by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
It’s incredible how much the importance of goaltending outweighs any other position in hockey. The record books are littered with just above average teams that rode stellar goaltending to a championship. Less memorable are otherwise promising clubs that were felled by goaltending that came up short.
In seventh place at the All-Star Break, Texas pulled the trigger on a trade attempting to avoid becoming one of those less memorable clubs.
The man in question, Justin Peters, is a 30-year-old goaltender. Despite what those outside hockey would say, 30 qualifies you as a seasoned player in the American Hockey League. The second-oldest player on the team, behind captain Travis Morin, has already brought a sense of calm to the entire club thanks to his collected veteran presence both on the ice and off.
“He’s brought in a sense of calmness and veteran leadership not only in the dressing room, but on the ice, ” said Texas Stars head coach Derek Laxdal. “With his years in the NHL and the AHL, he’s been through the season and ups and downs in his career. You have to have a veteran presence with guys who have been through the playoffs, the game schedule and the travel schedule.”
The AHL strives to be a development league for the NHL, which is why the rule limiting players with experience beyond 320 games exists in the first place. But no team will win the Calder Cup without a healthy serving of veteran leadership. When a team is so young across the lineup, one way to bolster the roster is bringing in a veteran goalie to steady the ship.
Peters himself assesses his role with Texas, “I just try to be steady back there and make the saves I should make, and also get some of those big saves to try and get the boys going.”
The Blyth, Ontario, native, has certainly been around the league but has done most of that traveling in the last few years. He’s been a quick learner in terms of acclimating to new teams.
“My first eight years I was with the same team,” said Peters, who spent 2006-14 with the Carolina Hurricanes and their AHL affiliates in Albany and Charlotte. “[Being with Hershey] was new, my first time with a new team. Coming into a new team, you just want to fit in and get to know the guys as quickly as possible.”
After backing up Braden Holtby in Washington in the 2014-15 season, Peters found himself in the AHL to start the 2015-16 season. The Hershey Bears had an excellent season with Peters in net, splitting time with another vet, Dan Ellis. Nevertheless, as the playoffs began, the smart money was on the Toronto Marlies making it to the Calder Cup Finals.
That is, until they met the Bears. The previously unstoppable Marlies met a buzzsaw wearing chocolate and white, putting Toronto down in five games.
Coach Laxdal noted that Peters’ performance in Hershey put him on the radar for many teams. “There was the veteran leadership. They had a great 1-2 combination of goaltenders. When you have veteran leadership, it really settles your team down and allows you to play confidently.”
While Lake Erie was the ultimate champion, Peters’ play in 20 postseason appearances piqued the interest of the Arizona Coyotes, who signed him to a two-way deal and had him on their opening night roster for 2016-17.
“The start of this season was different for me. I was up with the Coyotes for almost two months, but I only had one start and two relief appearances. I got a lot of practice time, but as a goalie you can’t replicate games as much as you want to try in practice. It’s really hard to replicate game play. I needed to be better; I knew that.”
Peters soon found himself in the AHL with Tucson to get playing time but was being surpassed by young duo of Adin Hill and Marek Langhamer. Meanwhile in Texas, the Stars were troubled by goaltending with a sub-.900 save percentage despite much improved shots against numbers. After consulting the coaching staff and director of goaltending development Mike Valley, it was time for GM Scott White to make a deal.
“It was during the All-Star break. My wife, Kelly, and I were chatting about how relaxing the break had been [when the call came]. It’s tough leaving her behind right now. I’m just trying to get settled and looking forward to her coming down and getting to know the other wives here. Get settled and call this place home.”
Peters had to take a second to sort out his thoughts after the trade, the first of his career. “As soon as it happened, you have mixed emotions. I won’t say I didn’t sit and think about it when I got that call. I was excited to come play consistently and the opportunity to come here and be part of this organization.”
Despite leaving everything behind in Tucson, Peters has had an immediate impact in Cedar Park. Through his first five games, he is 4-1-0 with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
Laxdal noted that it is hard to overstate the importance of the trade to the club. “It was a critical trade for our team. We were at a critical point. We obviously have a lot of hockey left, but his body of work so far, we’ve been pretty happy.”
Peters has confidence that he can deliver on the high expectations that have been placed on him partly because he sees a number of similarities between these Texas Stars and the Hershey Bears team that went to the Finals last season.
“I think the camaraderie in the room here is really good. I’ve had a couple chances to get away from the rink with the guys and get to know them on a personal level. I really like the mix of guys we have in the room, and we had that in Hershey. Right from day one, everything was done as a team, and we had really good leadership.”
Peters called out Morin, Brandon DeFazio and Matt Mangene as strong leaders for this year’s Texas squad.
An upcoming road trip will afford him a chance to continue to bond with the team. He may even room with some of the same players as his brother, Alex Peters, a former Dallas prospect. “Some of the guys in the room [Alex] had roomed with at development camp and prospect tournaments. That’s nice to come in the room and just have something in common to talk about with the guys.”
Texas’ equipment manager of eight years, Brian “Elvis” Garcia, made Peters feel at home right away, doing some custom work to change the goalie’s gear from Tucson colors to victory green.
All of that welcoming atmosphere has helped Peters provide a calming presence on the ice for the Stars. Texas has needed a goalie who can provide that last line of defense when there are defensive breakdowns and be its best penalty killer.
Coach Laxdal expanded, “When you have a goaltender who is not going to get rattled in the net, we feed on that as a team. When you play young goaltenders, they haven’t had the same experiences that Justin has had. They develop that over time. We have gotten those experiences out of our goaltenders, but just not enough. Now we have that in Justin.”
Peters knows that he has a lot on his back, including the playoff hopes of an entire team, but he is taking the long view no matter.
“For us, it’s just about getting into the playoffs because once you get into the playoffs, anything goes.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.