Canucks: Jake Kielly and an interview with Michael Garteig

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 26: Michael Garteig #35 of the Utica Comets prepares for a shot against the Toronto Marlies during game action on November 26, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 26: Michael Garteig #35 of the Utica Comets prepares for a shot against the Toronto Marlies during game action on November 26, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images) /

The numbers for Vancouver Canucks’ goalie prospect Jake Kielly don’t look flattering, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

The ECHL has for many years been an underutilized tier in the three tier developmental program for each NHL organization. This isn’t to say that it has been neglected only by the Vancouver Canucks, but rather that overall it’s been a forgotten piece of the puzzle for the NHL league-wide.

However, it’s a trend that is starting to get bucked. It is especially critical for goaltenders that NHL teams continue to put more importance on developing at all levels of the organization’s depth.

At any level, goaltending statistics are largely impacted by team play rather than merely on an individual basis. The Kalamazoo Wings are currently sporting a 12-18 record that is good for a measly 35.30 winning percentage, placing them last in the Western Conference and tied for second last in the league.

The Wings have also allowed a league worst 143 goals against while being sixth last in goals for with 106. The numbers for goalie Jake Kielly aren’t flattering as a result, but he hasn’t been given a fair shot this season. This highlights an organizational need for the Canucks, Comets and specifically the Wings if they want to continue to house and develop high quality netminders.

Vancouver has shed the label of “the goalie graveyard” since the acquisition of Roberto Luongo on June 23, 2006 — and they’ve gone on to develop a number of strong goaltenders from Cory Schneider to Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

They’ve also done well in signing NCAA free agents like Kielly and Michael Garteig, after strong campaigns. While Garteig has moved on in his hockey career to other organizations, Kielly is in his first season with the Canucks’ organization. Finding himself playing a bit of a 1B role in Kalamazoo thus far, Kielly has been given little opportunity to develop his game and put up numbers that truly reflect the level of talent that he possesses.

Having been in a similar role himself, Garteig provided some enlightenment on life as the fifth goaltender during an interview with me..

"“Being the fifth goaltender in the organization can be a difficult task. It sometimes feels as if you are forgotten. Of course, you speak with your agent about the process and the organization does what they can to communicate frequently. Being in the ECHL, typically means there isn’t a goalie coach and that can be difficult. You realize how much development has to come from a strong mind, dedication to your position, and determination to succeed further.”"

Garteig was able to experience hockey in two different NHL development programs — each with a very different approach to how they utilized their respective tertiary partnership.

While the Canucks have a more traditional approach, the Toronto Maple Leafs set new precedents when they unveiled the Newfoundland Growlers. Due to the profoundly modern reinvention that they implemented in Newfoundland, that team won a championship in their inaugural season. Garteig backstopped them en route to that title.

"“The Toronto Maple Leafs operate differently than most organizations. They utilize all the resources they can and use a 3-tier development system. On the Newfoundland Growlers last year, there were 14 NHL or AHL contracted players in the ECHL. Of course, this requires money, which not all organizations can afford to do.Newfoundland provided a goalie coach at the ECHL level along with frequent trips to Toronto where players utilized skating and individual skill coaches. It is my belief that the way Newfoundland played was similar style to that of the Marlies and Maple Leafs so there was a plan laid out at all levels.”"

Although there is a cost to housing so many high quality players and resources to all three tiers in your development system, the reward is there as well. To point out just how much this approach has bucked the traditional ideas, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman published this in his 31 Thoughts column back on June 26, 2019:

"“Good nugget from one ECHL governor: several clubs were very unhappy with Newfoundland’s Kelly Cup victory, feeling the Growlers were stacked with players on AHL contracts. They thought it was a competitive imbalance and wanted to restrict the number of players with such status per roster. At the league’s Board meeting last Monday in Las Vegas, the Growlers (represented by Toronto management) didn’t back down, saying they thought it was best for the development of their prospects — that they see the Growlers as a valuable place to prepare good players who aren’t ready for the AHL. They compared it to the baseball model, where you start at Double-A and move to Triple-A before the majors. It benefits the ECHL if more teams think this way, so the temperature cooled. I thought this was pretty interesting.”"

Until the benefits for the league were realized, some owners were angry with the idea of having higher end players flood into their opponent’s systems. However, the trickle down effect of this could result in other organizations following suit.

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Ultimately, as much as the ECHL would no doubt benefit from this ideology, it is the players that stand to benefit the most.

With more resources available, there is higher potential for talented players to hone their craft at that tier and allow them to work their way up the system, which would translate to much stronger organizational depth.

Other franchises have already started to adopt this philosophy and have found success. The Pittsburgh Penguins have goaltending prospect, Emil Larmi, who has been on each of their three rosters this season.

Though he hasn’t officially played in the NHL this year, he was recalled momentarily. On an NHL contract, Larmi has spent time with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL and the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL.

Posting strong individual numbers with the Nailers (2.36 GAA and 0.941 SV%), Larmi has split his games almost evenly with them and the AHL Penguins. This approach has gifted the Penguins a wealth of goaltender depth with the likes of Matt Murray, Tristan JarryCasey DeSmith and Larmi.

Goaltending is a position that many find to be difficult to scout, predict, and develop. The Canucks have had great success thus far in these areas which could be enhanced even further if they were to expand their program’s reach to Jake Kielly. Garteig provided his thoughts on how much a goaltending coach can impact a netminder’s overall game.

"“It can be tough at times because the season is long. You can create bad habits throughout the season and it’s important to have someone correct those from an outside perspective. In Kalamazoo, Jake (Kielly) should have the luxury of working with Joel Martin who was a goaltender when I played there. He has knowledge of the game and can help in many situations.”"

Uniformity from top to bottom has aided franchises like the Maple Leafs to stock the cupboards throughout their system. With a goaltending coach in the organization like Ian Clark, Vancouver has the ability to put themselves first in class with goalie development in all three tiers. For a close-to-home example of how great of an impact a coach can have, look no further than Markstrom, who has reinvented himself with the help of Clark.

Since Clark was hired in June 2018, Markstrom has made significant strides. His goals saved above average in 2017-18 was -0.84 which ballooned the very next season to 4.89 in 2018-19 and 6.48 in the current campaign thus far (as of Jan. 14). Markstrom has become a reliable workhorse in the Vancouver crease, and he’s emerged as a clear-cut No.1 netminder in the league.

Prior to his hiring with the Canucks, Clark helped then Columbus Blue Jackets star Sergei Bobrovsky win the Vezina Trophy in 2016-17,  and he likely played a large part in building the resume that would eventually make Bobrovsky the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL.

All in all, it is far too early and narrow-focused to write Kielly off.  With a well synchronized and executed program in place, the environment would help talented netminders such as Kielly truly blossom. Asking Garteig if he had any advice that he would extend to Kielly, he provided this:

"“Stick with the process. Do not get discouraged. Work hard and always prepare to play regardless of the situation. Any opportunity is an opportunity and you have to be ready when you are called upon in the AHL and the ECHL.”"

In time, Kielly could provide much needed depth in the crease for the Canucks organization. Surrounding him with the proper support and tutelage will only enhance the skill sets that brought him this far.

Next. Analyzing the Canucks' power play. dark

Special thanks to Prince George native, Michael Garteig for helping with this article and bringing an inside perspective to a role and position that few people looking from the outside can see.