When the Rangers drafted Brandon Halverson 59th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, they were taking a bit of a gamble. Pittsburgh Penguins' prospect Matt Murray was the unquestioned starting goaltender for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Halverson, as his backup, only had 19 appearances in net for the Greyhounds going into the draft.
Murray graduated from the Ontario Hockey League and was sent to Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate for the 2014-2015 season. Thus, Halverson took over and endured his first season as a full-time starter in the OHL.
"I thought I did okay," Halverson said, reflecting on his year.
Halverson started the season as hot as any goaltender in Canadian juniors, winning his first seven starts while posting a .920 save percentage. In his next five, however, he was pulled twice and lost the other three games, letting up 19 goals overall.
"I thought I started out playing really well. I was on a roll, but then... all good things kind of came to an end," Halverson said.
That set the tone for what Halverson's first half of the season would become; large stretches of success with some rough patches mixed in-between. When he was good, he was brilliant. When he wasn't, it would get ugly. The battle for consistency was his biggest challenge in his first year as a starting goaltender. More specifically, what was necessary to be physically and mentally prepared for the heavier workload.
"It was something I just had to work through," Halverson said. "Having the same mindset every single game. Making sure you don't stray away from that. Keeping (my) foundation and movements."
Halverson found himself being tested more mentally than physically. All goaltenders have highs and lows, but the ones who survive the hard times are those who have a short memory and confidence in their game. It's something any raw goaltending prospect has to work on, and it's something Halverson struggled with early in the season.
"I think I would stray away from my foundation and what got me success," Halverson admitted. "Some games you kind of just lose it and go back to old ways. My goalie coach Jon (Elkin) was always there to let me know when I was screwing up and we would go over it, shape up in practice, and be good the next game. It just happened that consistency was the toughest thing in every game."
The "foundation" Halverson speaks of is, to a large extent, his frame. Listed at 6'4 and 188 pounds, Halverson takes up a lot of the net. He's perhaps the ideal size for a butterfly goaltender and doesn't require significant amounts of lateral movement to be in position and cut down angles. A challenge for young goalies is often overcommitment in their movements.
"Some games my movement would be on. I'm patient, I'm watching the play and waiting for the puck to come to me and moving strong," Halverson said. "Sometimes there would be games I didn't feel good and I would chase too much. It causes me to lose balance, my arms move, and then this moves and it just throws me off."
Another learning experience for Halverson was in playing the puck. It's something Halverson is uniquely skilled at and perhaps the best scouts have seen since Rick DiPietro. That being said, sometimes he was too trusting in his ability with the puck on his stick, and it ended poorly for him on a handful of occasions; the most egregious occurrence being when he put the puck into his own net.
"My first year in (the OHL) I did a lot of crazy stuff. This past season a lot of teams caught on to what I do and little moves I did, and it cost me a lot," Halverson said.
That posed another mental conflict for Halverson. He started losing confidence in one of his best assets.
"At some point I was thinking, 'I don't even want to play the puck anymore because I keep screwing up.' It was just something I had to work through and try different things. It's worked out for me so far and I still have to get better at it," Halverson said.
For Halverson, it's about finding the right balance. His ability to play pucks and make plays is incredibly helpful in stifling opposing forchecks and starting his team's rush the other way. But sometimes, making the simple play with the puck is good enough.
"I think before I always had the mindset of trying to suck guys in and make a cool play and make myself look cool, but really it's not about that. It's just childish stuff," Halverson admitted. "It's not going to work now and it's definitely not going to work in the pros. So I realize I have to be more assertive. Get the puck, and once I see a guy open give it to him. Don't think, don't wait for forecheckers, and don't try to make stretch passes... only do that if it's wide open."
This all is not to say that Halverson wasn't up to standard. By the end of November - through 20 games - Halverson had a perfectly solid .913 save percentage to go with his 14-3-1 record. It, along with a strong camp with Team USA, was enough for him to beat out Evan Cowley and Alex Nedeljkovic for the USA's backup spot on the World Junior Championship team. Halverson was given one start against Germany. He made the most of it, earning a 14-save shutout.
"The World Juniors was pretty amazing, you know," Halverson asserted. "The first time wearing a USA jersey was pretty unreal, and to at least get a start, even though it wasn't that tough of a game... I was pretty honored to do that."
Along with Halverson, both Nedeljkovic and the incumbent starter, Canucks' prospect Thatcher Demko, will be eligible for the World Junior Championship again next season. Halverson would like to earn a bigger role with the team next December.
"That's something in the back of my head. Something I'm working towards is being the starting goalie and hopefully taking them to a gold medal this upcoming year," he acknowledged.
After the tournament, Halverson returned to the Greyhounds and hit the ground running. With the help of a strong team in front of him, Halverson won 10 straight games. In fact, over the entire second half of the season, Halverson amassed a stunning 24-2-0 record. In his final 17 appearances leading into the playoffs, he took his game to another level and posted a robust .926 save percentage. From a mechanics standpoint, it was obvious that Halverson has simplified his movements and let his frame do the work for him.
"I kind of figured it out halfway through the season... what it means to be a starting goaltender. After the World Juniors I think I started to shine. I started to play consistently," Halverson said.
In large part because of Halverson's strong play, the Greyhounds finished first in the OHL during the regular season. Halverson continued to hold strong during the playoffs up until the semifinals, where Connor McDavid played perhaps the best hockey of his young career and was too much to handle. Nonetheless, the season was generally a success for Halverson. A period of transition was to be expected for the young goaltender, and at the end of it all he came out of it significantly improved; both technically and mentally. He'll be returning to Sault Ste. Marie next season, but not before making a stop in New York for the Rangers' training camp.
"I just want to turn heads," Halverson insisted. "I know I won't be fighting for a spot or anything at this moment, but I just want to show everybody, show the coaching staff, that I'm ready to play and be the best I can for the team."