Growing up just outside of Detroit, Jeff Zatkoff
was understandably a huge fan of the Red Wings. But it wasn't Tim Cheveldae or Chris Osgood who inspired the 21-year-old to become a goaltender.
"Being from Michigan, we always got Hockey Night In Canada," the Ontario Reign goalie told NHL.com. "We always watched on Saturday night. I grew up watching (former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender) Felix Potvin. Just one day, I decided I wanted to play hockey and I wanted to be a goalie. I went out and got all the Felix Potvin gear."
That couldn't have gone over well in Zatkoff's neighborhood, but he managed to get away with it.
"I think I was young enough where I could still pull it off and nobody would get mad," Zatkoff said.
These days, it's the Los Angeles Kings who are far from mad with Zatkoff, who was selected in the third round by the club in the 2006 Entry Draft. Playing in his first professional season, Zatkoff is 7-6-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage for Ontario, which is the Kings' ECHL affiliate.
"He's a big guy, he competes hard and he's very professional," Reign coach Karl Taylor said. "I love how he plays. He's my type of goalie. He's not an agility guy who makes up for it by being in poor position. He's in the right spots all the time. He gets to his marks. He controls his rebounds. I really like the way he plays."
Zatkoff arrived in southern California after a phenomenal three-year run with Miami (Ohio) University. In 82 games with the Red Hawks, Zatkoff went 55-21-5. Twenty-seven of those victories came last season, when he posted a 1.72 GAA and a .933 save percentage.
That phenomenal campaign sparked the Kings to convince Zatkoff to forego his final year of college eligibility to turn pro. So far, it appears Zatkoff made the right choice.
"I had an unbelievable experience at Miami," Zatkoff said. "I don't think I could ask for a better situation and a better place to go. In all three years that I was there, we had a good team and we had a great group of guys. We were able to be pretty successful."
Considering how close he was to Canada, one would think that Zatkoff would have had a desire to play junior hockey. But the wonderful rivalry between the University of Michigan and Michigan State inspired him to go the college route.
"Growing up in Michigan, you grow up around college hockey," Zatkoff said. "When I started playing, I always wanted to play college hockey. The opportunity came along for me, so I was able to go to Miami."
Taylor admitted that the fact the Kings convinced Zatkoff to leave Miami is an indication of just how high they are on the young goaltender.
"They got him away from college early so they could get him into the system," Taylor said of the Kings, who also boast the likes of Jonathan Quick
and Jonathan Bernier
. "My understanding is that they have a lot of plans for him."
For now, Zatkoff is still adjusting to the pro game. After playing basically on the weekends in college, Zatkoff now finds himself playing the sometimes-brutal professional schedule that consistently features weekday games.
"So far, so good," Zatkoff said regarding the start of his pro career. "Being out here in California, you can't ask for much of a better setup. As far as hockey's going, we're off to a good start. It's a little bit of adjustment for me playing so many games, not on the weekends but during the week. But it's been fun."
Taylor agreed that the schedule has been one of the biggest hurdles that Zatkoff has had to overcome during his rookie season.
"He's got a good head on him," Taylor said. "He's learning quick about how to be a professional. The volume of games has been a bit of a challenge, but he's learning to adjust."
Zatkoff is also in the midst of a healthy competition with John Murray, another 21-year-old goaltender from Lancaster, Pa. Murray played for Taylor with the Reading Royals last season and has posted a 2.22 GAA and a .930 save percentage in nine games for Ontario.
Murray and Zatkoff know each other from their days in the United States Hockey League in 2004-05. Zatkoff appeared in 24 games that season for the Sioux City Musketeers, while Murray played for the Sioux Falls Stampede.
"We actually played against each other in the USHL," Zatkoff said. "We knew each other going in. It's been great. It's been a good, healthy competition for us. We push one another in practice."
Taylor may find himself with three goaltenders when Kellen Briggs returns from injury. Briggs won 17 games with the Idaho Steelheads last season.
"We're going to have a really good pickle here shortly," Taylor said. "Time heals everything. Maybe John Murray gets called up and the problem's solved. Who knows what's going to happen over the next 10-14 days. I just know today I have three. It's a great problem to have."
While he'd like to get a crack in the American Hockey League this season, Zatkoff says he's fully committed to simply winning games in Ontario. He knows that if he continues to put up solid numbers with the Reign, everything else will take care of itself.
"I'm just worried about here," Zatkoff said. "My focus is to win games here. If the opportunity comes along for me to be able to get a shot in the AHL, hopefully I can step in. But I'm not looking too far into the future." Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Staff Writer