Houston Aeros goaltender Matt Hackett hit the ice back on Friday morning at Xcel Energy Center in great shape, both physically and mentally.
Dealing with more pressure and higher expectations from everyone in the organization, and facing stiffer competition from a thirsty and healthy Darcy Kuemper, Hackett knows he has to work harder than ever before to prove he’s still the future of Wild goaltending.
And it all started with the very first shot he faced and the very first lap he skated in training camp.
“I just want to play in as many games as I can,” Hackett said regarding his goals for the new season. “Obviously I also want to get the stats down a bit — I want to be around a 2.00 goals-against average and probably a .925 save percentage would be nice for me. But other than that, hopefully get a few call-ups if the NHL is playing, and continue to work hard.”
For Hackett, last season was a mini-breakout of sorts. Not only did he make his debut with the Wild as a 21-year-old, but he shattered everyone’s expectations. In his first five appearances, not only did he stop 100 of 102 shots, but he also (according to Elias) set a record for the longest shutout streak (102:48) to start an NHL career.
In 12 total games with the Wild, Hackett posted a 3-6-0 record with a 2.37 GAA and a very impressive .922 SV%. Displaying poise and confidence during every recall, Matt proved he had the potential to succeed and thrive in the NHL.
The story of his uncle’s influence (former NHL goalie Jeff Hackett) helped the youngster gain positive exposure around the league, but it was his special collection of athleticism, reflexes, and composure that led him to be ranked as one of the top goalie prospects in the world.
But despite the bright future, Matt will have to stay patient with his development. Josh Harding signed a new three-year deal with Minnesota over the summer, and Niklas Backstrom still has one year left on his contract. If the Finnish stalwart has a strong season and stays healthy, the Wild could elect to re-sign him for another year, maybe even two.
Hackett’s first two games with the Wild were clearly his most impressive. On Dec. 6, 2011 he came off the bench just 1:11 into a game in San Jose after Harding suffered a head injury. With tons of adrenaline coursing through his veins, Matt stopped 34 shots for the personal shutout and the 2-1 victory in his NHL debut.
Two days later, he shut down the Los Angeles Kings in his first NHL start by stopping 42 of 44 shots in a 4-2 win.
“I just gained more confidence, so getting my first few games in there was pretty key for me,” Hackett said. “When I got sent back down to Houston, things kind of slowed down and I felt more comfortable with everything. So for me it was a big confidence boost playing in 12 games [for the Wild] last year.”
Many younger goalies with high levels of natural athleticism will often experience this “slowing down” effect once they get a taste of the faster action in the NHL. Their bodies and minds not only acclimate to the increased speed of shots and developing plays, but with a few early saves, they also gain more confidence.
When they return to the AHL, however, they come to realize that less is more, and it becomes easier for them to stay in control of their movements, which is crucial to being a more consistent and efficient goaltender.
“It’s key,” Hackett said. “You can’t be moving too much, and if you are, you can sometimes get caught out of place. I feel like if you’re just kind of set and ready for the puck, the game is much easier to play like that.”
Another key for young, high-caliber prospects like Matt is mastering the finer aspects of pro goaltending, like passing the puck effectively, and helping the defense transition out of their own zone.
“That’s huge. It’s way faster at the NHL level, so you have to help out your defense as much as you can,” Hackett explained. “Puck-handling is obviously a key part of that, and Bobby Mason has been helping me with that since I first came here. So just little things like that are key, and I’ll keep working on them.”
Aside from being able to pass the puck with precision, Hackett knows he must also be a good communicator, like a quarterback calling out plays. The more a goalie talks, the more it helps their defensemen recognize oncoming pressure, or open passing lanes up the ice. The goalie can often see what some puck-carriers can’t, and that’s an aspect of his game Hackett wants to fine-tune as time goes on.
“Communication with my defense is huge,” Hackett said. “Right off the bat, they need to know that I’m there to talk to them and that I have their back, too. So just letting my defense know what’s going on is pretty key, and just showing that I’ll be there for them.”
Hackett should have no problem being there for the Aeros again this season. The roster is chock full of gifted players, and the stronger competition from Kuemper should only fuel his competitive fire. He knows success won’t fall into his lap, but having faced different types of adversity over the past two seasons, he should have no problem handling the added pressure of higher expectations.
But no matter how strong the Aeros may be this season, and no matter how many goals they may score, Hackett still has to hone the finer aspects of his game. Stopping the puck 92-percent of the time is one thing, but doing all of the other “little things” on top of that, and on a consistent basis, is quite another.
That’s the focus for Hackett this season, and that’s what it will take for him to finally become a full-time NHL goaltender.