PENTICTON, B.C. – Tyler Bunz came to a rude realization in his first season as a professional goaltender.
“At this level, guys can shoot the puck no matter what position they play or what role they play,” said Bunz who is “starting over” as his second campaign as an Edmonton Oilers farmhand approaches.
“The game is a lot faster, and it’s going to take a lot more years than I thought to develop and become an elite goalie at the pro level.”
Others competing in a tournament here for Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks prospects teams also know they are on a long and winding road to the NHL—if they get there at all. Traditionally, goaltenders take longer than other position players to reach the game’s top level.
But, like Bunz, a 21-year-old St. Albert, Alta., native who played 37 games for the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL and one contest with the Oklahoma City Oil Barons of the AHL last season, they are willing to be patient as they pursue only two permanent jobs available per team.
“This position is a lot different than the other three,” said Bunz, who posted a 16-16-4 record and 3.35 goals-against average with Stockton. “You’re kind of fending for yourself back there. You’re the last line of defence. You’ve gotta be able to bale your team out when they make mistakes.”
He and all of the other hopefuls here are on deeply personal quests. On his mask, Bunz sports tributes to an aunt and two close friends who died at young ages. Late Oilers prospect Kristian Pelss, a “close buddy” who drowned while in his native Latvia in June, is among those honoured.
“I just keep them close in my mind and, really, I play for all them, and they keep me going as well,” he said.
Bunz also sports a tattooed expression over his heart. The gist: Never give up.
“Those are the words that I live by,” he said. Bunz got the tattoo while playing for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL.
But at least Bunz has two years left on an entry-level contract. Many others here are free agents and just playing for a chance to attend NHL main training camps when they start later this week.
First-year pro Ty Rimmer, 20, who completed his junior eligibility with Lethbridge of the WHL last season, hopes to land a deal with his hometown Oilers after being bypassed in the NHL draft—even though he was a first-team WHL all-star in 2011-12 with Tri-City.
Rimmer is trying out with the Oilers after he could not stick with Dallas following a summer camp due to a “logjam” of Stars goalies under contract.
“I’m just going to play my heart out (here) and, when the time comes, discuss where my chance is at,” he said.
Based on the fact draft picks usually get priority over free agents, Eric Comrie, 18, already has a decent shot at reaching the NHL. The Edmonton native was drafted in the second round this year (59th overall) by the Winnipeg Jets, and has a chance to play for Canada in the world junior championships. He expresses a willingness to be patient as he appears headed back to Tri-City for a fourth season with the Americans, but it will be a challenge for him to wait his turn to reach the NHL.
“I’m not really a patient guy,” he said. “I want to get out there and get everything as quickly as I can. But I understand the situation.”
Comrie, the son of Brick furniture store chain founder Bill Comrie, started down the goaltending path from the backyard of his family home while playing shinny with his much older brothers, former NHLers Paul and Mike Comrie.
“They needed somebody to shoot on, so they stuck me in net and used me as a shooter tutor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Franky Palazzese, a 20-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native who is playing for the Oilers prospects squad, hopes that being around pros for a while will help him in the future. He is willing to plod along the path to the NHL for as long as necessary.
“You have to be, especially me, not being drafted three drafts in a row…obviously, I get frustrated, but you’ve just got to keep active and stay focused. That’s all it is,” said Palazzese.
He is slated to return to Sudbury of the OHL for his final year of junior. But some goalies here have a chance at NHL employment this season.
Flames prospect Joni Ortio, 22, hopes he can gain a spot with the big club as a result of fellow Finn Miikka Kiprusoff’s impending retirement.
“There’s one guy missing right now, so there’s opportunity to be had,” said Ortio.
Ortio is vying for a job in North America two seasons after a brief stint with Calgary’s AHL farm club in Abbotsford, B.C., did not go as smoothly as planned.
However, another Finnish compatriot, Karri Ramo, appears to be the heir apparent to Kiprusoff’s starting job, and Joey MacDonald looks like a lock for the backup role after making a good impression following his arrival from Detroit via waivers late last season. MacDonald received a new one-year, $925,000 contract in the off-season.
Canucks hopeful Joacim Eriksson also hopes to push for NHL employment. Starter Roberto Luongo could be in need of a short-term backup as minor-leaguer Eddie Lack, the heir apparent for the No. 2 role following Cory Schneider’s trade to New Jersey, recovers from a hip injury.
Eriksson, a 23-year-old Gavle, Sweden native who has spent the past five years playing in his homeland, signed with Vancouver as a free agent in June. He is determined to make good on a second shot at the NHL after the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him in the seventh round (196th overall) in 2008 but chose not to sign him.
“I’m going to compete every day to show that I want to be in the best league,” he said.
Canucks goaltending consultant Dan Cloutier, who toiled with the New York Rangers, Vancouver, and Tampa Bay in a 15-year pro career, wants his club’s prospects to do the little things right in order to be ready for an NHL opportunity—because they never know when it will come.
“It’s a different story for everyone,” said Cloutier.