Portland searches for goaltending stability

By Kevin Forbes

Since partnering with the Anaheim Ducks prior to the 2005-06 season, the fortunes of the Portland Pirates have been wildly inconsistent to say the least. The first season of affiliation saw the Pirates surge to become one of the top teams in the league, making it all the way to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. The second year wasn’t as prosperous, with Portland falling out of the playoff picture in a tightly fought Atlantic Division. Now in their third year, the Pirates currently find themselves challenging for a return to the post season but with a long year ahead of them.

A common area of instability throughout their affiliation has been the situation between the pipes. Over the previous two seasons, no fewer than 10 goaltenders have strapped on the pads for the Pirates, including seven just in 2006-07.

Entering the 2007-08 season, the Pirates appeared to have a previously unseen depth in the goaltending position, thanks to a combination of players returning, key free-agent pickups and the graduation of one of Anaheim’s top prospects to professional hockey. As it stands, four goaltenders have stepped on the ice so far this season for the Pirates.

Seeing the lion’s share of the workload so far is 25-year-old Swiss native Jonas Hiller. Signed by the Anaheim Ducks during their Stanley Cup-winning playoff run, Hiller has already seen time at the NHL level in his first season of hockey in North America. Starting in two games at the beginning of the season while Jean-Sebastien Giguere was out with injury, Hiller has a 1-1 NHL record with a 3.02 GAA and a .885 save percentage. During his stay in Portland, he quickly established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the league with a 2.11 GAA and a .929 save percentage despite a record of 3-2-0-1. So impressive was his play in the minors that it may have forced Anaheim’s hand to make room for him at the NHL level. The Ducks regular backup goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was waived by the team, paving the way for Hiller to relocate full-time to California.

Portland coach Kevin Dineen describes Hiller as "a big guy. He’s got some quickness, but he’s not out of position very much. He’s very solid, plays the puck fine. He just seems to be in the right place a lot of times. He has very quick arms. You see a spot and he gives it and takes it away pretty good." Dineen is also quick to point out that "he’s a guy who according to Francois Allaire [Anaheim’s goaltending consultant], was the No. 1 goalie prospect in Europe over the last two years and we were the ones fortunate enough to sign him as a free agent."

Gerald Coleman is the only prospect in Anaheim’s system who is not a new face in Portland, or for that matter, in the entire AHL. In 11 games with the Pirates last season, Coleman had a 4-5 record with a 2.89 GAA and a .895 save percentage. He was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning partway through the 2006-07 season; a move that Dineen says helped Coleman as much as it did the Pirates. "He wasn’t getting a lot of ice time [prior to the trade] and when he first got here, he really never had much instruction, let alone being able to work with someone like Francois," said Dineen. He went on to describe Coleman as "the hardest working guy on the team. His effort is there day in and day out."

This season hasn’t gone according to plan for the former OHL netminder however, as Coach Dineen explained, "He got ran into in Game 1 and had headaches there for about a week and just wasn’t feeling up to it. So he hasn’t been able to reestablish himself back in the net." So far, Coleman has seen action in a single game, a 3-2 loss against Springfield at the beginning of October. With that said, Dineen anticipates he will get a chance between the pipes again as the month of November goes on, especially now with Hiller gone.

Coleman’s aforementioned injury opened a void in the team’s goaltending structure just after a single game had been played in the season. With Hiller in Anaheim and just rookie Levasseur on the roster, the Pirates added Mike McKenna, a NCAA grad who has spent the past two seasons playing at the ECHL level. Dineen describes the former Nashville prospect as a player who has "earned a chance to stay with us, just based on his play and we’ve been really impressed with him as a goaltender in the games."

Rookie Jean-Philippe Levasseur started the season with the Pirates before being assigned to the Ducks’ ECHL affiliate in Augusta. A former QMJHL stalwart, Levasseur played in three AHL games with 1-2 record and a 3.34 GAA to go along with a .853 save percentage. While those stats are less than gaudy, Levasseur impressed Dineen with his mature approach to the game. According to Dineen, Levasseur "had a seriousness about him that was very impressive for a kid that age and takes instruction very well. He’s got a lot of care to him, meaning he cares every time he is out in practice, trying to get better."

Levasseur was sent to Augusta once Hiller was reassigned to Portland from Anaheim. A victim of the numbers game, Dineen notes that "he wasn’t happy [to be sent down]. But he’s embraced that situation where he’s going to play a heckuva lot of hockey and he’s done that so far." In six games with Augusta, Levasseur has a 2-2 record with a GAA of 3.41 and a save percentage of .898. Said Dineen, "He’s down there to play and to keep working on his game. We still keep in touch with him. Certainly Francois, as our goaltending coach, knows him and does an excellent job staying in contact and watching video to help him with his play." Despite the recent shuffle among Anaheim’s goaltenders, Levasseur may be better served to continue getting plenty of minutes in Augusta, as opposed to fighting for time at the AHL level.

Incredibly, there is another goaltender in the minor-league mix as well. Bobby Goepfert was left unsigned by the Pittsburgh Penguins after a standout season with St. Cloud State University saw him named as one of the top ten finalists for the prestigious Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey’s top player. Shortly after becoming a free agent, he was signed by Anaheim, but unfortunately for Goepfert, he has been hampered by a groin injury that has kept him off the ice. "Bobby was sent back to St. Cloud to try to heal up. Obviously with our goaltending situation here, he wasn’t able to play any nets. So he’s in the process now where he’s just trying to heal up and get back to where he’s game-ready," explained Dineen.

No time table has been offered for the netminder’s return, but with the recent jumble amongst Ducks goalies, there appears to be a window of opportunity for Goepfert to begin his pro career soon.

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