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Tough choice: These 'keepers are all keepers

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THE first step in Juho Olkinuora's pro dream was when he signed with the Winnipeg Jets last spring, but the path that lies ahead starts with simple math.

To wit: the Jets have five goalies in training camp, after 18-year-old draftee Eric Comrie was sent back to the Tri-City Americans on Monday. Ondrej Pavelec, obviously, is staying with the Jets. Back-up Al Montoya likely will too, so that leaves Olkinuora, St. John's IceCaps regular Eddie Pasquale and former Boston Bruins prospect Michael Hutchinson to battle for two AHL spots.

Something will have to give, but what? All three prospects have promise: Olkinuora, 22, was a coveted undrafted free agent who rocketed up from a walk-on at the University of Denver in less than two years; Hutchinson played well in the Jets' second pre-season game on Sunday, including flat-out robbing Cory Conacher when the Ottawa Senators forward was knocking on his door.

"I was fortunate that I read the play well," he said. "It felt great. There was very little rust. I felt that my rebound control for the most part was pretty good, and I was able to see pucks through traffic, which in other years was an area I struggled with off the start of the season... I think that just comes with maturity, and being more used to playing at a higher level."

As for 22-year-old Pasquale, well, he's a famous figure in St. John's after two solid developmental years there.

So the competition is deep.

"It makes it interesting, for sure," Olkinuora said, and laughed the pressure off. "It's not going to help you to think about depth chart things, and who's going to go where, and any of that, because that's obviously not up to you. It's an old clich©, you try to control what you can control."

It makes the battle easier, a bit, that the competitors seem to be a jovial group. Hutchinson, just 23 and squeezed out of the Bruins' prospect pool when they drafted Malcolm Subban, wore a megawatt smile on Monday as he talked about his second chance. A Barrie, Ont. product, he remembers seeing Pasquale on the other side of Toronto-area rinks when they were just minor hockey kids.

Other friendly moments: Olkinuora roomed with Comrie, and got him hooked on the hyperaddictive iPhone game Candy Crush.

"They say goalies are weird, but I think he's the weirdest guy I've ever met," Olkinuora said, and that is definitely a compliment. "In a good way, a good guy. He's a smart kid."

Both of these two, don't forget, chose Winnipeg. When the Bruins didn't qualify Hutchinson after last season, Winnipeg showed "quite a lot of interest" in him, he said; having played the bad guy in St. John's with the AHL's Providence Bruins, he was pumped about a chance to have that sold-out Newfoundland crowd on his side instead. "It's kind of like a mini-Winnipeg, where fans get really loud, so I'm so excited."

Olkinuora, meanwhile, had his choice of offers after two seasons backstopping the University of Denver. He was sensational there, going 13-6-5 in his sophomore campaign with three shut-outs and .927 save percentage; after his freshman season, now-retired Denver coach George Gwozdecky said the Finn -- who played in the Finnish pro league as a teen -- was the best find the Pioneers had made in years.

What sold Olkinuora on the Jets was the "family-like feeling," he said, and the organization's commitment to developing goalies from within; when a whole echelon of Jets executives got him and his agent on a conference call to seal the deal, he felt very welcomed.

"It's a workspace, and it'd be nice to like the people at your office," he said. "Hockey's fun, but if you don't enjoy the people around you, it's tough."

For the Jets, now, the tough part will be the decisions, but in a way that's a blessing too: for the first time in years, the franchise looks to have loads of competition in net. Over the off-season, they hired former pro Dusty Imoo to be St. John's new developmental goaltending coach, so whoever wins the battle -- and bear in mind, it doesn't end after this training camp -- will have a watchful eye to guide them along.

"I've had a good opportunity, and they gave me a fair shake," Hutchinson said, and that smile popped out again. "I'm just being patient right now, and trying to work my hardest, and perform well here. As long as you're playing hockey somewhere, you can't really complain where it is."

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 D2

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