Blues goaltending pipeline

By Brian Weidler

The Last Line Of Defense Is A Good One For The Blues

On the eve of the first training camp of the 21st Century, a number of Blues’ fans have questions about the most important position on the team — the goaltenders.

Almost everyone will agree that the time had come to send the beleaguered Roman Turek packing. And yet, despite acquiring a reliable starter (Fred Brathwaite) in return, there is a large faction of Bluenote backers who remain convinced that, without a world-class goalie, the Blues will play second fiddle to the traditional Western powerhouses yet again. The Doubting Thomases point to the inexperience of Brathwaite and Brent Johnson, and predict doom for the Blues in 2001-02.

While Blues fans may have legitimate concerns about goaltending in the short term, the long-term outlook in goal for the Blues has never looked brighter. Of the eight goaltenders who will wear the ‘Note in various camps this fall, six of them were either drafted or developed as professionals by the Blues. And it all starts with the man they call “Big” Johnson.

Originally drafted 129th overall by Colorado in 1995, Brent Johnson became Blues’ property just prior to the 1997 Entry Draft, when interim GM Ron Caron swung a deal for the big young netminder. A few months later, Johnson began his first season as a pro in Worcester, and split the duty with Frederic Cassivi. Johnson’s numbers in his first season were respectable for a 20-year-old rookie — 42 games played, 14 wins, a 3.19 goals-against average and a save percentage of 89.9%.

The next year, the son of former Blues’ goaltender Bob Johnson became Worcester’s number one goalie, appearing in 49 games and posting 22 victories, two shutouts, a GAA of 2.99, and a save percentage of 89.6%. He also got a “cup of coffee” in the NHL, playing in five games for the Blues and providing a taste of good things to come with three wins, a 2.10 GAA, and a 92.1% save percentage.

In 1999-00, Johnson played the whole year at Worcester, and firmly established himself among the best at the AHL level with 58 games played, 24 wins, a 2.91 GAA, and a save percentage of 91.1%. That summer, a decision had to be made whether to protect Johnson or veteran Jamie McLennan in the expansion draft to stock Minnesota and Columbus. The Blues wisely chose to hang onto Johnson, and after McLennan’s selection by Minnesota, Johnson became the backup to Turek in 2000-01 almost by default.

The big youngster from Michigan justified the Blues’ faith in him with a solid first year in the NHL. In 31 games, Johnson posted a 2.17 GAA, fifth best in the league. He also won 19 games, posted four shutouts, and stopped 90.7% of the shots that came his way through the stingy Blues’ defense. When playoff time came around, Johnson rode the pine in favor of the veteran Turek, but shone when he had his chance in the Western Conference Final. In a relief appearance, Johnson held Colorado scoreless for a two-minute spell after Turek had been shelled for four early goals, and then came Game Five of the WCF, where Johnson matched the legendary Patrick Roy save for save on Colorado’s home ice before succumbing early in overtime.

With Turek gone, Johnson is looking to build on three seasons of successive improvement and put a hammerlock on the #1 goaltender position in training camp. But, aside from the battle for the #1 spot between Johnson and Brathwaite, the Blues have some other interesting situations developing in goal.

Barring a monster camp by any of the other goalies in attendance, the two goalies for Worcester this season will be Cody Rudkowsky and Reinhard Divis. Rudkowsky, a free agent signee by the Blues out of junior in 1999, returns to Massachusetts for his third season in the Cats’ teal and green.

Like Johnson, Rudkowsky has steadily improved over the last two seasons, going from a 3.20 GAA and 89.5% SP in 28 games in 1999-00, to a 2.68 GAA and a 91.5% SP in 2000-01. The big (6-00, 200 lbs) kid from Willingdon, Alberta also piled up three shutouts last season, and has posted a winning record in each of his two years in Worcester (9-7-6 in 1999-00, and 13-8-3 last year).

Rudkowsky’s improvement last year was not enough to wrest the starting job away from veteran Duane Roloson, who set numerous team and league marks with his shining performance last year for Worcester. But, with Roloson departed for a shot at a starting job with the Minnesota Wild, Rudkowsky comes into the season as the favorite for the starter’s job. In order to win that position, however, he will have to fend off what is expected to be a strong challenge from Divis, a veteran of two years in the Swedish Elite League.

Divis is an Austrian native who has spent the last two years playing for Leksands. The Leksands team has not been good in that time; in fact, Leksands recently dropped out of the SEL to a lesser league due to its inability to compete with the “big boys” in Sweden. Despite this, however, Divis himself has posted respectable numbers over the last two years.

In 1999-00, Divis appeared in 48 games for Leksands, posting a 3.34 GAA and an 89.3% save percentage, with three shutouts. He also put up a 14-24-2 record for a team that won only 16 games that year. Last year, Divis was again the main man between the pipes for Leksands. In 41 games, he managed another three shutouts, as well as a 3.45 GAA and an 87.8% save percentage, with a 13-23-5 record. He also played for his home country in the 2001 World Championships, playing all but 31 minutes of Austria’s six games, and posting a 3.48 GAA and a nice 91.4% save percentage. The highlight of the tournament for Divis was a 3-0 whitewashing of Team USA in the qualification round.

Divis is used to getting the bulk of the starts for his teams, and Rudkowsky’s bane for the last couple of years has been that he has been paired with goalies who were used to getting the bulk of the starts (Johnson in 1999-00, Roloson in 2000-01). The real winner in the battle for the starter’s job in Worcester should be the IceCat fans, who will be treated to the sight of two highly motivated goalies, each trying to prove that he should be next in line for a crack at the big time with St. Louis.

The Blues also have three other goalies who are looking for playing time in Worcester. One, a big kid named Scott Stirling, was brought in by the Blues after a very good season (48 GP, 2.14 GAA, 32-10-3 record, 5 SO, 92.2% save percentage) with Trenton of the ECHL. The others are third-year man Curtis Sanford, and rookie Phil Osaer.

Sanford, only two years removed from the United League and the (St. Charles) Missouri River Otters, comes into camp with more experience than Osaer, and a nice set of stats from last season with Peoria. In 27 games with the Rivermen, Sanford posted a glittering 1.91 GAA and a sparkling 92.5% save percentage. He didn’t fare as well in a five-game trial with Worcester, with a 4.06 GAA and an 85.7% save percentage, but did win three of the five games he played for the ‘Cats.

Osaer leaves Ferris State University after his junior year to join the Blues’ impressive stable of young goaltenders. As of January 1, Ferris State was a meager 5-11-4, and Osaer was struggling with a 1-4-2 record while playing behind senior Vince Owen. Down the stretch, however, Osaer took control of the starting job, playing 17 of FSU’s 18 games after the first of the year. He posted an 8-8-1 mark in those 17 games, and a 9-12-3 record for the year, with a 2.36 GAA and a 90.9% save percentage.

Osaer, along with Sanford and Stirling, will be well-positioned for a shot at playing time in Worcester should either Divis or Rudkowsky fall by the wayside for any reason. The safe bet, however, is that the three youngsters will provide the fans in Peoria with a top-notch trio of goalies for most of the year.

Osaer will also be representing the Blues at the annual Centre Ice Prospect Tournament, hosted by the Detroit Red Wings, in Traverse City, Michigan. Joining Osaer between the pipes will be Tuomas Nissinen, whom the Blues chose with the 89th overall pick in last June’s Entry Draft.

Not a great deal is known about Nissinen, other than his size (6-00, 176 lbs), his birthdate (July 17, 1983 in Kuopio, Finland,) and the fact that he posted a 3.22 GAA in 40 games for KalPa Kuopio of the Finnish junior league last year. His presence on the Blues’ prospect tourney roster is evidence of his desire to experience the North American brand of hockey, and his selection in the third round of the draft is evidence that the Blues foresee a pro future for this young netminder.

It may be true that the Blues don’t have a “world-class” goalie in the organization — yet. But it’s also true that the Blues have goaltenders from around the world, with experience at high levels of play, and that there are several of them from which to choose. Johnson is considered the best bet to break through into that “elite” goaltending level, but there are seven others in camp this year who are also chasing that dream. And none of them should be counted out just yet.