There’s no mystery over the identity of the Blackhawks’ goaltending tandem at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, with Corey Crawford securely in the top position and Antti Raanta slated for the backup role after a breakout rookie season. One rung down the organizational ladder, however, and things get more interesting.
In addition to 2010 draft picks Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth, a couple of free-agent signings will make the competition at the American Hockey League level worth watching. Further down the pipeline, 2012 seventh-round pick Matt Tomkins is very much on the radar after completing his first NCAA season at Ohio State, where he displayed poise and maturity beyond his freshman status. From turning pro to fighting for starting positions, Blackhawks goalie prospects all went through pivotal transition years in 2013-14 that included plenty of growing pains and sharp learning curves.
Simpson’s second pro season started brightly. Raanta’s promotion to the Blackhawks in November meant increased ice time in Rockford, and when Crawford also fell to injury the following month, the 22-year-old was called up on an emergency basis. Simpson made his NHL debut in a relief appearance in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2013; just 28 seconds in, he allowed his first NHL goal, and 8 minutes later, his second. He finished with five saves on seven shots, but the experience had value beyond the on-ice result.
“I was pretty nervous,” Simpson recalled. “Looking back, it was a cool experience, but the first 10 minutes of that period, I didn’t even feel like myself. I was thinking about so many different things; it was such a rush of emotions, and I didn’t do the best job of trying to control it. But the second 10, I felt so much more comfortable and more relaxed. I’ll take from the second 10 and learn from the first.”
A trade with the Edmonton Oilers brought Jason LaBarbera to Rockford to provide veteran stability, and Simpson ended the campaign in a backup role, although he made sure to pick up tips from the seasoned journeyman.
“Barbs was awesome with me,” Simpson said. “Especially going through some of those things I went through toward the end of the year, where you feel good in games but don’t get the results [or vice versa]. It was good to bounce things off of him, and he’d always be really honest with me.
“The second half of the year just didn’t go according to plan,” he continued. “That being said, I learned so much from it. While you’re in it, it’s tough to pinpoint what’s going on, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’m going to take that forward into next year and build on it.”
Simpson’s 11-14-1 record and .891 save percentage was certainly a reflection of his inconsistency during the second half of the season, but Developmental Goaltending Coach Andrew Allen says that numbers aren’t the bottom line when it comes to evaluating goalie prospects.
“We try not to look at the numbers all the time, because we’re a developmental team in the AHL, and on any given night we have a young lineup,” he said. “At the end of the day we’d like to see wins and we’d like to see more consistency, and that’s where I use the numbers with the young goalies—to motivate them, not so much from the standpoint of ‘Well, your numbers need to be better,’ but if we can see improvement in his numbers from year to year, that shows development.”
As Simpson enters his third professional season, his daily focus is on immediate improvement, but he knows he must seize the opportunity to make an even deeper impression on the Blackhawks’ hockey ops department.
“A big goal for this season is staying in the AHL, being a starting goalie there, earning more ice time as the season goes along and proving to the Chicago Blackhawks that I can be a goalie for them one day,” he said. “That’s the long-term goal. As for short-term, everyday in practice I pick something new [to work on].”
If Simpson experienced both highs and lows, then Carruth’s 2013-14 season was a veritable rollercoaster, as he bounced around between the AHL and ECHL, including a late-season trade that moved him from the Blackhawks’ former ECHL affiliate in Toledo to the Florida Everblades. After three seasons in the Western Hockey League as an undisputed starter, Carruth found himself confronting a disorienting lack of certainty during his first pro season.
“I’ve never been traded in juniors or anything, so it was a different thing to get used to,” Carruth said. “As far as going to different teams and having different teammates, it seems like it was every other week. As it went on, it got a little easier. Being called up to Rockford a couple times, I already knew those guys, but going to Florida or back to Toledo, [adjusting to a new team] took a bit longer.”
Still, he characterizes last season as “a good learning experience,” one in which he learned to tone down his emotions and fortify the mental side of his game. Similar to Simpson’s case, Allen sees consistency as Carruth’s biggest objective in the near future.
“Mac needs to continue to learn from every experience,” he said. “He can be more consistent, no matter where he’s playing, at whatever level. That’s something he got better at as the season went on last year.”
Consistency may be a goal for Carruth, but don’t expect him to be complacent: “Right now my mindset is to push the guy ahead of me, see if I can overtake that guy who’s in that spot right now, whether it’s Kent or [offseason free-agent signing Scott] Darling or whoever’s there.”
With LaBarbera gone and Raanta in Chicago seemingly for good, Simpson and Carruth may have been expected to continue their friendly rivalry this fall at Rockford’s training camp, but recent additions have made the field tougher: The Blackhawks signed Michael Leighton on Aug. 18 after inking Darling earlier this summer, creating an eclectic crowd of netminders who will compete head-to-head (to-head-to-head) for the IceHogs’ starting position this fall.
“With Leighton signing, it creates more of a competition for all of our goalies,” Allen said. “Healthy competition will motivate each guy to be at their best come training camp.”
Leighton faced the Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final while with Philadelphia and brings years of NHL and pro experience. Darling, a 25-year-old who stands 6-foot-6, may be less heralded, but still presents a significant challenge to the younger pair, with several years of pro experience under his belt. Their arrival puts renewed pressure on Simpson and Carruth to produce the kind of consistency that a starting goaltender must command in order to succeed at the professional level.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what year they are now, and who was drafted where,” Allen said. “It’s more about who’s going to perform now. They’re both professional goalies, and they’ve got to bring it to the table.”
In addition to Simpson and Carruth, the organization is continuing to keep a close watch on Tomkins, who spent last season as part of an unusual freshmen-only combination in goal for Ohio State.
“It was pretty rare to have three freshmen goalies,” Tomkins said. “If anything, it helped all of us to make that adjustment together and make that jump to the next level.”
Tomkins earned the starting position early in the season, but an injury limited his minutes down the stretch and in the BIG10 playoffs, where the Buckeyes made the championship game but fell to Wisconsin in overtime. He finished his first collegiate campaign with a 6-7-2 record and .911 save percentage.
Even with his freshman season in the books, Tomkins says adjusting to the fast-paced NCAA competition is an ongoing process: “I always want to improve different parts of my game, but just adjusting to that speed and higher caliber of play was a big step for me. I’m obviously getting stronger as well, and I [need to] continue to do that if I want to make it to the next level.”
For Allen, Tomkins’ improvement from level to level has been encouraging.
“If you look at his three development camps [since he was drafted], he has really come along,” he said. “He’s a well-conditioned athlete, one of the most well-conditioned prospects we have—not just among goalies, but across the board.”
When Tomkins begins his sophomore campaign at Ohio State, he’ll attack the same objective as the previous season—win (back) the starting job—but with one more year of experience at his disposal. At 6-foot-3, the 20-year-old stands out for his solid technique and edge control, despite having honed them for far less time than other goalies his age. Tomkins grew up playing defense, but found his calling between the pipes at age 11 after grasping an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his favorite player.
“Patrick Roy—I always idolized him, so I decided to try goalie and never looked back,” he explained. “There’s always a guy who needs to go in net, and I’d do that occasionally. I thought I might as well make it a full-time thing, and it worked out pretty well.”
Although the Blackhawks relinquished the rights to Brandon Whitney, Tomkins’ fellow seventh-round pick in 2012, they recently selected Russian goaltender Ivan Nalimov in the sixth round of the 2014 Draft to round out their goaltending prospect pool. July’s Prospect Camp was Nalimov’s first extended stay in North America, but Allen is optimistic about his skill set.
“I was very happy with Nalimov’s glove hand—he has a very natural catching motion,” Allen said. “Good reflexes and quickness around the net, coupled with good size. He’s a little raw at this point... I’m excited to see where he’s going to be in a couple of years.”
As training camp approaches and positional battles take shape all across the ice, the Blackhawks’ goalie prospects have already set personal goals for their development in the upcoming season and beyond. Whether they’re closer to breaking into the NHL, like Simpson, or several years away, like Tomkins, what’s clear to each player is that—no matter where they play—every minute spent in between the pipes is one more step toward the ultimate goal of wearing a Chicago Blackhawks sweater.