BETWEEN THE PIPES
Rockford, Ill. – In the American Hockey League, team rosters can go through many changes from year to year as prospects come and go, or in the perfect scenario graduate to the National Hockey League.
In the six years that the Rockford IceHogs have been a part of the AHL, one position that has stayed relatively consistent from season-to-season is between the pipes at goaltender. Each season, fans in Rockford have been pretty familiar with at least one of the names of the players manning their net.
For the first three seasons (2007-10), Corey Crawford was always in the mix as the starter before graduating to Chicago. In 2010-11, the duo of Alec Richards and Hannu Toivonen split time between the pipes in Rockford before Carter Hutton emerged as the starter for the past two seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13). With Crawford still taking care of business with the Blackhawks and Hutton moving on to the Nashville Predators, the IceHogs will see some new faces behind the masks of their goaltenders.
The Blackhawks have three solid prospects in Mac Carruth, Antti Raanta and Kent Simpson looking to fight for a job in Rockford, behind the likely duo of Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago. Between those three, only Simpson has seen time in the AHL, with a total of three games under his belt.
After spending his rookie season last year in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye and getting a small taste of the AHL, Simpson got the experience he needed as a young developing goaltender.
“I think the biggest thing for me last year was to play a lot of games,” Simpson said. “I think that’s what Chicago wanted me to do, so now I’ve accomplished that goal and I think my play steadily progressed as the year went along.”
Simpson did finish the season strong as he won six of his last eight regular season starts for the Walleye, finishing in the top ten among all ECHL goaltenders with a 20 wins, a 2.36 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. Looking ahead to the 2013-14 campaign, the 21 year-old knows the move from the ECHL to the AHL still possesses a challenge, much like the jump from an amateur to the professional ranks, but he’s ready to take the next step.
“It’s a little more controlled and guys know their positions a little better,” said Simpson when asked about the difference between the two leagues. “Every level you jump is going to be a little different but I think as a goalie, adapting and starting in the ECHL was one of the best things I could do and now I have to keep working my way up.”
Just like his roommate at Blackhawks Prospect Camp this past week, Carruth, is also looking to make a transition of his own. Carruth will enter his first professional campaign fresh off a WHL Championship in which he posted a 30-7-2 record with a career-best goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.929) to help lead the Portland Winterhawks all the way to the final Memorial Cup game. The 21 year-old also put his name in the record books in Portland as he finished his four year career with the Winterhawks as the all-time winningest goalie with 117 career wins.
It’s obvious that both young prospects are progressing to the likes of Blackhawks Developmental Goaltending Coach Andrew Allen and taking the next step in their careers.
“Both are ready to play pro hockey,” Allen said. “They’re both in a situation where mentally as much as physically, if not more, they’ve come along this past year.”
Add into the mix another goaltender making a transition heading into the upcoming season. Raanta, signed by the Blackhawks in early June, spent the last three seasons in the Finnish Elite League and will look to make the adjustment to hockey in North America and the smaller ice surface.
“It’s of course a little bit smaller ice. I just want to be in the right spot every time and make myself bigger and bigger,” said Raanta. “Players are coming to the net harder. They crash to the net and put rebounds in if you give them easy rebounds out. But I like when there’s traffic and lots of action in games. I’m ready all the time.
The Rauma, Finland native is coming off a spectacular year in which he was named the league’s most valuable player during the regular season and postseason. The 24 year-old posted a 21-10-11 record during the regular season with a 1.85 goals against average and .943 save percentage, along with a league-best 1.33 GAA and .955 save percentage in the playoffs.
Despite being held out of prospect camp with a minor injury, Raanta knows he’ll be ready and is looking forward to getting on the ice and getting in the net as much as possible, just like Carruth and Simpson.
“I know the opportunity isn’t going to be handed to me, Simpson said. “I want to come in and have a good camp, make a good impression and earn some good ice time.”