"I could use a full year in the Coast."
It's what goaltender Mackenzie Skapski said to me in October, referring to the East Coast Hockey League, where the New York Rangers sent him - the Greenville Road Warriors specifically - to begin his pro career. The 2013 sixth-round pick was coming off a successful campaign in the Western Hockey League, but the jump to professional hockey is a big one for any player; let alone a 20-year-old goaltender. Many quality goaltenders have spent a good chunk of time in the ECHL to ease the transition, including Tomas Vokoun, Jonathan Quick, Braden Holtby, and Jaroslav Halak.
For Skapski, a "full year" instead was shortened to one game. Cédric Desjardins, the Hartford Wolf Pack's starting goaltender, suffered a minor injury in late October, and Skapski was summoned to the AHL.
"I started in the ECHL like everyone thought (I would). It just happened that an injury happened and they called me up," Skapski recalled. "They said, you're going to be up for the weekend and we'll send you back Monday.'"
That plan changed, however. Filling in for Desjardins, Wolf Pack backup goaltender Jason Missiaen struggled mightily. He let in six goals on 23 shots on October 24th against the Albany Devils before being pulled for Skapski, who saved all three shots he faced in relief. The next night, Missiaen let in four goals on 32 shots. For the third game of the weekend, Skapski was given his first career AHL start. He saved all 16 shots he faced in a convincing 3-0 win. Thus, when Desjardins returned to health a few days later, it was Missian who was sent to the ECHL.
"It just so happened that I got my opportunity and the timing was perfect. I got a shutout in the first game and they decided to keep me," Skapski said.
What was at first a trial run to see how Skapski would fair in the AHL eventually turned into a permanent stay. By the end of December, Skapski had started his fair share of games, posting a 2.28 goals against average and .923 save percentage.
"I started playing more games and winning games, and I was kind of competing for that number-one job. Then (Desjardins) went down halfway through Christmas and it became an even bigger role," Skapski said.
The Wolf Pack signed Yann Danis to fill the goaltending void, but Skapski had already proven himself to Hartford's coaching staff. Skapski had effectively worked his way to split-starting duties in Hartford. Skapski concluded the 2014-2015 hockey season with 28 games in Hartford and a .914 save percentage; an impressive total for a 20-year-old goaltender in the AHL. For comparison, at the same age Semyon Varlamov posted a .916 save percentage, Jonathan Bernier equaled Skapski's .914, and Roberto Luongo registered at .908. The East Coast Hockey League wasn't even on the radar. Skapski was ahead of schedule and proving himself very capable in the AHL. That would have been more than enough for Skapski to consider his first professional season a success.
"To be perfectly honest I (would have been) content being in the AHL the entire year and just being backup," Skapski admitted.
But Skapski got yet another unexpected promotion. On January 31st, Rangers fans watched in horror as Henrik Lundqvist took a puck to his throat. A few days later, he was put on the shelf. A disastrous situation for the Rangers turned into a new opportunity for Skapski. Desjardins also being injured meant that Skapski was next on the depth chart, so he was called up to the Rangers. Of course, for a while that was only a technicality, as Cam Talbot took on almost the entire workload while Skapski sat on the bench with a nice view of the NHL games transpiring in front of him. Scouts and coaches hate when young players aren't playing and fear it stunting their development, but there wasn't any alternative in this situation. Skapski made the most of it and used the unique situation to learn and develop in his own way.
"On game days I would take advantage. I would go out with a couple of the healthy scratch players. I think I gained a lot from that," Skapski said. " The speed of the game in the NHL is a huge factor. My first week in the NHL I feel like I didn't stop any pucks. I seemed to end up okay throughout practice later on."
Rangers' goaltending guru Benoit Allaire is often interacting with the goalies in the organization even down to the junior level, but the call-up also made daily, hands-on sessions with Allaire convenient. And while nothing can replace actual games, it was an important time for Skapski to improve his game under the guidance of someone many consider the best goaltending coach in the world.
"As basic as it sounds, his reputation speaks for itself. Benoit's phenomenal," Skapski remarked. "Even if I had a bad game or bad sequence of games he’ll tell me not to change anything and focus my game. Ultimately he believes in it and I believe in him. If I can believe in my game, and he certainly does, we both believe I could make the NHL."
Talbot performed incredibly well in Lundqvist's absence, but it was also clear that starting every game was beginning to take its toll on him physically and mentally. A February 20th matchup against the lowly Buffalo Sabres was approaching.
"Leading up to that game I figured that maybe I would get (the start)," Skapski said.
Indeed, Skapski was picked to make his NHL debut that night. Playing against the worst team in the league while the Rangers were hot was a good spot to give Talbot that rest and throw Skapski into the fire. Still, the Sabres were an NHL-caliber team, and not many 20-year-old goaltenders get an opportunity in the NHL. With the Rangers battling for playoff position and the Presidents' Trophy, every game mattered. There was a strong uncertainty of how Skapski would fare. It didn't take too long for things to go wrong. Just 14 seconds into the game, the puck took a fluke bounce off of defenseman Marc Staal's skate and landed right on Sabres winger Matt Moulson's stick in the slot. Wide open, he took a shot, and the first shot that Skapski faced in the NHL was in the back of his net.
"I looked right over to the bench and thought, 'oh no this is going to be a long one,'" Skapski said, laughing.
And though he sees the humor in it now, he was not feeling great at the time. It was the worst possible start to what he felt, as a late draft pick, was a career-defining game.
"I felt like there was a certain pressure. If a first-rounder walks into his first NHL game and craps the bed, he's going to get another regardless," Skapski said. "As a sixth-round pick I'm kind of a wild card. You don't really have plans for fifth, sixth, or seventh round picks. I felt like that was my time to shine. And if I failed that situation, looking back now, I don't think I'd ever get an opportunity again."
Outside of that early incident, however, it was smooth sailing for Skapski. The Rangers responded with three goals of their own and went into the third period with a 3-1 lead while dominating play; Skapski having only faced 12 shots. He was bit busier in the third period, though, and succeeded in stopping all 13 shots. It wasn't a particularly active offensive game from the Sabres, but they did enough to make his saves matter.
The Sabres were on the agenda again three weeks later, and Skapski was again given the nod. Again, the Rangers dominated play, but Sabres' goaltender Anders Lindback stood tall and kept the Rangers off the score sheet for quite a while. Skapski was forced to match that. Finally, defenseman Keith Yandle broke the deadlock in the third period and the Rangers were up 1-0. Players are well conditioned to speak about team accomplishments and focusing energies on earning the two points. Of course Skapski was very concerned with that. But he had no reservations about the potential personal accomplishment that suddenly was staring him in the face.
"Honestly, I was thinking about (getting a shutout) the entire time," Skapski acknowledged.
Skapski held strong. Martin St. Louis scored an empty-netter with 33 seconds remaining. The game ended soon after. Just months prior expecting to spend the entire season in the ECHL, Skapski suddenly had his second NHL win and first NHL shutout. Though only 20 saves were required, the caliber of Buffalo's chances as well as a tight score the entire game made it a tougher outing.
"I felt like the second game I had a lot more quality scoring chances," Skapski said."I felt like I answered those."
The sixth-rounder whom many had not heard of upon his call-up was suddenly a known name in the Rangers' fan base. During commercial breaks during the games following both his first win and his first shutout, the Madison Square Garden jumbotron showed him on the bench, and the fans responded with loud applause as Skapski sat awkwardly and smiled. Fans on Twitter made jokes about him. For his efforts in both of his starts as well as his general presence on the team during an unlikely winning streak with Lundqvist out, the previously unknown Skapski became an unofficial team mascot of sorts. A cult hero. Skapski admitted to noticing.
"Yeah, I've been tweeted at for looking like a baby or whatever," Skapski said, laughing. "It would be different if a Malcolm Subban was called up or a Vasilevskiy. People were chirping me for what they hadn't seen, right? This opportunity in New York this year was phenomenal for myself and my personal career. Now it kind of puts me on the map."
In late March, Lundqvist was cleared to return, and Skapski was sent back to the AHL with a wealth of experience and perspective he didn't have before on what it takes to be an NHL player.
"Every road trip they treat you like a superstar. They treat you well everywhere you go. In return, you have to perform for them," Skapski said. "Especially in a market like New York. Eating well, training hard, doing all those cliché things is amped up."
Skapski feels that he was a better pro and a better goaltender upon his return to Hartford. He also feels that he proved an important point both to himself and others.
"I think the biggest development thing, that I take out of it anyway, is getting a taste of what could be my career. A lot of people get drafted and signed and never get the opportunity I had in my first year pro," Skapski said. "Obviously there’s some talent in New York with goalies and I needed to make a point this year. I knew that walking into this year that they drafted (Halverson) high last year. I needed to prove a point that I probably shouldn’t have been a sixth-round pick. I felt like I did that."
Keeping his success in perspective was important, however. It was crucial that he not let his stint in the NHL get to his head.
"You don't really see 20-year-old successes, you know, shutting out Buffalo or getting two NHL wins. You don't see that and I never dreamed of that. It became reality and that was a challenge itself." Skapski said. "Just becoming even-keeled. Coming back to my teammates and not being a different guy. You hear stories about guys who are different guys once they reach success. I really didn’t want to be that guy and I didn’t want to be that goalie, either, that just crashed in my success. A lot of people think, you know, 'you’ll do well in the AHL.' But the AHL is a tough league."
Still, expectations for Skapski have certainly changed. He is on the NHL radar much sooner than anyone would have projected just 12 months ago. Skapski said recovery from his hip surgery is going very well and that he expects to return from the injury stronger and more mobile than ever before. From there, he'll begin his bid to prove himself to Rangers' management even more than he already has. The Rangers acquired Antti Raanta from the Chicago Blackhawks to replace Cam Talbot. Skapski has no delusions about who the backup goaltender will be in New York next season or the competition he's up against in Hartford.
"I’m prepared to put in the work to take my game to another level. I’m prepared to get cut from the NHL this year and to have Antti Raanta take over there, and go down to the AHL and not expect a starting role there. Just to battle with Hellberg and Desjardins."
However, he hopes to make a case for the spot behind Lundqvist in the near future. Skapski laid out what he believes would be the best outcome for next season.
"I would want to describe it as a season in which I got a lot of games in the AHL and put up pretty good numbers and maybe got a few NHL call-ups," Skapski said. "Not to the extent of my last one, but I’d definitely like a call-up or two and to prove a case for me being the (Rangers) backup the following year. If I do my stuff and if I get games in the AHL, then I personally believe that I’ll eventually be taking over that role in the NHL, potentially."