When you look over the 25-man rosters that were released on July 1st, two teams really stick out at goaltender. Lincoln returns Kevin Murdock from Minnesota State University Mankato and then brings in one of the best goalies that was available in the Entry Draft in Luke Hafner. On the other hand, Cedar Rapids also returns a goalie with collegiate experience with Brady Hjelle coming back to the USHL from Minnesota-Duluth. Cedar Rapids also brings back a goalie with two years of USHL experience under his belt in Cody Campbell, who had the fourth best GAA in the USHL last season. So who has the better goalie pair? Let's take a closer look...
Kevin Murdock will more than likely be the starter for Lincoln, and he has a shot to be the best goaltender in the league. In the 2008-09 season, Murdock led the USHL in GAA average, while also leading the league in save percentage. Murdock played for Minnesota State Mankato last season where he only played 5 games for the Mavericks. After the fact that Murdock would again be the third string goalie for MSU became obvious, he, along with his coaches, decided it would be best for him to come down and play in the USHL for another season. Murdock was one of the best goalies the USHL has seen in the past few years and I wouldn't be surprised to him bring his collegiate experience back to the USHL and continue his winning ways. Photo from AP.
Brady Hjelle is also returning to junior hockey, but he is returning after a fairly successful two year stint in college hockey with the University of Minnesota Duluth. Hjelle was apparently unhappy with the playing time he was receiving at UMD after being one of the most highly touted recruits of the 2008 USHL class. In his one year USHL career, Hjelle posted a 22-15-4 record with a 2.50 GAA that ranked 5th in the USHL in 2007-08. Hjelle was also third in save percentage in 07-08 with a .921. Unlike Murdock, Hjelle was in a position to start a decent amount of games for UMD as a junior, but after being promised playing time as a freshman, and then sitting on the bench all season, Hjelle decided it was best to return to juniors and find another way to the NHL. Photo from undstatesman.com.
Luke Hafner is in my opinion one of the best rookie goaltenders coming into the USHL next season. He could snag as many as 20 starts away from Stars starting goaltender Kevin Murdock next season. Hafner already has experience in junior hockey, as he played for the Marquette Rangers of the NAHL, a Tier II hockey league, just below the USHL in terms of talent. While playing for Marquette last season, Hafner appeared in 21 games, posting a 11-6 record in the regular season, getting the Rangers into the NAHL playoffs. In the playoffs, Hafner's stats struggled a little bit, as he went 0-3 with a 2.93 GAA compared to his 2.07 GAA in the regular season. His save percentage also fell from the regular season from .938 to .923 in the playoffs.
Cody Campbell will most likely be Brady Hjelle's back-up this coming season. However, don't be surprised if Campbell and Hjelle split starts a lot for the RoughRiders. If I were to guess what the starts would be, I would say Hjelle gets 32 starts and Campbell gets 28. However, this could all change depending on which Cody Campbell plays for the RoughRiders this season. Will it be the Campbell that went 7-4 with a 3.19 GAA for the Fargo Force at the beginning of the season, or will it be the Cody Campbell that went 10-4 with a 1.90 GAA and .933 SV% for Cedar Rapids at the end of the season? Campbell's value is completely dependant on how consistent he plays. If he stays in the form he was in at the end of last season, he could be the best goalie in the league, but he isn't in that form, it could be disastrous.
Final Verdict: The edge goes to Cedar Rapids. It really all comes down the back-ups here. Although if Campbell can't stay consistently good, then the Stars will probably have the best 1-2 goalie punch. But as it stands right now, Cedar Rapids has the best goaltending in the USHL.
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