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Long road to Devils crease didn't discourage Kinkaid

He definitely took the circuitous route to the NHL, but in his quirky crystal-ball mind, Keith Kinkaid knew what he was doing all along.
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So, an undrafted kid gets waived through the highest junior circuit in the U.S., drops down a level to find his game, then helps put a relatively unknown college team on the national map, after which he works his way up through the minors to push an underdog NHL team into the playoffs when the starter gets hurt. It sounds like a fairy tale for a small-town kid with NHL dreams, but in reality the whole journey reads more like a manual for New Jersey Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid. Equal parts quirky and down-to-earth, Kinkaid has quickly gone from “that guy” to an important part of a scrappy Devils team that upended expectations last season and has quickly built a rock-solid culture in Newark.

Kinkaid, 29, grew up in Farmingville, N.Y., located on Long Island, where he became a New York Islanders fan as a kid. And from the time he began playing organized hockey, he knew he wanted to be a goalie. Kinkaid played in a couple junior leagues as a teenager, doing well until he reached the top rung in 2007-08, when he headed to the Midwest to play for the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers. Unfortunately, the results weren’t there. In fact, none of Des Moines’ goaltenders played well that season, and all three ended up with nearly identical unimpressive save percentages and goals-against averages. Yet it was Kinkaid who was let go after just 15 appearances.

But sometimes the hockey gods show you a door after throwing you out a window. Instead of heading back east, Kinkaid was picked up by the North American League’s St. Louis Bandits, the two-time defending NAHL champs, who were looking to make it three. Coach Jon Cooper had left after those two titles to helm USHL Green Bay, eventually landing with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His replacement was former NHL defenseman Jeff Brown, part of a generation of ex-Blues (including the likes of Al MacInnis and Keith Tkachuk) who helped build up the grassroots game in St. Louis. The new coach was more than happy to grab a 6-foot-3 goalie with USHL experience for his squad. “He fell into our lap,” Brown said. “He was waived through the United States League, which is kind of wild. But the NAHL has spit out some pretty good goalies.”

Indeed. Ben Bishop was also cut from the USHL during his formative years, only to find his game with the NAHL’s Texas Tornado. Connor Hellebuyck cut his teeth with the Odessa Jackalopes after playing Michigan high-school hockey.

 STOPPER'S SOAPBOX Kinkaid, somewhat of an eccentric, enjoys writing impassioned mini-rants on Twitter to celebrate the Devils’ victories – composed almost entirely of emojis.David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

STOPPER'S SOAPBOX Kinkaid, somewhat of an eccentric, enjoys writing impassioned mini-rants on Twitter to celebrate the Devils’ victories – composed almost entirely of emojis.David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Kinkaid, Brown found a quiet, respectful kid who had a ton of potential to unlock. But for the old-school coach, patience was needed. “The knock on him at the time was that he got rattled easily, so I would stay away from him at first,” Brown said. “But one night against Topeka – our top competitor – he let in a soft one, and I said ‘I can’t take it anymore’ and let him have it. But you know what? He responded. The last month of the season and all through the playoffs, his numbers were sick. He had an unbelievable run.”

Part of that run included a playoff series victory over those Roadrunners that saw Kinkaid atone for his past mistakes in a major way, giving up just four goals total in a 3-1 series victory. By the time the Bandits dispatched Wenatchee in the final, Kinkaid had a .951 SP and 1.15 GAA in the post-season. His regular season had been stellar, too, and the rookie was named league MVP and goalie of the year. “I remember just how quick he was,” Brown said. “He was a big kid, and the only time he looked spectacular was when he had to be spectacular, if that makes sense. He had the athleticism, as everyone sees now.”

From there, Kinkaid headed back to New York state, where he enrolled in Union College. Though hockey has been played at Union since 1904, the Dutchmen didn’t have a Div. I team until 1991, and Schenectady wasn’t exactly a powerhouse right away. But Kinkaid saw his path. “Mostly it was the opportunity to play as a freshman,” he said. “It was also a great school and close to home. I was always doing well, going into juniors. The next step was college. I always wanted to do two years and then sign a professional contract. In college, you gain interest and you see a reality.”

Pretty standard, right? Go to a program with no Div. I conference titles and no NCAA tournament berths and decide before you get there that you’re going to sign with an NHL team early after going undrafted. Wait, what?

But self-confidence is a great thing for an athlete and, to Kinkaid’s credit, he did exactly what he said he would. His run with the St. Louis Bandits came during his final year of draft eligibility, but no NHL team took a flyer on him. At Union, he could quickly build a resume and then – hopefully – pick the organization he wanted to turn pro with.

As a freshman at Union, Kinkaid had decent numbers, but more importantly he got the majority of starts. The Dutchmen made it to the ECAC final before losing to Cornell, but even that run wasn’t enough to earn a Frozen Four bid. The next season, however, Kinkaid was a force. As a sophomore, his 1.99 GAA and .920 SP earned him ECAC goalie-of-the-year honors, and the team clinched its first conference regular-season title – not to mention a slot in the Frozen Four’s field of 16.

Three years later, the Dutchmen won the national championship thanks to future NHLers Shayne Gostisbehere and Daniel Carr, though Kinkaid was long gone by then. He wanted to turn pro after two years, and that’s exactly what he did – joining the New Jersey Devils organization at 22 in 2011. “You can always go back to school,” Kinkaid said. “You can’t always go back on these offers. The opportunity was there in the AHL. Marty Brodeur only had a couple years left, and you need a couple years as a goalie to develop.”

It’s matter-of-fact to the point of stunning, but Kinkaid, again, was not wrong. Eventually, Brodeur left the Devils for a brief sojourn in St. Louis before retiring altogether. The No. 1 job belonged to Cory Schneider, acquired in a 2013 draft-day deal with Vancouver, and for the next few seasons, the Devils struggled, despite some incredible performances by Schneider. Kinkaid, meanwhile, was honing his game in the AHL and eventually, by 2014-15, became Schneider’s full-time backup in New Jersey at 25.

Considering Schneider comes from Massachusetts and Kinkaid from New York, the off-ice dynamic between the two sports fans is raucous, to say the least. “If Boston sports has a good day, he’ll let everyone know,” Kinkaid said. “But I can always remind him that Tom Brady has never beaten the Giants in the Super Bowl.”

Given that Kinkaid has lived his pro life mostly on a series of short-term, low-risk contracts, you would assume him to have a backup’s mindset, but that’s not the case. “I’ve been with Cory quite a few years now,” he said. “We always push each other and help each other out. You never want to be content with being a backup. I wanted to prove to people that I can handle the workload.”

Kinkaid got that chance last season when Schneider was hobbled by a groin injury. As it was, the Devils weren’t supposed to be much of a threat in the East, having coming off a 27th-placed finish in 2016-17. But a fast start from a team that played with pace and had the dynamic duo of Taylor Hall and first-overall pick Nico Hischier put the Devils in the mix. Kinkaid held the fort in net and won crucial games for New Jersey in early March, even after Schneider had returned from a conditioning stint with AHL Binghamton. The Devils got into the playoffs, squeezing out Florida for the final spot in the East.

This season, Schneider’s injury woes continued, and Kinkaid was thrust into the starter’s role again. Though New Jersey is no longer catching opponents by surprise, the hockey world is learning more about Kinkaid, who has become known for his emoji-filled inspirational missives on Twitter after a Devils win. And like most goalies, he’s got his own vibe going on. His go-to meal on game days right now is blackened chicken with pasta, and though many players are ritualistic with their food, Kinkaid doesn’t stop at the pre-game meal: he also snacks between periods. “I always get hungry during games,” he said. “I like soft pretzels right now. You get your carbs, you get your salt, and they taste a lot better than protein bars.”

And he’s finding them in NHL arenas. Not bad for an undrafted kid from Long Island. Kinkaid is on the final year of a two-year pact with the Devils, and this summer he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. Will he turn the page on his New Jersey career or stay with the organization that gave him his crack at the big time? Whichever path he takes, it would be no surprise if Kinkaid already had the answer written down in his head.

WHO'S THAT GUY?

1. JACK CAMPBELL, LOS ANGELES KINGS
There was a time when Campbell, 26, was the hottest goalie prospect in the world – right around when he came into Team USA’s crease at the 2010 world juniors to help knock off Canada for the gold medal. The Dallas Stars drafted him 11th overall that spring. Since then, it’s been more of a battle, and Campbell even spent time in the ECHL. But with Jonathan Quick hurt, Campbell has done his part in net for the Kings.

2. DAVID RITTICH, CALGARY FLAMES
Mike Smith was supposed to be the answer in net for Calgary, but the veteran, now 36, has struggled mightily this season. Luckily, the Flames have Rittich at their disposal. A 2016 free-agent signing out of Mlada Boleslav of the Czech Republic, Rittich, 26, has filled the void with his strong play while Calgary waits for one of its prospects (Jon Gillies or Tyler Parsons) to seize the reins in AHL Stockton.

3. JOONAS KORPISALO, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
With Sergei Bobrovsky scuffling (and most likely out of town by or before July 1), Korpisalo, 24, has seen more crease time than expected in Columbus. He even played the season opener. The son of a Finnish Liiga right winger, Korpisalo is a Calder Cup champion and has been the Blue Jackets’ backup for a couple years. His stats haven’t been great this season, but the uncertainty surrounding Bobrovsky makes Korpisalo necessary.

4. CARTER HUTTON, BUFFALO SABRES
While the St. Louis Blues tried to help Jake Allen get his game back, Hutton was the one actually winning them contests last year. That led to a golden opportunity in Buffalo via free agency, where the 32-year-old went from unknown to hot commodity. This year with the Sabres, Hutton is still adjusting, but the UMass-Lowell alumnus has plenty of time to grow with the rebuilding franchise.

5. THOMAS GREISS, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
An afterthought in San Jose, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, Greiss, 32, has found a home with the Islanders in recent years, and his early play was part of the reason New York didn’t immediately sink to the bottom this season as some folks had predicted. In fact, his .940 save percentage ranked among the league leaders. The German is a two-time Olympian and has also represented his country at pretty much every level conceivable.

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