SAN JOSE -– Locking down one of the few available jobs as an NHL goaltender naturally takes a whole lot of skill.
Often equally important, though, is timing. There are plenty of goalies out there that could probably play in the NHL, but many of them won’t ever get a chance to show what they can do, buried behind an established starter and/or veteran backup.
For Aaron Dell, an opportunity has arrived. The cap-strapped Sharks didn’t bring in one of the many veterans that were available in the offseason, leaving Dell as the frontrunner to back up Martin Jones on Oct. 12.
“Just to be there would be a dream come true,” Dell said.
Dell isn’t your standard candidate to finally break through to the best league in the world. At 27 years old, the Alberta native would be much older than a typical first-year player. He was never drafted, spending three years at the University of North Dakota before joining the then-CHL’s Allen (Texas) Americans in 2012. He bounced around the ECHL and AHL after that, splitting time between the two minor leagues as recently as 2014-15, including 26 games with the Sharks’ top affiliate in Worcester.
Last season, though, he claimed the top job on the Barracuda from Troy Grosenick, who was higher than Dell on the depth chart this time last year. In fact, Grosenick is on a way-one contract for the upcoming season, while Dell’s two-year extension signed in the offseason is a two-way deal.
But because Dell’s 17-16-6, 2.42 GAA and .922 SP stat line was noticeably better than Grosenick’s 11-10-4, 3.16 GAA and .894 SP, Dell was the guy that was kept around as the playoff third stringer as the Sharks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer indicated that Dell’s strong season gives him an inside edge on the backup job.
“I don’t think that should be ignored. That deserves some recognition,” DeBoer said of Dell’s recent play.
Dell said: “I think [last season] went really well. Went kind of back and forth with Troy for the first half, and I think I got some scoring support for the second half, and I think we went on a good run at the end.”
DeBoer isn’t the only NHL coach familiar with Dell. Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol had Dell at UND from 2009-12, and indicated that the goalie has competed tooth and nail at every level he’s been at in his career. In 2010-11, Dell was 30-7-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average in 40 games with North Dakota, which advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four.
“He’s a talented young guy that was a good teammate,” Hakstol said. “Probably what stands out most is he’s a guy that’s always earned everything that he’s gotten – right from midget hockey through junior hockey, and now on through college and the pro ranks. He’s earned what he gets.”
The backup role will be even more magnified than it was last year with the Sharks, when Alex Stalock’s dreadful play meant first-year number one Martin Jones had to shoulder the bulk of the work in the first half. Jones started strong out of the gate, but struggled in November and December.
After the trustworthy and solid James Reimer replaced Stalock, Jones got more of a chance to rest, and it helped. The goalie was one of the Sharks’ best players throughout their two-month playoff run.
San Jose has 16 back-to-back games this season, two more than in 2015-16. The backup goalie will simply have to win games again.
“It’s going to be a priority,” DeBoer said. “I don’t think it’s any accident that [after] we got Reimer last year, it allowed us to rest [Jones] a little bit and he was fresh in the playoffs. I think we all understand the importance of a fresh Martin Jones. Whoever we have here [as the backup] is going to have to play.”
Both DeBoer and general manager Doug Wilson have made it clear, too, that if there is no one internally that can adequately back up Jones, they will not hesitate to find someone elsewhere.
“I think there’s seven or eight teams that will have three goalies going into camp, and they could become available,” Wilson said. “Like anything else, if we need to go acquire somebody, we will. But, we want to give our own guys that chance.”
Right now, that guy is Dell.