The Tampa Bay Lightning are blessed with riches in many aspects, but there’s one place that the depth isn’t safe for diving in the pro leagues: goaltending.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has been great and I’m not talking about replacing him anytime soon, but you need to keep a good stockpile in the minors just in case. Right now the goalies signed for the 2019-20 season are:
Ty Taylor is heading into his sophomore season at New Hampshire, Magnus Chrona is unsigned and playing in Sweden, and Eddie Pasquale is a free agent. Eddie could come back, Magnus could come over, but there’s still lots of room between the Crunch and Solar Bears.
With the space available at the position, another prospect that’s ready to turn pro is a good investmen. Up north in the Niagara region of Ontario there’s a goalie who’s in the middle of a playoff run and is looking for a place to play next season.
That goalie is Stephen Dhillon of the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs.
To admit my bias right off the bat, I live in St. Catharines, within walking distance of the IceDogs arena, and am a giant homer when it comes to OHL hockey. Dhillon is probably one of, if not the best goalies the team has had and it’s a shame he hasn’t been signed to a team yet. Dhillon has had his time with NHL teams; he’s attended rookie/development camps for the St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Boston Bruins, and found some great moments from those camps.
Dhillon: Martin Brodeur was my first favourite goalie, and I was fortunate enough to meet him when I went to St. Louis when he was still assistant GM. That was pretty special thing, playing for him at the Traverse City tournament.
He spent time watching the other players and trying to find tips for his development:
Dhillon: I think you pick up stuff from every team. You watch the guys there and pick up little tips and try to implement some of those to see what works for you.
To go back farther than his junior career, you can see where he learned how to be a team player. Dhillon was born in Jackson, Mississippi but moved to Buffalo when he was five. His hometown Buffalo Sabres played a big role in how he developed as a player on and off the ice:
Dhillon: I was lucky enough to live next to a couple players, so I would get to go play ball hockey with Paul Gaustad and Ryan Miller one time, that was pretty neat. Seeing how nice they were off the ice, and all the success they had on the ice too, it was pretty neat.
You see them on the ice, and you know them off the ice. It was pretty special.
You watch them be so successful, but they’re still the most humble and polite people. They always would spend time with the little guys, the fans. They see how appreciative you are, and you grow up and you want to give back the same.
You can see he absorbed these lessons as a child and keeps this in mind in the dressing room now.
Elijah Roberts, IceDogs defender: He’s great. He’s always talkative, making sure guys are comfortable, asking guys if they need a ride, or planning ice cream runs, he’s a real good guy.
Ben Jones, IceDogs captain: Stevie’s personality is really out there. He’s very polite, always having fun and jumping around. He knows when to be serious though. I don’t think anyone wants to win as much as him. He always feels bad when he lets a goal in, even if it’s not his fault. He always puts that on himself. He’s been a big rock for us for the past four years, it’s great to have him around the rink.
Dhillon took over as the starter for the IceDogs in 2016-17, and hasn’t looked back since.
He started in Niagara as the third string goalie, and kept finding his role pushed back as other goalies were brought in via trades to shore things up in the playoffs. While that could be a frustrating situation, his longtime mentor and coach Bob Janosz (current IceDogs goaltending coach, former Rochester Americans goalie coach) says patience is a virtue Dhillon has in spades:
Janosz: He’s not one to jump ship. Being here was always his plan and he stuck to it. It’s a good organization and he knew his time would come. He’s definitely not the type to go “Things aren’t good here” or he’s not playing and just run off. He understands the process.
Dhillon worked with Janosz since he was nine years old - or about as tall as his pads are now, but goal tending wasn’t always in his future:
Dhillon: I originally started as defense, moved to forward and I loved scoring goals. When you’re young, you rotate through the positions, and one Saturday morning I got hit in the knee, with no padding, by the puck machine and then I never wanted to play goal again. Then at the game I let in six goals and that was it. I’m never playing goal again. I think maybe two years later, I tried again, got a shutout and I thought that was pretty neat. Plus the gear. The colored pads, the helmets, that was a big selling point. My father said I had to learn to skate first, so when I was a good enough skater at nine I made the switch.
While Dhillon is a starter, he hasn’t stopped developing.
Janosz: He’s definitely a student of the game; he always has been. His hockey IQ is very high, very smart. He’s still growing into his frame. I think that’s key. He just needs to continue to keep getting stronger, keep working. Goalies develop longer, the process is longer, so with goalies that are that big it takes a little longer to grow into that frame.
Stephen Dhillon played in 58 of the IceDogs 68 regular season games and all 11 of their playoff games this season. He’s become a rock of the team, and is trusted to bring them wins.
Roberts: We all trust Stevie, having a goalie like that we feel good. He works hard in practice, everything like that.
Janosz: He always works hard in practice, stays on extra time to do drills and shootouts with the guys. His size is good, he’s fundamentally sound. He makes timely saves in big games. His puckhandling has improved a lot.
Knowing your goalie has you back is important for defenders, with Dhillon’s strong hockey IQ he’s always there to help the defense where possible.
Dhillon: I think our D do a great job communicating and talking, and my job is to play the puck to them. If I can help them avoid a hit or help our team exit the zone quicker, that’s great. If you keep it simple you can be real productive for your team.
Off the ice Dhillon is a regular participant in video reviews and training sessions. He’s always always trying to keep the team together and work to make the experience great for everyone.
Janosz: He’s excellent, definitely a team player. You can tell all of the guys just love him. The team staff does as well. When we do video he’s eager to see it. He wants to see every little detail. He wants to learn and continue to do better.
Jones: The best goaltenders are kind of finicky, but it’s nothing against him, he loves and is loved by everyone in the room. He’s a great team guy, has a nice dry sense of humour. Yeah he’s a little weird, but aren’t we all? He’s one of, if not the tallest guys on the team, so it’s always helpful to have a guy like him around, if we kick a ball up into the rafters, he can get it.
Bringing in another young goaltender to develop in the minors is something ti would be wise for the Lightning to do with their current depth. It’s important for that player be ready and willing to learn at every opportunity, and someone who is also looked upon as a leader in the dressing room and on the ice. Stephen Dhillon has everything you would want in a prospect.
Well, almost everything.
Raw Charge: If you had to pick, beaches and warm weather or snow and cold weather.
Dhillon: I personally like the snow, and when it’s winter you can play pond hockey outside, and the summers a little too hot. The snow and pond hockey are it for me.