VANCOUVER -- Undrafted and undersized, goalie Aaron Dell took the long route to the NHL, but he never worried his journey would end before reaching its destination.
Dell, the San Jose Sharks' backup, played his first pro season in the now defunct Central Hockey League in 2012-13 and didn't get an NHL contract until his third season was nearly over. Rather than focus on opportunities drafted goalies might be getting ahead of him, Dell soaked up the experiences his lack of profile afforded him. By the time he arrived as a full-time NHL goalie with the Sharks this season, the 27-year-old rookie figured he was ready for everything and caught off guard by nothing.
In a season where several teams have struggled to find a reliable No. 2 and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers have traded or demoted the backups they signed last summer, it helps explain how the 6-foot Dell has gone 6-3-0 with a .928 save percentage despite averaging almost 11 days off between nine games played behind No. 1 Martin Jones.
"I took every step possible along the way to get here, so I don't think anything surprised me," Dell said. "I got to gain experience at a lower level, see what the program is like, life on the road, and I got to take the next step up and adjust at each level and gain that experience all the way up. … I always realized goalies develop a little later, so I just worked through it and stuck with it, I guess, and never really thought too much about not being drafted or being a small goalie."
Video: SJS@WPG: Dell robs Trouba with a great pad stop
Instead, Dell focused on how to use his size effectively as he bounced from Allen of the CHL to Utah of the ECHL and Abbotsford of the American Hockey League the following season, then back to Allen, now in the ECHL, in 2014-15, before signing an entry-level contract with the Sharks on March 1, 2015.
Dell, who left the University of North Dakota after his junior season, felt that a drafted goalie might not have the same freedom and would probably have to wait for an injury within his own organization to get a call-up. Instead, Dell worked with a variety of goalie coaches in one season, including a stint with Jordan Sigalet of the Calgary Flames, who he lists among his foundational influences. Dell also played behind a variety of systems and was able to refine his reads and style based on how they fit with each team.
"I tried to learn a little bit from every goalie coach I've had," said Dell, who also listed North Dakota's Karl Goehring, David Marcoux of the Carolina Hurricanes and San Jose's Johan Hedberg and Evgeni Nabokov as key influences along the way. "A lot of guys say 'This is the style; this is what you are going to do.' But I like to take a little bit from everybody. Everyone has something I can use, so I ty to mix it all together and get one big product out of it."
Dell had a .915 save percentage in 41 ECHL games during two seasons and a .924 save percentage in 72 AHL games during three seasons.
"It gets a little easier as you move up, from a goalie perspective," he said. "Less mistakes and the players are better in front of you, so the quality of chances are still there but less often."
Dell may not have worried about size as he moved up, but at a time when some teams won't even scout a goalie under 6-foot-2, there's little doubt he's had to overcome a lack of size.
"You're preaching to the choir on size," said Goehring, who is 5-foot-8 and spent just one NHL game on the bench despite an impressive eight-year career in the AHL. "I give him credit; even coming to us (at North Dakota) he's always been a kid [who] just had to persevere and he's always kind of had to go the long route, but he always just kept growing as a goaltender. Since he started his pro career it's just been a really steady rise for him."
Video: SJS@WPG: Dell makes big stops on Morrissey and Little
Throughout his journey, Dell's quick footwork allowed him to play with his heels on the edge of his crease, further out than most NHL peers playing with blue ice in front of their skates.
"I've always played a fairly aggressive style, but not overly," Dell said. "If high shots go in people say 'he's too small.' But for the most part I think my up-high game is pretty solid and a lot of that comes from guys seeing my size and trying to go high, so I've had a lot of work on that. If I am at the top of my crease I am just as big as a bigger goalie playing a couple steps back."
Dell knows playing consistently beyond that point will probably lead to opponents trying to pass around him more often, but he has shown a knack for challenging beyond that point at the right times this season.
It's a read Dell honed in the minor leagues, one he finds easier in the NHL.
"We have a pretty sound defensive-zone system we play here, so I know what our guys are supposed to do," he said. "There is no guessing here, and that makes a big difference."
For Dell, there was no guessing about getting here either.