2011 prospects: Matt Mahalak aims to combine intellect with military discipline

By Jason Menard

Talent provided him with the ammunition. Natural intelligence means he knows how to use it. And a solid grounding provided by one of the U.S.’ elite military academies has given goaltender Matt Mahalak the focus and aim to target a career in the NHL.

The 6’2 netminder from Monroe, MI, is currently serving as Scott Wedgewood’s (NJ) back-up with the Plymouth Whalers, but his talent has caught the eye of NHL scouts. Mahalak was listed as the OHL’s second-ranked netminder and a spring 2010 Red Line Report ranking that had pegged him as the 18th-best prospect for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Despite the lofty projections, the extremely intelligent Mahalak is smart enough to not get caught up in the hype.

“I’m excited, but it’s also really nothing to get worked up about,” he said. “It’s really early in the year and there’s still a long way to go, so I want to keep on improving. I don’t want to get caught up in that stuff too much.

“I just take it day by day. Every day in practice, I try to get better.”

In addition to the work he’s been doing with his goalie coach, Stan Matwijiw, whom he credits as “helping [him] out a ton,” Mahalak lauds his partner between the pipes — and the man with whom he’s been battling for ice time — for his support and mentorship.

“Actually I work a lot with [Scott] Wedgewood. I just try to learn from him — he’s a great goalie, selected in the third round last year [by the New Jersey Devils] and he’s having a great year this year,” he said. “He’s someone I can learn from watching and learn a lot from. Every practice I just try to get better and I know that my time is going to come eventually, so I just want to make sure that when it does come that I’m as ready as possible.”

Mahalak has appeared in just six games this year, posting a 1-3-1 record behind a 4.53 goals against average and an .828 save percentage. Born in Monroe, MI. The former first-overall pick in the USHL Futures Draft was selected in the second round of the 2009 OHL priority draft. He came to the OHL this year after a year with the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, where he posted a 9-17-3 record behind a 4.24 goals against average. Prior to that season in the USHL, Mahalak was a student at Culver Military Academy.

Suffice to say, Culver helped cultivate the dedication and focus that has enabled him to succeed both on and off the ice. When asked if it would it be safe to say there’s a little more focus on discipline at Culver than what one would find at a traditional high school, Mahalak was unequivocal in his agreement.

“Yes,” he said, emphatically. “Culver is a one-of-a-kind high school and to call it a high school is an understatement — it’s so much more than that.

“It really prepared me well for all aspects of life, whether it’s hockey or school — outside the classroom and outside the rink — just day-to-day life, it’s prepared me to handle all situations with the strong character that I have.”

Mahalak explained that the training that he received at Culver has extended to all aspects of his life.

“I think the most important thing that I learned from Culver that applies to hockey specifically — and my life as a whole — is time management,” he said. “Balancing classes and hockey, workouts, and handling all the pressure you’re getting from all the different elements, like the teachers and your coaches, from your parents.

“Being able to handle it all and manage your time so that you have enough time to work with everything and give your best effort in all facets of your life. That’s the biggest thing that I take with me day-to-day and apply in my daily life.”

Mahalak’s been reaping the rewards of giving it all — both athletically and academically. Attesting to the aforementioned intelligence, Mahalak skipped a year of school and earned a 4.0 GPA as a result of his efforts and dedication.

“I actually skipped seventh grade to begin taking high school courses that year. And then I graduated high school with seven college credits, so I currently have 14 college credits going into Christmas [with the University of Michigan – Dearborn],” Mahalak explained. “My goal would be to keep getting seven credits per semester and take spring courses. With that, I should be right on time to graduate with my 2010 class.

“I’m looking into chemistry. That’s what interests me and that’s what I’m good at. Also engineering interests me, so somewhere along those lines is where I’m concentrating my studies.”

Mike Vellucci, the Whalers’ president/general manager/head coach, raves about his young netminder, lauding him for his maturity and intelligence. And, while discipline may be an issue for some teenagers, it’s certainly not been a problem in Mahalak’s case.

“His discipline is over the top. It’s incredible,” Vellucci explained. “Just from the schooling aspect, his discipline — if you’re not disciplined, you’re not graduating a year early. I can’t say enough about him as a person and as a goaltender he’s just getting better.

“He’s a 4.0 student who graduated high school a year early, so I think he’s teaching me a little bit about how to act and react. He’s a great kid — a phenomenal kid. He’s a genius and he’s just a good kid. He’s played great in goal when he’s had the chance and it’s all up to me to find him games to play. He deserves that.”

Unfortunately, ice time has been hard to come by for the young netminder. The Whalers entered Friday night’s action in third place in the OHL’s Western Division with a 12-9-1-1 record. They’re currently fifth in the Western Conference and in a dog fight for positioning, with Windsor one point ahead and the London Knights and Sarnia Sting just one point behind. And although Vellucci said that Mahalak knew what he situation was going to be coming into the season, he still feels some pangs of guilt about not getting him more on-ice action.

“I think he knew coming in that it was going to be a tough time for him, as far as getting games, but I think that I’m handling it worse than he is,” Vellucci said. “I’m trying to get him games and I’m trying to be fair to him, but it’s also being fair to Scott Wedgewood.

“[Wedgewood] only played in 15 games for us last year and he’s been with us for two years. He’s paid his dues and he was a high draft pick himself. As a coach it’s a lot harder for me than I imagine for them. I know that he wants to play — he definitely wants to play — and we’ll find him some games.”

Mahalak likely would have seen far more ice time in the NCAA, from whom he said he had received numerous scholarship opportunities. However, he’s completely at ease with his decision to come to the OHL, explaining that this option was by far his best option, even despite the allure of such hallowed institutions as Harvard. In itemizing all the benefits, it became abundantly clear that playing in Plymouth added up to the best opportunity.

“Just their background of developing goaltenders between [Matt] Hackett, [Jeremy] Smith, [Michal] Neuvirth, and now Wedge — you can clearly tell it’s a place where people are going to move on, they’re going to make you better, and give you lots of opportunity, especially with the amount of games played,” he explained. “Being close to home, it’s really a situation that couldn’t be matched by anybody, whether it’s college another OHL team — they just can’t be matched. And also playing with my brother [left-winger RJ], it was an added bonus there. It just made the decision a lot easier.

“For a tough decision, at the end of the day it seemed pretty simple.”

Only the cachet of attending a school such as Harvard — one of his suitors — held some sway, but not enough to give him any reason to doubt the certainty that the OHL was the right path over the NCAA.

“Because I was able to get ahead in school, I’m really not losing any of my education. Maybe the fact that using hockey to get into a better school — like Harvard, which was one of my options — that’s really the only aspect of education that I may be missing,” Mahalak said. “As far as getting my classes and getting a degree, that’s all still aligned.

“There are plenty of kids that have gone to Harvard and had success and I’m sure that if I had chosen to have gone to Harvard, I would have still had a measure of success. I’m definite that I made the right decision; I’m enjoying every minute of it, and I’m getting better and that was my goal.”

Although he’s been successful on and off the ice, it hasn’t been easy, Mahalak admitted. Again, he credits the dedication and time-management skills he learned at Culver to helping him balance a full OHL schedule — and all the behind-the-scenes challenges that it entails — and his schooling.

“The travel and just the amount of games and practices are as physically tolling as mentally,” Mahalak explained. “As long as you just use your time wisely — not too much time playing video games or sleeping on the road — you just have to utilize your time on the bus and utilize your time at the hotel.

“Most people just sit around and watch movies; you have to use that time to your advantage and just get that extra classwork done that most people aren’t doing.”

Mahalak added that he’s found a kindred spirit on the Whalers’ roster who shares his studiousness.

“It’s a little bit difficult, but we have a great group of guys. Actually myself and Tom Wilson, who was just named [OHL] academic player of the [month], he’s also very concentrated on his studies — he’s in high school still,” he explained. “We just usually grab a room together and just do homework for a few hours, so that makes it easier when you have multiple guys going through it as well.”

Recent OHL history has shown that regular-season exposure doesn’t necessarily limit one’s draft prospects when it comes to netminders. Then-Peterborough netminder Jason Missiaen was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL entry draft by the Montreal Canadiens and current Columbus Blue Jackets’ starter Steve Mason could barely get a sniff of the net during the regular season of the year he was drafted in the third round. Vellucci said he feels the staff he has in place will help Mahalak grow and get the exposure needed, regardless of the number of starts he receives.

“We have a great goalie coach [Stan Matwijiw] who has been working with the kids and I give them all a lot of credit,” he said. “With Matt Mahalak, he works on his quickness, his agility, his side-to-side movement. Just learning how to play the game the right way, covering his rebounds — just the little things. Just by practicing with better players all the time, he’s getting better.”

And Mahalak’s trying to make the most of the opportunities he’s received to suit up — admitting that some early nerves have started to subside, especially the pressure that comes from knowing that every night, in every rink, there are scouts’ eyes watching you.

“You feel that just from playing in the league. Every game there’s a crowd and you know that there’s scouts out there,” he explained. “After my first few games in the league, it just kind of worked itself out and going through it every night, it’s just another day once you get used to it.”

In the end, hearkening back to his time-management lessons, Mahalak explained that he is using every minute of ice time — and his interaction with Matwijiw — to improve some key aspects of his game.

“The biggest things I’m working on is first of all just becoming a more reactive goaltender overall. My ice awareness has really been improved this year,” he explained. “In the OHL you have to be able to read, react, and anticipate what’s going to happen. You have to be ready on every faceoff and always be prepared. You have to be focused for all 60 minutes — that one bad goal could be the difference in the game. It’s just all the little things that you have to work on every day and hopefully it will all pay off in the end.”

And while Culver has produced such noteworthy alumni as the late George Steinbrenner III, Roger Penske, and Walter P. O’Malley, Mahalak hopes to follow the path forged by players such as Gary Suter and Kevin Dean, who passed through Culver en route to the NHL.

The smart money says that he will.