Though Mackenzie Skapski could still return to Cranbrook, there remains serious competition in the crease at Kootenay Ice training camp this week.
Wyatt Hoflin, the only returning netminder at camp, has shown no signs of regression from last season and looks calm and collected in the blue paint. That comes as surprise to no one.
“When [Hoflin] was able to step in again in the playoffs, he didn’t look out of place. He didn’t really blink,” said goaltending coach Mike Bergren. “He went with it, he knew he was ready to go and he proved that. That was refreshing to see for us because we know he is a guy we feel comfortable handing the ball to.
“That’s not to say he doesn’t have to earn it. But obviously as the incumbent it’s his job to lose.”
Bergren will run the second of two goaltender-specific sessions today at Ice camp. While game situations are an important evaluation tool for staff, individualized skill sessions are equally as important for goaltenders as they are for skaters.
While Wednesday’s session focused on dealing with pucks out of the slot, today Bergren is going to put the goalies through drills that will get them moving off their posts, fighting to track loose pucks and roaming around handling the puck.
“You have to be able to cater to both guys or in this case, all six guys in camp,” Bergren said. “The last two years I’ve been fortunate enough to have Wyatt [Hoflin] and Mackenzie [Skapski], two guys that do different things well.
“Part of [my role] is highlighting those things they do well and also helping to make some of the things that they don’t do as well, better.”
The most intriguing part of the Kootenay Ice crease war comes in the form of the five other goaltenders batting away black rubber discs through screens, deflections and heavy contact.
While Calum Humble’s bright yellow gear shouts at those in the stands and Jakob Walter’s status as a second round pick from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft speaks volumes, the reality for these two puckstoppers is simple: they won’t be in Cranbrook this season.
As 15-year-olds, the two goaltenders are here for a taste of major junior hockey in hopes they can elevate their game and make the jump somewhere further down the road.
Doing quick and simple math will reveal three goaltenders remaining and only one spot available behind the incumbent Hoflin.
Enter Jayden Sittler and Keelan Williams.
The two 18-year-old puckstoppers have literally risen above the others in the early stages of camp as they vie for playing time behind Hoflin.
At 6-feet tall, Sittler is an imposing presence between the pipes at one end of the rink. Then you turn your head to the opposing net to see Williams, who at 6-foot-2, stands well clear of any other netminder in camp.
“You just have to focus on your own game,” Williams said Thursday night. “If you get distracted by what the other guys are doing, you kind of lose sight of what you want to do yourself.
“I just have to focus on myself, my game and be confident in my abilities.”
Declan Hobbs is the youngest of the three, having just turned 16 on Aug. 19. That isn’t to say the Saskatoon native has gone unnoticed.
“It’s healthy competition right now,” said assistant coach Jay Henderson Thursday night. “Obviously Sittler has played well. Williams has shown very well, he’s a big body. And Declan Hobbs has played well [as a] younger kid.
“Moving into exhibition season they’ll get a lot more time and that’s when they’ll be able to stand out or show their weaknesses.”
Sittler brings something unique to the table in that he has seen action in one game with the Ice. The Red Deer native dressed last season and found crease time in his hometown when the Ice lined up against the Rebels.
“Maybe a little bit,” Sittler said of his experience giving him an edge on some of the less experienced goaltenders. “But I’m just thinking it’s all about hard work, dedication and seizing your opportunities.
“Anyone can take that spot.”
As much as physical size and filling the net go a long way, there certainly is more to it in the eyes of Bergren and he expects each goaltender to show their individual strengths as camp winds down.
“I’d like to see [the guys] show a measure of consistency [over the last few days of camp],” Bergren said. “It’s hard to go into a season with a question mark in net and you want to see those guys really take over and show they’re really ready to run with the ball.”