Five Questions with Matt Mahalak
Matt Mahalak figures to extend the Plymouth Whalers' streak of seeing goaltenders drafted.
A year ago, Scott Wedgewood, the Whalers' No. 1 netminder, was a third-round choice of the NHL's New Jersey Devils after being the backup in his Ontario Hockey League yearling season. Mahalak, 18, was in the same boat this season after joining the Whalers and his older brother, forward R.J. Mahalak. In Plymouth, he came on after the new year, posting a 2.14 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 15 games from Jan. 1 through the end of the Whalers' playoff run. He's ranked eighth among North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting.
"I think it's the last five goalies with the Whalers have gone on to the pros," says Matt Mahalak, who played for the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms as a 16-year-old. "It started with Justin Peters who's with Carolina. You have Michal Neuvirth with Washington. You have [Nashville Predators prospect] Jeremy Smith and [Minnesota Wild prospect] Matt Hackett against each other in a playoff series right now in the AHL."
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Mahalak is a big goalie possessed of what Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci calls a "very analytical" mind. The Toledo, Ohio, native is sufficiently bright enough to have skipped a grade as a youth and graduated high school at age 17. As for all-important hockey stuff, sharing time with Wedgewood, who played for Team OHL in the 2010 Subway Super Series, has been a major boon.
"He's been phenomenal help," Mahalak, who had a 3.08 GAA and .908 save percentage in the regular season, says of Wedgewood. "Even when I'm not playing the game, he's always talking to me, analyzing small parts of the game. His experience with going to a NHL camp [with Martin Brodeur in New Jersey] has been a tremendous help to me, especially, in the last few months."
Mahalak took a unique route to the Whalers, since he attended Indiana's demanding Culver Military Academy when he was 14 and 15. Joining the Whalers meant he and R.J. Mahalak were reunited for the first time in three years.
"Wake up 6:30, march to breakfast, clean your room, if your room wasn't clean enough, you were going to get work detail," is how Matt describes a typical day. "There were a lot of lessons, time management, balancing school and hockey. You really have to allocate your time, which helped me while going to school in Youngstown and taking classes at the University of Michigan-Dearborn this year while with the Whalers."
"I would probably say I was disappointed with the first half of the season. I did not get in a lot of games and wasn't playing great hockey. But I was learning a lot and I never took a day for granted. I think my hard work started to pay off in the second half of the year. I was very pleased with everything from pretty much after Christmas, pulling up my stats from the first half, getting my save percentage above .900 [a final .908]. I was very proud of the way I was able to come back and step up my game."
2. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"I'm a good blocking goaltender [being 6-foot-3] as it is but getting that reactive part down better is going to help my game. Ice awareness and being able to read plays and getting game experience will help me with all of that."
3. Is there a particular goaltender — could be more than one — whom you look at and say, "I need to learn from him?"
"I'm a big fan of the younger goalies in the NHL, Carey Price, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, who came up through the major junior ranks. Steve Mason is another that I really admire. If I'm watching a game, I look at how they would play certain situations and try that in practice to see if I like it."
4. What do you consider your proudest hockey achievement?
"In the USHL last year I'm very proud of — I don't know if it qualifies as a hockey achievement — I was named student-athlete of the year. Being a student first is something I've always tried to do, so that was an accomplishment I've been very proud of.
"The other one I like to throw out there is when I was in peewees, we won the Quebec peewee tournament. At that age, it's the biggest thing and a blast to go through that. I don't really consider it my proudest moment, but it's probably the most fun I've ever had at a hockey rink."
5. If there was no hockey, what sport do you think you would have played?
"I probably would have played a wider variety of sports. I always liked basketball, I was tall, but I wasn't that great at it. Baseball was never my thing. I actually got into crew [rowing] when I was going to school in Indiana. That might have been something I might have liked to pursue. If I had to pick one, it probably would been crew."
Editor's note: here is a list of Plymouth/Detroit goaltenders who have been drafted or signed as a free-agent by a National Hockey League team:
1992 - Derek Wilkinson, drafted by Tampa Bay in the 7th round (145th overall) in 1992. Played for Detroit 1991-93.
1992- Aaron Ellis, drafted by Quebec in the 11th round (244th overall) in 1992. Played for Detroit in 1993-94.
1993 - Fred Brathwaite, signed as free agent by Edmonton in 1993. Played for Detroit as OA in 1992-93.
1993 - Jason Saal, drafted by Los Angeles in the 5th round (117th overall) in 1993. Played for Detroit 1992-95
1995 - Mike Minard, drafted by Edmonton in the 4th round (83rd overall) in 1995. Played for Detroit Whalers in 1995-96.
1996 - Robert Esche, drafted by Phoenix in the 6th round (139th overall) in 1996. Played for Detroit/Plymouth from 1995-98.
1999 and 2001 - Rob Zepp, drafted twice in the NHL; by Atlanta in the 4th round (99th overall) in 1999, then by Carolina in the 4th round (110th overall). Played for Plymouth from 1998-2001. Very successful pro career in Germany.
2001 - Jason Bacashihua, drafted by Dallas in the 1st round (26th overall) in 2001. Played for Plymouth in 2001-02.
2004 - Justin Peters, drafted by Carolina in the 2nd round (38th overall) in 2004. Played for Plymouth in 2005-06.
2006 - Michal Neuvirth, drafted by Washington in the 2nd round (34th overall) in 2006. Played for Plymouth from 2006-08.
2007 - Jeremy Smith, drafted by Nashville in the 2nd round (54th overall) in 2007. Played for Plymouth from 2005-09.
2009 - Matt Hackett, drafted by Minnesota in the 3rd round (77th overall) in 2009. Played for Plymouth from 2007-10.
2010 - Scott Wedgewood, drafted by New Jersey in the 3rd round (84th overall) in 2010. Currently playing for Plymouth.
In addition, Ryan Nie in particular has done well in minor pro as a free agent. Paul Drew moved on to have an excellent career in CIAU hockey.