By Paul Gackle | AHL On The Beat Archive
Goaltender Aaron Dell will need to find a new T-shirt if he continues along his current trajectory.
After stopping 39 of 40 shots in a 4-1 win over the Stockton Heat on Feb. 21, Dell strutted around the Barracuda locker room at Stockton Arena showing off a shirt that his wife had bought him for Christmas.
The T-shirt read: “World’s Okayest Goalie.”
But in his second season with the Sharks American Hockey League affiliate, Dell is proving to be a little bit better than okay.
“I think he’s one of the top goalies in the American League,” Barracuda Head Coach Roy Sommer said. “He’s trending the right way, he looks really good. I’d be interested to see how he looks in a National Hockey League game.”
With Sharks backup goaltender James Reimer slated to become a free agent on July 1, Dell could make his NHL debut as soon as next season.
The 26-year-old netminder, who calls Airdrie, Alberta home, is following the traditional goaltender’s path to the NHL: finding success in college, the ECHL and now the AHL.
Unlike forwards and defensemen, who often jump right into the NHL after college and junior hockey, goaltenders tend to require seasoning and development in the minor leagues. They work their way up to the NHL after spending multiple seasons in the minors where they learn the nuances of the position.
“Look at Reimer, he started in the Coast (ECHL) and then moved up to the American League,” Sommer said. “Then, he got his foot in the door at the NHL level as a backup and then became a No.1, so he (Dell) is progressing the right way. He has a pretty good pedigree. He’s won wherever he’s been.”
Dell compiled a 48-17-4 record in college at the University of North Dakota, setting school records for career goals-against average (1.79) and save percentage (.923) while playing under current Philadelphia Head Coach Dave Hakstol.
After completing his college career in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Dell continued to find success at the professional level, joining the Allen Americans in the now-defunct Central Hockey League for the 2012-13 season.
In his first year of professional hockey, Dell won the CHL’s Ray Miron President’s Cup (the championship) while taking home the Scott Brower Award, given to the league’s most-outstanding goaltender.
“I’ve taken every rung on the ladder so far,” Dell said. “It worked out to be a good way to do it. I got to mature into the pro game down in the lower leagues and work my way up.”
Dell continued to thrive in the AHL last season after getting recalled from the ECHL by the Worcester Sharks on Jan. 22, replacing Troy Grosenick, who went down with an upper-body injury.
Dell assembled a 6-1-1 record with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage in February. Although it was his first taste of AHL hockey, Dell finished the season ranked third among AHL rookie netminders in goals-against average (2.06) and was tied for second in save percentage (.927).
“He saved our bacon last year,” Sommer said. “When Grosenick was down, he came in and he basically got us into the playoffs.”
Sharks goaltending development coach Evgeni Nabokov said Dell’s best assets are his foundation, lateral movement and calm demeanor.
“He’s really good laterally and he’s strong mentally,” Nabokov said. “He had a couple weird games [earlier this season], not bad games, but games with weird bounces going in. But he stayed the course. He didn’t change in practice, he didn’t change in the next game. We put him back in and he played well.”
Sommer said Dell’s poise in the blue paint is somewhat reminiscent of Sharks No. 1 goaltender Martin Jones.
“That’s one of the most important things with goaltending,” he said. “Being in control when that second save has to be made. He always seems to be in position, he isn’t diving across the net or doing something crazy. In a flurry, he’ll make one, two, three saves and be square and on the puck.”
Earlier this year, both Dell and Grosenick struggled to adjust to the reduced workload of playing a 68-game schedule on the West Coast rather than the AHL’s standard 76-game slate. But as the season progressed, Dell started heating up.
He made a league-high 50 saves against the Ontario Reign to help Sommer break the AHL’s all-time wins record by a head coach on Feb. 10. He followed up the performance with a 30-save shutout three days later.
In 11 starts from Jan. 10 to Feb. 21, Dell posted a .943 save percentage and 2.07 goals-against average, earning a recall to the Sharks on Feb. 27, where he backed up Jones for two games before returning to the Barracuda on March 2.
With uncertainty surrounding Reimer’s future with the Sharks, Dell is in position to potentially earn an NHL job in training camp this fall.
“Reimer’s contract is up at the end of the year, so hopefully I’m close,” Dell said. “But I can only control what I control, so I need to just keep doing what I’m doing and let everything else sort itself out.”