Slated to be the starter for the AHL Chicago Wolves this fall, Atlanta Thrashers prospect Michael Garnett, finds himself the temporary starter for the big club.
Truth be told, the 22-year-old shouldn’t even be playing in the NHL this season. In three years in the minors, he has never been a starter in the AHL for a full season. A former third round pick in 2001, Garnett may have sufficient talent, but certainly not the experience to play at this level this year. Early injuries to Kari Lehtonen and veteran Mike Dunham have made him the No. 1 simply by attrition.
Garnett has played two games for the team, making his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 12, stopped 29 of 30 shots. He earned the second star of the game in front of a home crowd, bested only by Yann Danis, who posted a shutout in his own NHL debut.
It was a groin pull to Dunham a few minutes into the game that brought about Garnett’s debut. Assistant Coach Steve Weeks delivered the call to the rookie on the bench. Garnett described the conversation.
“’Go get ready, go stretch, you might be going in.’”
“He said ‘you might,’ so I was kind of like ‘Yeah alright, that’s a big difference from you are going in.’ So I go and I’m in the room stretching and all of a sudden he comes running into the room: ‘This is it, kid. Get ready, you’re going in, congratulations and — get on the ice’ (laughing).
“So I come out of the dressing room and I look out and there’s Dunham, he’s still out there playing a shift and he’s doing this (throat-cutting motion) to the bench: ‘Get me out of here.’
“I jumped on the ice, but it was like an illegal change or something. The refs are yelling at me. Bob [Hartley]’s yelling ‘He’s injured, he’s injured, he’s got to come out.’ So I got on the ice and bang (snapping fingers) pucks are up and I’m in. It all happened pretty quick.”
A team-made VHS tape now in hand, he can relive that game for years to come. Garnett played against the Toronto Maple Leafs two nights later, a tough 9-1 loss.
“I felt pretty good,” he said of his play overall. “The first game, against Montreal, I got thrown in, made some saves early, and kept playing how I’d played at every level. Felt pretty good out there. The game against Toronto, I came on and felt really good. As the game went on, they got a couple on me in the second period. Then in the third period it got kind of out of control with penalties and stuff. We were struggling, and no matter what happened, pucks kept going in.”
Lots of pucks did go in, but he made some solid saves as well. What were the toughest shots he faced?
“Well, obviously the ones that went in were probably the toughest (laughing). I don’t know, I made a couple glove saves when guys came down the wing. I can’t remember who shot them. I made a couple of glove saves where I thought ‘wow, that felt pretty good’ and it gave me some confidence.”
In a strange turn of events, his debut as a backup for the Thrashers was actually a full three and a half years ago. The Chicago Wolves were fighting for a playoff berth, while the Thrashers were experiencing another bout of injuries. Rather than grabbing Chicago’s then-starter, they cobbled together a string of backups behind starter Milan Hnilicka that included other minor leaguers in the system and Garnett, who had just finished his junior season with the WHL Saskatoon Blades.
It was the last game of the season, which as part of Fan Appreciation, the team gives their jerseys off their backs. Garnett only owned that Thrashers jersey for a few hours before he had to hand it over to a fan.
“Yeah (laughing), that kind of sucked. The first game I was up, and at the end of the game I was kind of like ‘Are you kidding me? I have to give this away?’ I had to give it to a fan. I think I had the same number as the mascot. I was 32, he was 32 degrees.”
Easy come, easy go. That time in his life was a fun experience, but now things are a lot more serious.
“That was for the last game of the season, so I knew I was just there to be a backup goalie, and there wasn’t really any chance that I would play. I was just kind of enjoying it, I was 19 years old. But now, with two goalies going down with injury, it’s a lot different situation here. I have to actually play and win games and play well. This time around I think there’s a lot more expectations, and a lot more opportunity.”
Both Garnett and Adam Berkhoel, who made his NHL debut on Oct. 15, got very little goal support from the team. The goaltending injuries coincided with the return of Ilya Kovalchuk, and a case of “star syndrome” for the team as a whole. While goaltending hasn’t been the cause of the losses, it hasn’t been able to mitigate the problems either.
So quick has the team gone through the depth chart, that only one of four goaltenders who have played for the team this season have had a Thrashers-themed custom painted mask (Lehtonen). Garnett used to wear one with a partial Thrashers theme, but opted to move to a Chicago Wolves-themed mask with a touch of Napoleon Dynamite as well.
Confident and eager to show his ‘skillz,’ Garnett also has a refreshingly short injury history. In his pro career, he has had just one groin pull, suffered early last season. He credits his flexibility as a means of prevention.
“That’s the only injury I’ve ever had really,” he recalled. “I pulled it in practice in Chicago, and I didn’t feel too bad. They ended up sending me to Gwinnett for one game or whatever, and when I got down there I couldn’t play. We were just playing at the end of practice and someone strung me right out and I put my leg out really, really extended and pulled it. I was out I think a month last year.
“I got kicked in the face last year and lost a bunch of teeth, so that was an injury, but that didn’t keep me out any games. But yeah, as far as muscle pulls, just the one. I’ve been pretty fortunate.”
A healthy goaltender is quite a rarity around Philips Arena, going back even further than just this year. Not even a hangnail or a stubbed toe for Garnett?
“No, I feel great,” he assured, laughing.
The last season the NHL played, Garnett was the starter for the nearby ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators. He came to Philips as a spectator, with his girlfriend alongside him. The next NHL season, he found himself starting in net at Philips, alone in the spotlight. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about the ups and downs of this business.
The only healthy goaltender on the roster, Garnett will be the starter when the Thrashers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. With no firm date when Dunham or Lehtonen will be back, Garnett could be gone back to Chicago at the end of the weekend, or with the team for several more weeks. In the meantime, he’ll make the most of the games he does get in, and try not to make it another three and half years before he can give away another game-worn Thrashers jersey.
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