HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech hockey coach Mel Pearson knows goaltending is the most crucial position on the ice, and as his netminders go, so will his team. Now he just has to choose which of three talented goaltenders will be suiting up between the pipes each game.
Josh Robinson stepped up big in his senior year, but this year's battle is still wide open between senior Kevin Genoe and two highly-touted freshmen, Pheonix Copley and Jamie Phillips.
"The biggest thing is we're young in net. I felt better with two seniors and a junior than maybe we do right now, so there's some uncertainty there," Pearson said.
And for those reading into the situation based on who started Saturday's exhibition (Copley) or just about any other diagnostic right now, forget about it.
"We even thought of just going by numbers because they were all going to play a period (against Brock).
That's going to be a topic of discussion every day for a while," Pearson said. "One weekend does not make a season either, so I think that's going to be a moving target for the first few weeks until someone really settles in and gets a few games and takes the job over. That might happen and it might not."
Volunteer goalie coach Steve Shields, who also now works for the university by teaching a couple physical education classes, really doesn't care whether or not someone takes the reins, as long as they're all improving under his guidance and the Huskies are winning with whoever does start.
"Most teams want one guy to step up and play. I really don't mind if we're getting contributions from everybody," Shields said. "Unfortunately there's only room for one guy in the net, and that's why it's important that I'm here a lot. Two of the guys are going to be doing a lot of their improving on practice days. They have to take those practice days very seriously.
"Ultimately it comes down to how you feel your goaltending is going to be when the game is on the line. Whoever coach Pearson feels gives us the best chance to win, he'll go with. Everyone will get their chance to go in and do it."
Shields also feels it's important the goaltenders remember the big picture and it's a long journey to get to each of their ultimate goals of playing at the next level.
"The goal isn't just to play the next game for them, it's to play a lot of games and play more than four years of college hockey," he said. "If I can get those guys to stay in the moment and understand it's a long process, they're going to make our team that much better."
Here's a look at the three contenders:
It's been quite a journey for the 6-foot-3, 175-pound goaltender from North Pole, Alaska (as documented in a Sept. 19 Gazette "Tech Tomorrow" feature: tinyurl.com/cdvc72o), but the Tech coaching staff felt confident enough to start him Saturday against Brock. While he faced the fewest shots of the three goalies, he was also the only one to pitch a shutout. No doubt his calmness played a factor.
because I don't think his heart rate ever gets above 60," Shields said. "He definitely competes for the puck, which is important, but he stays under control."
His frame of mind, which Shields describes as the "polar opposite" of Genoe, has helped him develop already in only going down in the butterfly when he needs to and rebounding from the rare time he does have to scramble.
"He's so big that when he's together and taking away the middle of the net, it's very hard to score on him.," Shields said.
The 10-year NHL veteran goalie coach likens the freshman to NHL goalie Sean Burke, who sits back in his net more and never overreacts to anything. Now Copley is just working on even better positioning to take advantage of that size.
"I want to work on my foot positioning and glove positioning and being more active with my hands, but I feel like I'm moving really well right now," said the 20-year-old Copley. "It's obviously a tight situation, and all three of us obviously want to play. ... Having 'Shieldsy' around every day really helps."
Tech's other 6-foot-3, 175-pound goaltender comes to Houghton after quite a journey of his own (see his "Tech Tomorrow" feature: tinyurl.com/d9luryk), having played for six different teams in the last four years.
The Caledonia, Ontario native comes in even younger than Copley, at just 19 years old, but as a seventh-round NHL draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, he certainly has the potential to usurp playing time from the other two. But, his youth has made him a little more of a hands-on project.
"He's obviously very talented. He's the one that's been drafted. He probably puts a lot of pressure on himself right now to succeed, but he has to remember he's the youngest one here," Shields said.
Phillips' strong personality is also very different from the other two in that he's very outgoing and analytical. He "thinks the position" a lot, Shields said, but he also needs to bring his A-game more consistently in practice.
Shields himself didn't realize just how hard he had to work until he was several years into the pros and watching the way Dominik Hasek went about his business.
"Now it's easy for me to say I can do a lot more and leave a lot more on the ice ... but that's one of the toughest things for kids that come in," he said.
He surrendered a goal on the first ever collegiate shot he faced in Saturday's second period, but rebounded to save the other 11 against him. He knows it's actually a pretty simple recipe for playing time.
"It's pretty straightforward, whoever plays the best is going to get the ice time. It's just a battle every day in practice," said Phillips, who wants to emulate Carey Price in net.
The Qualicum, British Columbia native stands at just 5-foot-11, 4 inches shorter than both Copley and Phillips and he's looking to replicate Robinson's senior emergence.
He only appeared in seven games last year with a 2.71 goals against average and .880 save percentage, while compiling a 1-5-0 record. He owns a career 3.65 GAA and .893 save percentage in 58 career games.
"The thing Kevin needs to do to convince coach that he should be playing every night is be consistent," Shields said. "We know he can make all the saves. He's done that before. He just has to be able to do that A) Every night and B) Most importantly, when it counts when the game is on the line."
Shields describes Genoe as being "very fiery" inside and tough on himself, sometimes to the point Shields has to rein him in. Genoe likes to model his game after Jonathan Quick, a small goaltender who stops everything tight to the ice but takes chances with shots upstairs.
Genoe is working on making himself a bigger presence in net, not with sheer size, but sound positioning and lightning fast speed.
"The main thing is I want to show off my speed more," he said. "I'm 4 inches shorter than each of (the freshmen), but I think I'm a lot faster."
He also feels he's the type of goalie where the more he plays, the better he plays. Of course, to play that much, he'll have to address the consistency concerns that played a factor in Robinson winning last year's playing time battle.
"Consistency is a huge part and I'm going to bring my team unreal consistency this year and show them that I'm going to be there night in and night out," he said.
Shields feels confident in the Huskies' three netminders, and, as he weighs future options for himself in either the professional coaching or management ranks, he knows coaching three distinct players will help all four of them in the long run.
"In a short period of time we've come a long way, and that's with three guys that have totally different personalities. It's really good for me as a coach to be exposed to that," he said. "I've had a few opportunities to go to the pros. I could do that if I really wanted to do that. I made a commitment to these kids when they committed to coming here. They asked if I was going to be here and I said I would be."