September 13, 2017

LINSEY | Breaking Down the Men’s Hockey Goalie Battle

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In the 2014-15 season, the Cornell men’s hockey’s starting goaltender position was up for grabs. That year, sophomores Mitch Gillam and Ryan Coon, along with freshman Hayden Stewart, competed for the position. Gillam and Stewart split time early on in the fall semester until Gillam took over as the starter and never looked back.

After two years with Gillam in the net, the team faces a similar situation this season. Two freshmen, Matthew Galajda and Austin McGrath, will compete with the senior Stewart for the coveted position.

Both of the freshmen could conceivably start right out of the gate; in fact, teams have increasingly been using freshmen in net, as almost a third of NCAA Division I starting goalies last season were freshmen. In the ECAC, Clarkson’s Jake Kielly and Brown’s Gavin Nieto started as freshmen last year. Kielly impressed, but Nieto struggled, showing that starting a freshman at goalie can be a risky experiment.

As a senior and the only returning goalie, Stewart is the favorite for the job. He appeared seven times in his freshman season, recording two victories, both shutouts against Brown and Clarkson. Since then, he has only started one game; he made two relief appearances in his sophomore season, and played twice in his junior year, with the start against Colorado College. Overall, Stewart has posted a 2.49 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage, which are good but not great figures.

Galajda comes to Cornell from the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League, where he played for two seasons. He was placed on the league’s All-Star team in his second season there, and named the most valuable player of the team and the division. Galajda is just 19 years old, three years Stewart’s junior, and obviously has no experience with the challenging and hectic ECAC schedule.

As far as his goalkeeping abilities, YouTube clips show a range of skills that could help him in the Big Red net. The top clip shows him sprawling to his left and making a point-blank glove save. Coincidentally, the shooter in that scenario was Kyle Betts, now a teammate and classmate of Galajda’s at Cornell. Further clips show that his strengths lie in his quick reaction time and willingness to stay in the net and not skate out to confront an opponent, resembling Gillam’s style. The strength of this approach is that the goalie stays in the cage and rarely gets fooled by a deke. But ECAC forwards may have the skill to pick the corners on a stay-at-home goalie. This may be something to watch, should he see considerable time in his debut season.

Fellow freshman Austin McGrath will also be among coach Mike Schafer’s ’86 options. He played for the Lloydminster Bobcats of the Alberta Junior Hockey League before joining Cornell. Also 19, McGrath’s goaltending statistics are not as impressive as Galajda’s in the BCHL or Stewart’s in the ECAC, and McGrath’s team finished in last place last season. A lack of defensive talent could explain some of McGrath’s struggles last year, and Cornell could still have an excellent defensive unit when McGrath plays with Cornell’s strong blueline. Sadly, there is not enough footage of McGrath to assess his goaltending and how it might translate to the ECAC.

Schafer has a real decision to make between Stewart, Galajda and McGrath. I expect Stewart to start the season opener Oct. 28 against Alabama-Huntsville. But don’t be surprised to see one of the freshmen begin the second game of the series. Matthew Galajda will likely get the nod over Austin McGrath; Galajda comes in with two years of experience at the junior hockey level compared to McGrath’s one, and thus will be more ready to face NCAA opposition. If Stewart falters early on in the fall semester, Schafer may give Galajda or even McGrath a chance. Eventually, Schafer will likely settle on a preferred starter, and whoever it is will have a strong chance to be successful in Cornell’s defensive style of hockey. Cornell fans should pay special attention to the goaltender position as these three battle it out for the starting goaltender role.