Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hackett establishing identity in Plymouth

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

The Plymouth Whalers have a history of developing excellent goaltenders.

Robert Esche, Fred Brathwaite, Derek Wilkinson, Jason Bacashihua and Justin Peters have all seen time in the National Hockey League, some more time than others. Rob Zepp, Ryan Nie, Paul Drew and Jason Saal moved on to enjoy productive careers in minor professional.

Even Jeff Weber – acquired by Plymouth early in the 2002 season – played well enough for the Whalers to be selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the 8th round of the 2003 National Hockey League draft. Weber played for a while in minor pro and last we heard was playing for the University of British Columbia.

Two years ago, Plymouth won the Ontario Hockey League championship with Michal Neuvirth (a Washington Capitals draft choice) and Jeremy Smith (Nashville). Neuvirth and Smith won the OHL’s Dave Pinkney Award in 2007 for the fewest goals allowed. The Whalers appeared to be set for a couple of years down the road as well.

But a funny thing happened on the way to playing the best 1-2 goaltending combination in the OHL. Neuvirth was traded to Windsor in November of 2007 and Smith was given the lead goaltender’s position. Smith played well through the early part of 2008 in playing for the United States in the World Junior Championship and making the OHL All-Star Game, but struggled early this season.

With Smith struggling, former Whalers head coach Greg Stefan – and now Mike Vellucci – decided to give Matt Hackett a chance. Hackett – considered by some a thrown-in the Windsor trade for Neuvirth – played so well in extended minutes that Vellucci dealt Smith to Niagara at the OHL’s trade deadline.

Meanwhile, Hackett has risen to eighth among North American goaltenders rated by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau in their mid-term rankings. Hackett was selected a star in four straight games – a second star on January 11 in a 7-3 victory in Ottawa, a second star on January 16 in a 5-3 win over Barrie, a first star the next night in a 5-0 win over Owen Sound and another second star performance in a 4-2 loss to London on January 19.

Based on his recent performance, Hackett was named the ADT CHL Goaltender of the Week for the week ending January 18 and was the runner-up to OHL Player of the Week.

Through 32 games, Hackett has compiled a 2.89 goals-against average, .915 save percentage, two shutouts and an 18-11-2-0 won-lost record.

In a league that celebrates top-end talent like John Tavares and Cody Hodgson, Hackett stands out as a player who worked hard, waited for his chance and is taking full advantage of an opportunity.

“Matt came back this year 11 pounds heavier, put on a lot of muscle and worked very hard over the summer,” said Vellucci. “I think at one point he started 13 games in a row before we traded 'Smitty.' He’s played very well as the number one and deserves to be there. He has a chance to be a very good NHL goaltender some day.

“He’s taken the ball and run it with. He’s improved his reflexes and his rebound control is very good. One of the things I like about Matt is the fact that the players play really well for him. He’s a likeable guy, and our guys play great and want to play in front of him. They help him, they block shots and they clear the pucks away from in front of the net.

“It’s a great story and he deserves to be number one.”

“The boys are keeping shots to the outside,” Hackett said. “They're playing great defense and I am seeing most of the shots. In practice, we have 'battle-drills' (for the puck) and the boys in front of me block shots and battle hard. Our defense is unbelievable right now. They keep shots to the outside. I can’t thank them enough”

Hackett was asked if there are technical aspects he works on to try to improve.

“I’m trying to be more square to the shooter and keep the rebounds in front of me,” Hackett said.

Goaltending runs in Hackett’s family. Matt’s uncle, Jeff Hackett, played in the NHL from 1988-2004 for six different teams and before that was a member of the Oshawa Generals from 1986-88.

Hackett now works for the Colorado Avalanche, but still works with Matt in the summer.

“In the summer we work out on the ice together,” Matt Hackett explained. “He tries to get me to get bigger in the net and try to stay square to the puck. He works with me to control rebounds better.”

Hackett once waited for weeks to get into a game. Now, he plays nearly every game and will give way once in awhile to Plymouth backup Scott Wedgewood.

“I love it,” Hackett said about his workload. “I always wanted to play as the starting goaltender and I love it right now.”

Hackett’s family resides in London, Ont. According to several family members, they are all musically inclined.

Right now, Matt Hackett is playing a sweet tune in goal for the Whalers.

Photo by Walt Dmoch

No comments: