up to the goalies to decide. No matter what decision Evason makes, the Admirals will certainly be in good hands between the pipes.
“They will dictate who we play,” Evason said. “We’re in a battle here to make the playoffs and we are conducting ourselves like we are trying to win every hockey game.”