Payton Lee might have a little Kurtis Mucha 2.0 in him.
Lee, the Vancouver Giants’ rookie netminder, is one of the rarest of WHL breeds: a 16-year-old starting goalie. More unique, he’s one of his team’s best players on a regular basis despite his inexperience.
There have been other goaltenders in their first year of full eligibility in the WHL who’ve seen extended action in recent campaigns — most notably Eric Comrie, who split duties with the Tri-City Americans last season and helped them to the U.S. Division title. You can argue, though, that there hasn’t been a goalie that age with that workload and that requirement to be a nightly standout since Mucha kicked off his junior career with the Portland Winterhawks in 2005-06. Calvin Pickard of the Seattle Thunderbirds also deserves consideration for his 2008-09 season.
Mucha came to the forefront against the Giants, oddly enough. He turned in, arguably, the best visiting-goalie performance at the Pacific Coliseum in the last decade with his 41-save, 1-0 win over the Giants in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on April 7, 2006. Top-seeded Vancouver, who finished 28 points ahead of No. 8 Portland in the regular season, won the series in five games and didn’t lose another contest the rest of the WHL postseason en route to the league title.
“It was probably the funniest year of my life,” said Mucha, 23, who is now the starter for the CIS No. 1-ranked University of Alberta Golden Bears. “There’s not that much pressure on you, really, because you’re so young. It’s not your draft year, so you can have fun before all the scouts and everything that goes with that comes along.
“It does force you to grow up quicker in some ways. I’m sure the media is talking to him a lot more than most 16-year-olds, for instance. He’s going down that road now and, when he has to handle that at 17 and 18, he’s going to be able to refer to old experiences.”
Maybe the best example that Mucha could provide Lee is that success at the earliest stages in the WHL doesn’t automatically parlay into a pro job. Mucha was a starting goalie for most of his five years in the league, including the last portion with the Kamloops Blazers, but he was never drafted in the NHL. You could argue he was with some dreadful teams in Portland — during a three-year stretch that Mucha was there, the Winterhawks went 47-158-6-5 — and he was in the league during WHL goalie glory years (Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Devan Dubnyk were among his contemporaries). But he takes ownership for the fact that free-agent trials with the Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes are the best he’s done so far.
Mucha would like another chance at pro, and, in his third year with Alberta, he’s off to a 12-2-0 start, with a 1.48 GAA and .928 save percentage. For his WHL career, he was 76-134-5-11, with a 3.64 GAA and an .893 save percentage.
“My biggest downfall was consistency,” said Mucha, a Sherwood Park, Alta., native. “I’d throw up some great games, and then I’d have games where I’d let in four or five goals.”
Mucha and Lee have never met, but Mucha says he’s heard good things. Both were second-round bantam picks, albeit seven years apart, with Mucha going 25th overall in 2004 and Lee taken 28th in 2011.
Lee, a Cranbrook native, has a 6-17-0-0 record, to go with a 3.54 GAA and an .881 save percentage for Vancouver, who carry a 12-38-0-0 record into Wednesday’s game against the Prince Albert Raiders at the Pacific Coliseum (7 p.m., TEAM 1410). The Raiders, led by Canadian junior national team member Mark McNeill, took an East Division-leading 28-17-1-3 mark into a Tuesday visit with the Victoria Royals.
© Copyright (c) The Province