Last season, the Kootenay Ice had a “good problem” at the start of the year. They had three goalies and weren’t sure which one to cut from the roster.
It took well past the team’s original Thanksgiving weekend deadline to decide on their duo, but Lee and Walter proved to be a reliable tandem throughout the season.
This fall, the battle for the crease should be even more interesting.
On May 25, Ice President and General Manager Matt Cockell announced the acquisition of veteran goalie Mario Petit from the Everett Silvertips in exchange for a conditional sixth-round pick in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.
— Kootenay ICE (@WHLKootenayICE) May 25, 2017
Petit is entering his overage season in the WHL and has spent the past two seasons behind superstar netminder Carter Hart, the reigning back-to-back champion of the league’s Top Goaltender award.
In 37 career regular season WHL games over two seasons, Petit has a 14-8-7-1 record along with a 2.89 goals-against average (GAA) and .892 save percentage.
“I think acquiring Mario makes our entire camp more competitive, especially at the goaltending position, [which is what] we’re looking for,” Cockell told the Townsman on Friday morning. “He’s a really good fit. He competes hard [and] he’s certainly been able to play for a winning organization [for] the last couple of years.”
Petit will have the age advantage coming into camp, but there are also strong cases why Walter and Hobbs should seize the starting job.
Although he was not in the WHL after October last season, Hobbs was the only one of the three goalies to have a starting role in 2017-18.
In 13 games with the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, Hobbs was solid with a 1.94 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.
Walter, meanwhile, was often brilliant in net with the Ice but struggled with his consistency while facing a high number of shots each game. He finished his rookie WHL season with a 5.02 goals against average and a .868 save percentage in 30 games.
Speaking of Walter’s play at the conclusion of last season, Ice head coach Luke Pierce said that the young goalie had his fair share of struggles.
“At times, I thought that maybe [Walter] wasn’t as prepared as he needed to be, [but] that’s part of being young, unfortunately,” Pierce said. “When you’re a 17-year-old forward, you have a whole group of people around you that can hide your weaknesses, but when you’re a 17-year-old goaltender, your weaknesses are going to show.
“It’s a tough position, [but] we need more from him next year and he’s aware of that. It’s going to be a really important summer for him.”
Hobbs, meanwhile had similar numbers with the Ice in 2015-16 with a 4.66 goals against average and a .873 save percentage in 24 games behind Wyatt Hoflin, but has no doubt had a confidence boost after last season.
“We feel that Walter and Hobbs [both] have a very good opportunity to [make the team],” Cockell said. “Both have played in the league [and] have experience.
“Hobbs had a great opportunity this year to play in a starting role. I think that will really help as he returns to camp. And Walter has just been through his first year, so there’s a lot of learning in your first year, especially as a goaltender.”
As the situation stands now, however, Petit should be the frontrunner for one of the two available goaltending positions.
“We’re excited to let them compete, all the goaltenders, and Mario really provides for us some stability in terms of a guy that’s played in the league for a couple of years,” Cockell said. “[He’s] played in all sorts of different situations, played in the playoffs […] he adds a lot to our group and really helps us moving forward.”
Makaj was the team’s second overall selection and 23rd overall pick at the 2016 Draft, while Woodside was a sixth round pick at 111th overall. Both goalies are highly regarded by the franchise.
“When you look at building a championship team, you’re looking to build from the back out and that starts with goaltending,” Cockell said. “We’re very excited about the young goalies that we’ve drafted over the last couple of years and are looking forward to working with them, seeing how they develop and having them work hard to earn a spot on our team.
“Makaj and Woodside certainly will want to make sure they are part of the equation too, so we’re excited to have a very competitive camp.”
Petit’s presence will also impact the competition amongst the team’s 20-year-olds.
When asked about overagers at the conclusion of the season, Pierce said that “some decisions [had been] made from our organizational standpoint [and] we’ve let some players know they won’t be returning with us.” Cockell would not comment on which 20-year-olds would be at camp this fall.
Before the arrival of Petit, the Ice had four 1997-born players on their roster including defencemen Troy Murray and Kurtis Rutledge, and forwards Colton Kroeker and Austin Wellsby. As per league rules, at least two 20-year-old players will have to be cut from the roster by October if they are all still in the mix.
Although Cockell wouldn’t rule out potentially making more trades this summer, he is happy with the makeup of his roster and is looking forward to seeing which players rise to the occasion in September.
“I talked at length with our older players and our staff, and I think they understand what is expected of them coming back to camp and [their] additional responsibilities,” Cockell said. “We feel very strongly about our younger players, but we want to surround them with great people and players that are helping to push our group along.
“We have a really good group of older players to help us do that. We’ll always explore conversations, but we’re looking forward to a competitive camp and moving forward with our group to see where things evolve.”
Petit was one of two 20-year-old goalies to be dealt last week. The Calgary Hitmen acquired Flames prospect Nick Schneider from the Medicine Hat Tigers on May 26 in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.