EVERETT — Who was that guy?
It’s Wednesday afternoon on August 20, a month before the 2014-15 Western Hockey League season begins, and the Everett Silvertips are holding check-in at the Everett Events Center for their veteran players. Dozens of teenage boys in shorts and T-shirts gather in groups as they await their turns to have their headshots taken, trading humorous anecdotes from their time back home during the summer.
In one group stands an unfamiliar figure. Trim of body and thin of face, he nevertheless seems right at home among the crowd, as if he’s been a part of the team for years.
Upon closer inspection the mystery is revealed. It may have required a double-take, but the so-called stranger is unmasked as none other than Silvertips goaltender Austin Lotz.
Yet it’s not Austin Lotz, at least not the same Lotz who backstopped Everett the past three seasons. Instead, it’s a player who’s gone through a butterfly-like metamorphosis, transforming both his physical appearance and his goaltending style.
And it’s this new version of Austin Lotz who holds the key to Everett’s season.
There’s a stereotype about hockey goalies.
Much like the way catchers are often portrayed in baseball, the hockey generalization is that the fat kid tends goal. Just as in the movie The Bad News Bears where the rotund Engelberg is the catcher, in the movie The Mighty Ducks the chubby Goldberg is the goalie.
While Lotz has never been fat during his time with the Tips, the 19-year-old from St. Adolphe, Manitoba, historically has had a little Goldberg in him.
“I’ve always been a little bit overweight,” Lotz said. “I came in light when I was 16 and 17, and last year I didn’t come in so light. I spent a little more time bulking up my body. If you look at the goalies in the NHL, a lot of them are lengthy guys. It’s the name of the position, you have to be flexible and quick, not so much strong. You don’t have to go out there and make big hits, you have to go out there and make the stretch saves.”
When last season ended, Lotz weighed in at 203 pounds. Then during the offseason he went to work on his body. A newfound dedication to nutrition, combined with his normal rigorous offseason workout plan, resulted in Lotz shedding 23 pounds and reporting to training camp at a svelte 180.
“I trained hard and did a lot of cardio, but to be honest there wasn’t much of a change in my offseason training,” Lotz said. “A lot of it was diet. I’ve just been watching what I eat a lot, but at the same time I feel like I’ve gained a lot of muscle, too. It was just bringing my body fat down a little bit and still making sure I have the strength to compete out there.
“I just wanted to be quicker,” Lotz added. “I kind of found last year sometimes I’d be a little tired going into the third period. Knowing that last year I had a heavy workload and this year it will probably be even more, I wanted to make sure I was prepared for that.”
Lotz’s offseason physical transformation wasn’t lost on the Tips.
“The one thing that really excites me is he really worked hard in the offseason,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said. “I think he’s in the best condition he’s ever been, I think he took the offseason and addressed the things he needed to do to get to the next level.
“We’ve seen him steal games, but I also think his level of commitment and consistency needed some work,” Davidson added. “He took to heart what he needed to do there. The key for any young player is getting to that level of consistency where you’re close to your own A game night after night, as opposed to some nights a C game sneaking in there.”
Both Lotz and the Tips hope his work on his body helps.
Since the day he arrived in Everett, the enduring image of Lotz as a goaltender has been of him sprawling across the crease to make a spectacular save. Even as a 16-year-old back-up he made saves during practice that left even his teammates and coaches gasping in wonder. Lotz has a way of making the impossible possible.
But there’s more to quality goaltending than the diving glove stop that ends up on WHL Plays of the Week. Too much diving around can leave a goalie out of position, and that’s where the mental aspect of goaltending comes into play.
“There’s two styles, you’re either a blocker or a reactor,” Everett goaltending coach Shane Clifford explained when discussing Lotz. “He’s obviously more to the reacting side.”
When Clifford rejoined the Tips last offseason, he got his first look at Lotz. While Clifford liked some of the things he saw, he had concerns about others.
“I thought his mobility was off the charts, he moves really well,” Clifford recalled. “But sometimes when everything happened real quick he’d end up on his stomach or side. He was so active and competing so hard that he’d get in trouble a little bit.
“So it was a matter of trying to slow him down a little bit,” Clifford added. “Sometimes there’s no time for a technical response and you have to dive, but sometimes he’d have time for a technical response and he’d still dive. That’s just being a competitor, so it’s not a bad thing. But we had to help him with that.”
Heeding his coaches, Lotz has gradually been trying to change his mindset to where he’s not flopping around on the ice as much.
“I’m definitely not a blocking style goalie, I don’t think I’ll ever be. I like the athletic side of my game,” Lotz said. “But I’m definitely more open now to being more positional and more technical than when I first got into the league.
“I think if you watched video of me when I was 16 or even 17, I was a little more aggressive, a little more diving all over the place than I am now,” Lotz added. “Last year I really worked on that. I feel last year I was maybe a little too technical and it kind of got me in trouble sometimes midway through the season. I feel now that I’m in a very good spot mentally and physically with my technical play. I feel like I’ve found that happy medium with my game and I’m really confident with it right now.”
Goals could be had to come by for Everett this season.
The Tips graduated a huge chunk of their offense from last season, and Everett wasn’t a high-scoring team. It’s possible the Silvertips will need to maximize their goal prevention and figure out how to win low-scoring games.
Therefore, for Everett to have a successful season, the Tips need Lotz to be the soul of the team.
“I think goaltending is the most critical part of any organization,” Davidson said. “Good goaltending can win games on its own. For any team to be competitive you have to be good from the back out. So I think he’s very important for us.”
This will be Lotz’s third season as Everett’s No. 1 goaltender. He’s suffered through the bad times, winning just two games as a 16-year-old and having to fight off competition for his job as a 17-year-old. He enjoyed the fruits of having a better team in front of him last season, going 31-18-3-2 with a 2.53 goals against average and .905 save percentage, by far his best season statistically with Everett.
But Lotz is ready to take another step forward.
“The expectations are a little higher,” Lotz said. “Not in a bad sense, where there’s lots of pressure. But I’m a little more seasoned. I want to be playing better every year as I grow older, that’s no exception this year. I have to be better this year than I was last year, and I have confidence in myself that I’m going to be able to do that this year for the team.”
Lotz isn’t concerned about the possibility that Everett may struggle to score this season, thus putting more onus on him to perform.
“From the outside looking in maybe that’s what it looks like, but from the inside not at all,” Lotz said about the team’s potential offensive issues. “I know my job and I’m going to do my job, and I’m confident the team is going to do its job. It’s a matter of everybody finding their roles. Whether we’re a high-scoring team or not, it doesn’t matter to myself or any of the other guys in the room. We just want to win and we’ll do anything it takes to win.
“I’m really excited about this year,” Lotz concluded. “Being 19, my fourth year, I feel I have gained a lot of experience and every year I’ve gotten better. I’ve seen this team progress from a very below-average team to an above-average team, and I think we’re going to keep on climbing. I’m really excited to see what this season has in store.”
And wherever Everett’s ends up this season, there’s no doubt this new Austin Lotz will have played a big part in getting there.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.