Winterhawks' Kehler becomes top stopper
Cole Kehler is the first to point out that the Winterhawks are only 18 games into the 2017-18 season, and there is still three-fourths of the regular season to play.
But the 20-year-old goaltender from tiny Altona, Manitoba, Canada, is on pace for the greatest statistical single season in the franchise's 42-year history.
After saving 28 of 29 shots in Portland's 6-1 victory over Prince Albert on Sunday night at the Moda Center, the 6-4, 200-pound Kehler leads the Western Hockey League in both goals-against average (2.00) and saves percentage (.938) and is tied for the lead in victories (12).
"Cole has been outstanding," says Mike Johnston, Portland's general manager/coach. "I can't say enough about him. He has been phenomenal for us."
Mac Carruth (2012-13) shares the club single-season record for GAA with Blake Grenier (2004-05) at 2.06 and owns the saves percentage mark at .929. But Carruth played only 39 games during his historic season; Grenier only 29.
Brent Belecki set the team single-season record for goaltender victories with 35 during the Hawks' Memorial Cup championship campaign of 1997-98.
In 2017-18, Kehler (12-2) — the reigning WHL Goaltender of the Week, an award he has won twice this season — is on pace for 48 victories and 56 games.
But Kehler wisely demurs from putting anything into his league-leading start and record pace.
"It's cool, but to be honest, I don't look at the stats too much," Kehler says. "I try to keep that out of my head as much as possible. It's a long season. I'm just trying to stop the next shot — that's my only goal."
A Winterhawk player has never led the WHL in either GAA or saves percentage. Carruth came closest, finishing second in both categories in 2012-13.
"Our goaltending history is not great," Johnston says, and he's right.
The Hawks have churned out dozens and dozens of top-drawer NHL forwards and defensemen over their four decades-plus of existence, but only a handful of NHL goalies.
Only three enjoyed lengthy NHL careers — Clint Malarchuk, who played 10 years (1981-92); Byron Dafoe, who played 13 years (1992-2004), and Jason LaBarbera, who played 12 years (2003-15).
Four other Hawk goalies had a cup of coffee in the bigs: Joaquin Gage (23 games from 1994-2001), Scott Langkow (20 games, 1995-2000); Darrell May (six games, 1985-88), and Randy Ireland (two games, 1978-79).
Belecki never made it to the NHL, and Carruth, 25, hasn't made it yet. He is playing professionally in Austria this season.
Kehler is an unlikely goaltending star for the Hawks. Two years ago, he spent a season with the Merritt Centennials of the B.C. Hockey League.
"He couldn't play in the (WHL)," Johnston says.
Kehler was a reserve with the WHL Kamloops Blazers as a 16- and 17-year-old. As an 18-year-old in 2015-16, Kehler got beat out for the starting job by Connor Ingram. He was reassigned to Junior A hockey in Merritt. It was a come-down, but Kehler didn't let it get to him.
"There were some tough times there, but I wanted to stick with it and give it a chance," he says. "It worked out well. I played under head coach Joe Martin. and he let me take the reins and be a starter for the first time in my life. That really helped me."
The next summer, Portland sent a conditional seventh-round draft pick to Kamloops for Kehler.
"We saw some things in him," Johnston says. "We liked his body position, how he moves in the net."
"Mike took a chance on me," Kehler says. "I was ecstatic about getting the chance to come here. The hockey history is incredible here in Portland. We have a great fan base. To have the opportunity to be here was special."
Kehler won the starting job, playing in 56 games. He was 32-17 with a 3.10 GAA (13th in the league) and a .910 saves percentage (ninth).
"Cole still had his ups and downs last year," Johnston says. "But he took part in Winnipeg's training camp before this season. He came in for our camp to show how good he can be."
The Jets invited Kehler as a free agent to attend a four-team rookie tournament that included players from the Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver franchises. He didn't get to play in any games, but he trained with the Jets rookie team and got a taste of what pro hockey is about.
"I got to learn from guys who have played a couple of years in the pros," Kehler says. "It was a great experience, and I grabbed what I could from it."
Kehler feels the experience he gained as Portland's starting goalie a year ago has paid off this season. He also has pared about 10 pounds from what he weighed a year ago.
"It's easier on the joints, and it makes me a little quicker in the crease," he says.
Nobody has been more integral to the Hawks' 14-4 start, the best record in the Western Conference.
"I feel great about my start, but it's not about myself," Kehler says. "It's the team that's having a great year. Give credit to everyone in the room, the effort we're putting in."
Kehler was key Sunday night in helping Portland survive what Johnston calls "one of the worst first periods I've ever seen us play." The Hawks, who had only one shot on goal and four penalties in the first 17 minutes, were fortunate to trail only 1-0 after one period.
Johnston says he expected a letdown after a big 5-2 win over Tri-City the previous night, "but I didn't expect that much. But our guys hung in there. We didn't panic. We regrouped after the first period and plodded our way back into the game."
Portland nailed the coffin on the Raiders with four third-period power-play goals. But the Hawks' lead was only 2-1 early in the period when Prince Albert's Curtis Miske came in on a breakaway. Kehler denied first Miske's shot, then cast away Brayden Pachal's rebound attempt.
"I knew (Miske) had a lot of pressure chasing him, so I thought a deke was out of play," says Kehler, who shut out the Raiders over the final 57 minutes. "I was fortunate to get my right pad on it. I challenged the follow-up with my paddle and got it. After that, it was smooth sailing."
Johnston likes his team — "we've seen many of the elite teams, and we're up there," he says — but he'll like it more when center Ryan Hughes (broken leg) rejoins in about a month.
"It will be like getting a new player at Christmas," Johnston says, "and that's a big bonus for us."
The first line — Cody Glass, Kiefer Bellows and Skyler McKenzie — is one of the best in the league.
"Opponents are going to check them," Johnston says. "We need a dangerous second line. Ryan will help us get to that."
Kehler is one of Johnston's three overage players, so this will be his final WHL season. He has gone undrafted, but that's not that unusual.
"In the NHL draft, they're trying to project 17-year-old goaltenders," says Johnston, the former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "In many cases, you're trying to evaluate a backup who doesn't play very much. Most goaltenders come into the NHL at 22, 23 or 24. With some Europeans, it's 25. You're not ready for the heavy shots at a young age. The shooters are way better than the goalies.
"With Cole, he probably wasn't ready (to be drafted). It's hard to get an opportunity when you don't play as well for a couple of years."
Kehler looks ready now. More than ready.
"I guess I'm a late bloomer, in a way," he says. "I'm just trying to make my way in hockey, and I'm getting the opportunity here now to show what I can do."