Hard work returned Stajcer to limelight
Goalie set to begin his pro career after big comeback from hip surgery
• VIDEO: Stajcer Interview at Memorial Cup
• Your View: Will Stacjer Battle His Way to NHL?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Goaltender Scott Stajcer, who turned 20 earlier this week, spent the past three years playing for a team called the Attack, but the aggressive word that best describes his 2010-11 season would have to be "battle".
The Rangers' second of two fifth-round draft picks in 2009, Stajcer signed his first NHL contract this spring after a year that started brilliantly before he was forced to battle through injury and then battle for ice time once he got back.
Mental toughness is one of the most important characteristics in an NHL goaltender, and Stajcer has no shortage of it. In fact, it was his own resilience that helped the Owen Sound Attack win the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL champions on May 15, as Owen Sound survived a nail-biting seven-game series against Mississauga to win its first league title since franchise arrived in Owen Sound 22 years ago.
With the OHL championship came a berth in the Memorial Cup tournament, and when it all ended on May 26, Stajcer was the last player in the Rangers organization still playing hockey as part of the 2010-11 season. Although the Attack came up short at the Memorial Cup, it was a remarkable season for a team that had finished out of the playoff picture one year earlier.
"I think it had to do with how close we were as a group," Stajcer said of Owen Sound's dramatic turnaround. "Our GM, Dale DeGray, made some really good trades in bringing in some depth guys and some grit players that really changed our game and brought us closer together and made us a complete team on the ice as well."
It was also a remarkable season for Stajcer, particularly over Owen Sound's first 23 regular-season games and then for a 10-game stretch of the team's OHL playoff run. During those two stretches, which framed some otherwise frustrating months of dealing with injury, Stajcer was arguably the best goaltender in all of major-junior hockey.
|Scott Stajcer will be attending his third Rangers Prospect Development Camp at the MSG Training Center later this month, where he will be able to spend more time working with Rangers Assistant Coach and Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire.|
"I still feel like I was facing around 30 or so shots a game, which isn't too bad at all," he said. "My teammates did make the game a lot easier in keeping guys to the outside or making the other team not have as many scoring chances or high-quality scoring chances. I think the depth on defense helped us a lot as well."
Stajcer began the season by winning eight straight games from Sept. 25 to Oct. 20. He did not allow more than two goals in five of those games and had a shutout with 36 saves on Oct. 2 vs. Kitchener.
That sparkling shutout against the OHL team located closest to Stajcer's hometown of Cambridge, Ontario, extended his winning streak to three games and helped him earn CHL (major-junior) Goaltender of the Week honors. During the three-game run that led to the award, Stajcer posted a goals-against average of 1.00 and a .972 save percentage in stopping 93 of 96 shots.
Everything was going great for Stajcer, and it kept getting better as the streak rolled along. The team lapsed a bit in late October, but Owen Sound was back on fire by the end of the first week of November, winning another five straight.
During this second win streak, Stajcer represented the OHL All-Stars in a Subway Superseries game against the top junior players from Russia. He stopped all 21 shots he faced in the second half of a 4-0 win on Nov. 11 at London, Ontario, to preserve the shutout. The performance was a strong sign that Stajcer might be named one of Canada's goaltenders for the upcoming 2011 World Junior Championship tournament at Buffalo.
But just when his team was cruising atop the OHL and his personal statistics were leading the league, Stajcer began to feel a nagging pain in his hip. He played through the pain, but he began to miss more starts. He had started nine of Owen Sound's first 10 games after returning from the Rangers' camp, but Stajcer started just five of the next 10 games.
"It was just a matter of wear and tear over all those seasons of playing goalie ever since I was a little kid," he said of the injury threw a wrench in his season. "It hurt for about three weeks before I stopped playing. I had an X-ray and MRI a couple of days later, and that's when I found out what it was."
It turned out Stajcer had a torn labrum in his hip, and doctors said he would likely need the rest of the season to rehab his injury. There was some doubt if he would make it back for the playoffs either.
|Goaltender Scott Stacjer lost his first start as a Ranger at the 2009 Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament, but he has won three in a row since then as he has learned more about the pro game.|
"Seeing how well the team could do made it even more disappointing, because I knew we had a great team and I wanted to be a part of it as much as I could," Stajcer said of his recovery period. "… I just wanted to make the best out of the situation. It was really tough on me, but working through it made me stronger in the long run, I think."
Stajcer missed the last 45 regular-season games. While he was out, the Attack obtained 2009 Tampa Bay Lightning draftee Michael Zador from Oshawa to share goaltending duties with 17-year-old Jordon Binnington -- one of the top goaltenders eligible for this year's NHL Entry Draft. With Binnington doing the lion's share of the netminding, Owen Sound managed to win the Western Conference title and finish second overall in the OHL with 97 points.
As the Attack prepared for Game 1 of its opening-round playoff series against London, Stajcer was still set to return from injury. He had been cleared by doctors to rejoin the team and had begun practicing.
"I was there for at a game in London when Owen Sound was there, when he was just really just starting to rehab," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "So I was actually kind of surprised that all of a sudden he was going in the net for the playoffs."
By Game 5 of the first-round series with the Knights, tied 2-2 at the time, Stajcer was ready to play. Suddenly, Owen Sound had three quality goaltenders from which to choose, and he dressed for Game 5 as Zador's backup.
"Before the game I had talked to the coach (Mark Reeds), and he said that if we were down by a lot or up by a lot, I could expect to see some minutes so I could get back into some game action," Stajcer recalled. "So we were up 6-0 in Game 5, and the coach just said 'Go in'. There was only nine minutes left, I think. I was a little nervous, but I only got one shot, so that made it a lot easier."
The brief return to the net for just 8:34 helped Stajcer realize he might be able to regain his pre-surgery form in a hurry. He did not dress for Game 6, but he was in a backup role again for Game 1 of the next series against Plymouth -- a moment where all of his hard work was magically rewarded.
"I was backing up again, but Zador came down with something. He was sick, but he was playing," said Stajcer. "And then, going into the third period, we were down 3-2. I guess he went into the coaches' room about 10 seconds before we went out on the ice and said 'I can't go.' So the coach came out and said to me 'You're in'." "
|This photo of Scott Stajcer was taken the day the Rangers drafted him with their second of two fifth-round picks at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at Montreal. The Blueshirts felt very fortunate to land the highly-rated Stajcer with the 140th overall pick.|
He remained the team's starting netminder through the Western Conference Finals series against Windsor, which the Attack won 4-1. Stajcer stopped 38 of 39 shots in an 8-1 Game 1 win and 34 of 38 in the series finale.
By the time the OHL Finals began, the Owen Sound net belonged to Stajcer. The Attack, however, lost their first two games to Mississauga despite his 23 saves in Game 1 and 33 in Game 2. During Game 1, Stajcer suffered a minor foot injury, which hampered his play enough to cost him his starting job again.
"Our team wasn't playing very well," Stajcer said. "Our coach sat me down and said 'I know you're playing hurt and you're playing well, but we need to look for our team to get some energy somehow because we're not really doing it now and playing the way we could play. So we're going to put Zador in and give you a rest. “
Owen Sound's depth in goal worked against Stajcer in the OHL Finals and subsequent Memorial Cup tournament. Stajcer would play only one more game in the league finals, relieving Zador on May 10. His final start came in the Memorial Cup third-place game vs. Kootenay, which the Attack lost 7-3.
Having played in only 14 regular season games, Stajcer matched that total in the postseason with another 14 appearances. His OHL playoff stats featured a 2.79 goals-against average that ranked third in the league among goalies that played in at least 10 postseason games. His .909 playoff save percentage was also among the league leaders.
The frustration of a lost regular season faded into the exhilaration that came with a championship and playoff stats that would make any goalie proud. The icing on the cake came during Owen Sound's Memorial Cup run, when Stajcer agreed to terms on his first NHL contract with the Rangers.
While he was out with the hip injury, Stajcer briefly worried that it would derail his chances of one day becoming a Ranger. Clark, however, said the organization never had a doubt about offering him a contract, particularly since Assistant Coach and Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire has been so impressed by him at two training camps.
"We wish we had seen a whole season of him after the way he had started, but we know enough about him," said Clark. "Benoit has seen what he has done each year to come back to improve himself. He might have had an unbelievable year this season, but even by what he had accomplished before he got hurt, he was always tracking to be signed."
|A butterfly goalie, Scott Stajcer says positioning and rebound control are two of his strengths in the nets, but he works on all aspects of his game with equal emphasis and is always looking to improve.|
Playing well in Traverse City helped convince Stajcer that moving up to the pro game might not feel like an overwhelming jump. The only game he lost in the prospects tournament -- a 35-save effort in his Traverse City debut vs. Carolina -- was actually a turning point in his career. He had more than held his own in a 5-3 loss to a deep Hurricanes team that included top-tier NHL prospects in Brandon Sutter, Zach Boychuk, and Jamie McBain.
"To come out and play as well as I did in that game just made me realize that I can play at that level and I want to play at that level," Stajcer said. "It is a different game than the OHL, as opposed to how stuff happens faster. But everyone's better positionally, so I don't have to worry so much about other guys and if they're open or if they're not. It does make the game a lot easier. So being in those games made me realize that I can be there and I want to be there."
As for this past season, Stajcer attributes his fast start to a combination of maturity and helpful training-camp encouragement from Allaire.
"I think I was just one year older and one year wiser. It was just a matter of mentally staying focused after I came back from Rangers camp," Stajcer said. "Benoit Allaire said some really nice things to me at the time they sent me down. He gave me some words of advice that really helped me out."
Looking back to 2009, Clark still marvels at how the Blueshirts were able to land him as late as the 140th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft's fifth round. He was the fifth-ranked North American goaltender in his draft class and had played in the CHL Top Prospects game during the 2008-09 season.
"We had him scheduled to go earlier in that draft, but our scouts read the draft and we figured we could maybe grab some other guys and still get Scott," said Clark. "In the end it doesn't matter where you get him. For a fifth-round pick he's got a heck of a shot at the NHL."
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Stajcer covers a lot of net. His butterfly style, inspired by his childhood hero Patrick Roy, has made him an ideal pupil for Allaire, one of the technique's master instructors.
"I think my strength is my positioning and my angles," Stajcer said. "That definitely is my strength, and I think another one of my strengths is rebound control. But everyone has a strength and everyone has a weakness, and you've just got to keep working on everything.
Stajcer said Allaire has taught him so much already. He also credits Rangers All-Star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for showing him traits he realizes are crucial to success in pro hockey.
"I have seen him (Lundqvist) in practice, and he works really, really hard," said Stajcer. "And it shows in the games. Everyone says you practice like you play, and it's true. He really showed me how much work it takes to get to the NHL, and to be a starter, and to stay there."
Fighting for starts against two others on his OHL team also helped prepare Stajcer for what he faces this fall at training camp. In addition to NHLers Lundqvist and Martin Biron, the Rangers have four talented goalie prospects -- Chad Johnson, Cam Talbot, Jason Missiaen, and Stajcer -- in the organization. Not all can start the season at the American Hockey League level, let alone reach the NHL, but Stajcer's willingness to embrace this inevitable competition at training camp is just another sign of the mental toughness that should serve him well in the pro game.
"I'm just trying to improve on everything. My fitness, my strength, and my quickness," he said. "There are good goalies in the New York system ... but I'm not going in there saying to myself that I'm getting sent down to the East Coast Hockey League. I'm going in trying to make either the Connecticut or New York roster. I want to make it hard on the management to send me down."