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Inside the Cage: More Than Okay

Goaltender Aaron Dell has established himself in the NHL

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Let's start with the nickname: 'World's Okayest Goalie'.

The moniker is a good match when you consider the source - Aaron Dell - has that self-deprecating sense of humor that just seems to always work in the hockey locker room.

But, frankly, it doesn't fit anymore.

Others have tried. Dell arrived with the predictable nicknames of 'Deller' and 'Dellsie'. Joe Thornton got on a roll early last season when Dell won the team's back-up goalie battle, but had yet to really establish himself in the league.

Apparently the self-appointed arbiter of substitute names for teammates, Jumbo Joe first hung 'Dellicious' on Dell. Then he followed up with 'Licious', 'Lish', 'Bubbalicious' and … well, you get the idea. Clearly Thornton was getting off track.

In reality, the 28-year-old native of Airdrie, Canada, is making a name for himself with his ability and results. He doesn't need any clever label or pet name attached at this point - Aaron Dell the reliable NHL goaltender will do just fine.

"I've been there for a while now," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said when asked if he felt Dell had anything more to prove to stick in the challenging role that is backing up starting goalie in the NHL.

"He had an exceptional season last year, followed it up with a great training camp and every time we've put him in there he's given us good games," the coach added.

Dell's latest contribution came Saturday night when the Sharks were desperately looking for a bounce back performance after having a four-game winning streak snapped by the white-hot Tampa Bay Lightning in their previous outing. Dell relieved starter Martin Jones, and stopped eight of nine shots against the Lightning as a tune-up for Saturday's visit by division-rival Vancouver, a team that has enjoyed surprising success on the road this early season.

All Dell did against the Canucks was stop a career-high 41 shots for his second career shutout. The game was tight until San Jose scored three goals inside the final minute of regulation for the first time in club history for the 5-0 win, so every save Dell made was important.

Video: VAN@SJS: Dell stands tall against Canucks' attack

"I think the one period I got in helped carry over," Dell said of his 20 minutes Thursday against Tampa Bay. "We did a really good job of keeping them (the Canucks) to the outside. Our penalty kill did great, they didn't allow that many quality chances."

The victory evened Dell's season record to 2-2, lowered his goals-against average to 1.94 and raised his save percentage to .934. In 26 career games played, Dell now sports a 13-8 record and an outstanding sub-2.00 GAA at 1.99. His career .931 save percentage is highest among goalies who have started at least 20 games since the start of last season.

"I feel I get better every game and I try to get better every day in practice, too," Dell said. "I think Heddy (goalie coach Johan Hedberg) really helps me out with that, doing the right things. He's been around, he knows what it takes."

Dell's ascent to his current status in the league is one of those almost out-of-nowhere heartwarming tales. Undrafted, Dell played college hockey at the University of North Dakota where he certainly left his mark. Dell won 30 games during his second of three seasons with the Fighting Sioux to surpass the previous mark of 29 set by one Ed Belfour - a former short-time Shark and outstanding goalie in the NHL.

Dell bounced around in the low minors with the Allen Americans of the Central Hockey League, the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, Abbotsford of the American Hockey League for six games and back to Allen before the Worcester Sharks took a chance on him midway through the 2014-15 season.

Dell, who established the Worcester record for GAA at 2.06 and save percentage a .927, continued to impress with the San Jose Barracuda in 2015-16 before finally getting his break with the big club out of camp last season.

"We believe in him in this room," Sharks forward Logan Couture said. "He's been great every time we've put him in so there's a lot of confidence in him."

Having earned DeBoer's trust, Dell is getting into more games which helps to lighten Jones' workload. The 142 regular-season games started by Jones since the start of 2015-16 are the most by any NHL netminder. Dell, however, is on pace to start the most games for a Sharks' back-up since Antero Niittymaki made 22 starts in 2010-11.

"He's a big part of our team," DeBoer said.

And that's the truth no matter what you call him.

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