by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat Archive
When building a house, a study foundation provides the basis for the whole structure.
For the surging Milwaukee Admirals (26-13-2-4, third place in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference), their solid foundation is a pair of elite goaltending prospects, Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec, backstopping the league’s hottest team.
“I think both goaltenders have been real good for us,” said Admirals coach Dean Evason, whose squad recently rattled off a franchise record 10 straight wins. “Magnus Hellberg is an All-Star in the league this year, and Maz found his game as of late too. To have two young goaltenders that are playing so well is a nice problem to have.”
In Hellberg the Admirals have arguably the league’s best goaltender this season. In his 23 appearances to date, the 23-year-old carries a dazzling 12-5-3 record, along with the best save percentage (.932) and goals against average (1.80) in the AHL.
In recognition of Hellberg’s superlative season, the 6’6” netminder earned his first ever AHL All-Star selection. The Upsalla, Sweden native was later joined by rookie forward Brendan Leipsic as the Admirals representatives in Utica January 25-26.
“It was a huge honor to get selected to represent my team,” said Hellberg who made 12 saves in second period duties for the victorious Western Conference. “It was fun to get some recognition for my play this season.”
Being chosen for the league’s midseason classic represented Hellberg’s three-year career coming full circle. Certainly, it was long way away from the setbacks the former second-round pick (2011) endured during the 2013-14 campaign.
When he first arrived in North America for the 2012-13 season, Hellberg made a name for himself by anchoring Milwaukee’s end of year turnaround. With Hellberg between the pipes most nights, the Admirals rattled off an incredible stretch run, capped by a surprising playoff berth and a playoff game win over top-seeded Texas.
“When I came to Milwaukee there really wasn’t any expectations on me,” said Hellberg, who helped Milwaukee nab 30 points in their last 20 games in the spring of 2013. “(Nashville) knew it was going to take some time for me to get used to playing over here, because it’s a different style, but that first year went pretty well for me and the team.”
Hellberg expected to lead Milwaukee in goal for the following campaign, and early on managed to earn his first National Hockey League action for Nashville against St. Louis. Unfortunately, things did work out the way anyone predicted it would during the rest of season.
After suffering an injury in training camp, the wheels came off Hellberg’s sophomore season after a high ankle sprain in January. In goal the lanky Swede gave way in Milwaukee to budding journeyman Scott Darling, and another tall European goalie, rookie sensation Marek Mazanec. By the end of the year Hellberg had slipped down to the bottom of the franchise’s depth chart, watching from the bench as goaltender Rob Madore carried the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones to a Kelly Cup Finals berth.
“People always say that your second year is the toughest,” Hellberg said. “Even though last year didn’t go how I wanted it to go, I grew as a person and as a hockey player dealing with that adversity.”
Fast forward to 2014-15, Hellberg fought all the way back to reinstate himself as one of the AHL’s elite goaltending prospects.
“Our goaltending coach Dave Rook is doing a tremendous job with Magnus,” Evason said. “When he came into the league he was a really big guy that preferred to stay deep in his net, but last year he got away from what made him great in our league. We are not trying to change him, but just work within his capabilities.”
Hellberg’s comeback this season has been influenced by another goaltender in the Nashville system that recovered from a long-term injury the previous year, Pekka Rinne.
“For sure Pekka’s been (an inspiration) for me,” Hellberg said. “He’s always been one of the best goaltenders in the world and he’s a really good guy too. The injury that he recovered from was way worse than mine, but what I learned from him is to believe in myself because I know how well I can play.”
Despite an outstanding season, Hellberg fights every night just to get into the net with another topflight goaltender, Marek Mazenec.
Like Hellberg, Mazenec endured some rough patches during his sophomore season, posting just three wins in 14 appearances through November and December of 2014-15.
That tough stretch was a far cry from the Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic native’s stellar 2013-14 campaign. In his first year in North America, Mazenec immediately impressed, posting an 18-10-0 record in 31 games, and earning three postseason starts. The icing on the cake was 25 games of action with Nashville as rookie.
“The biggest difference playing here is that players are smarter, faster and shoot harder,” said Mazanec of his transition to North American hockey. “You kind of have to be ready for anything and everything as you never know when the shot is coming. Plus screening in front of the net is much more important here than in the Czech Republic.”
After enduring the fall doldrums Mazenec snapped out of his slump as the calendar advanced into 2015. The 2012 sixth-round pick posted five wins in five January AHL appearances, earning another recall to the Predators as Rinne recovers from his latest setback. To date the 23-year-old added two more National Hockey League appearances to his growing resume.
“This year’s improvement has just been working on the little things, the details,” Mazanec said. “But what I’m always looking for is to play with confidence and consistency, so I can avoid a situation where I play two good games and then three bad ones, or something like that.”
With two skilled goaltenders at his disposal most nights, Evason faces tough choices deciding on which netminder to play on any given night, especially with just three stretches of three-games-in-three-nights on the docket.
“Choosing a starting goaltender has been even harder this year as both guys have played so well for us and neither have had much as far as injuries,” Evason said. “It’s made our decision that much more difficult.”
Sometimes Evason, who consults Rook, Milwaukee assistant coach Stan Drulia and Admirals GM Paul Fenton on his roster decisions, can’t go wrong with either choice. At the beginning of Milwaukee’s recent surge, the Admirals went with Mazenec for a Friday contest with Rockford and then Hellberg Saturday against Charlotte. Both goalies earned shutout victories.
“When you have two goalies that you know are going to make the first saves for you, it gives you a lot of confidence,” Milwaukee forward Colton Sissons said. “They are both doing a great job and battling each other for playing time. That competition is a good thing for our team.”
To this point the competition is fueling both Hellberg and Mazenec’s development. Rather than feeling animosity or resentment when the other starts, the emerging European netminders remain friends on and off the ice.
“Magnus is a great guy and he helped me a lot last year when I first came here to play here in North America,” Mazanec said. “He supports me and I support him, so I think we make good partners. That’s a real nice thing because you never know who is going to be your partner in net or who you are going to be fighting to be in the net.”
Hellberg agrees with his tandem partner’s sentiment.
“I have a good relationship with Maz, and we really are good friends, but our compete level is really high and we push each other every day to become better.” Hellberg said. “Then it’s up to the coaches to decide on who is going to play. Obviously you want to play in every game, but you have to try and be ready when you get the call.”
With Milwaukee dreaming of big things this spring, it will be up to Nashville’s prized goaltending prospects to backstop an extended postseason run, something the team has failed to accomplish in each of the past three season after falling in the first round each year. Whichever goaltender Milwaukee turns to, the players know they will be ready for the challenge.
“Both of our goalies have been really good for us,” Admirals captain Joe Piskula said. “Our success lately goes from the goalies up to the defenseman and the forwards. Our goalies’ great play builds our confidence and sets a tone for the whole demeanor of the team. It’s huge to have two goalies back there doing so well.”