Second-year goaltender Nathan Lieuwen knows all too well about the severity of concussions. He’s been plagued with them over the course of his entire career, and just like an injury, the weeks, and sometimes months, away from the rink tend to feel longer than they actually are as the frustrating road to recovery begins.
Lieuwen’s latest episode came late this past season when the 22-year-old netminder took a Jay Rosehill elbow to the head during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on April 6, effectively ending both his first NHL stint with the Buffalo Sabres and his season. To make matters worse, the concussion also abruptly prohibited Lieuwen’s highly expected return to Rochester in time for the Amerks’ final stretch of the regular season and the beginning of the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs.
The injury sidelined him for the better part of three months, this time taking additional precautionary measures to ensure a full recovery without the risk of any potential setbacks. On Monday morning, all his determination and perseverance paid off when he took the ice at First Niagara Center for the first time since his April 6 injury.
“It sticks in your mind, but I think it’s part of the reason I’m so thrilled that I got healthy so fast,” said Lieuwen after Day One of the Sabres’ week-long development camp in Buffalo. “I’m very pleased with how quickly I made progress and I’m feeling really good right now.”
Lieuwen’s focus now is to stay healthy and work at getting back to being in game shape for the coming season. Given the history of concussions he’s been forced to deal with over the years, he’s unfortunately very familiar with the process and understands there’s still a lot of work to do. His ultimate goal, of course, is to protect himself from any future incidents, while at the same time do his job without having to worry about the possibility of a recurrence. The key for Lieuwen, however, is to maintain a positive frame of mind and concentrate on making strides to get stronger, both physically and mentally.
“When you go through something like that, the difficult part is when you’re in it,” said Lieuwen of the recovery process. “Once you start seeing the improvements, that’s when I got encouraged and when I started to feel better. Once you get back on the ice, it’s got to be out of your mind completely that way you can play the same way without holding yourself back.”
“Nathan is feeling great and he says everything is a go for him,” said Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy, who ran Monday’s practices alongside Amerks assistant coaches Chris Taylor, John Wroblewski and Bob Janosz. “He had no setbacks or anything like that over the summer. He was anxious to get here and get back out on the ice. I don’t think there’ll be anything holding him back, so we’re excited about that going forward.”
Lieuwen’s final outing of the 2013-14 campaign was one of seven NHL games he played with the Sabres last season. An lower-body injury to the newly-acquired Michal Neuvirth the week before made way for the immediate recall of the then rookie goaltender on March 16, and by night’s end, he was making his NHL debut. Following a knee injury to starter Jhonas Enroth, Lieuwen entered the game with 3:51 remaining in the second period and finished the contest stopping all 10 shots he faced in Buffalo’s 2-0 loss to Brian Gionta and the Montreal Canadiens.
Buffalo’s sixth-round selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Lieuwen finished with a 2.98 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage for the Sabres last season. The Abbotsford, British Columbia, native was even awarded with the start in Vancouver against his hometown Canucks before earning his first career NHL win a week later against New Jersey.
Albeit a brief stint in Buffalo, Lieuwen attributes his time with the big club as a step in the right direction in terms of his career as young netminder. Having given the opportunity to experience the game at its highest level, Lieuwen understands now more than ever that in order to be successful in the NHL he must first correct all the flaws in his game, which include overcoming his history of concussions.
“It was incredible. Just to get a taste of it,” Lieuwen said of his first NHL experience. “Now I know how badly I really do want it and I’m excited to have had that opportunity.”
Prior to joining the Sabres toward the end of the season, Lieuwen was in the midst of a successful run in the American Hockey League with the Amerks. By the turn of the New Year, Lieuwen established himself as the No. 1 goaltender in Rochester and started 18 of the 27 games leading up to his recall. He closed out the campaign with a career-high 17 wins and two shutouts while finishing fourth and seventh among AHL backstops with a .922 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average, respectively. He was also named Rochester’s Rookie of the Year.
Being one of five goalies in this year’s camp, Lieuwen understands fully that despite his success last season, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee him the top job with the Amerks in 2014-15. The competition is as fierce as ever, especially now with Andrey Makarov in the mix of available candidates while Matt Hackett continues to recover from offseason knee surgery from an injury he sustained in Boston against the Bruins on April 12.
With the Hackett on the disabled list until as early as December, Lieuwen and Makarov are likely the frontrunners for the two spots in Rochester to begin the season. Makarov is very deserving and proved himself worthy of the opportunity considering the remarkable performance he made in his brief AHL stint. After beginning last season in the ECHL with the Fort Wayne Komets, the Russian-born Makarov along with fellow goaltender Connor Knapp were reassigned to Rochester to fill the void left by Lieuwen and Hackett, who were both summoned to Buffalo.
Prior to his arrival on March 17, the Amerks were in the midst of an exhausting nine-game losing skid that kept them in 10th place in the Western Conference and five points outside of the playoff picture looking in. That all changed, however, when Makarov manned the pipes for his first AHL start on March 25 and remained Rochester’s starter through the team’s playoff run. Makarov, who was named the top netminder at the 2013 Memorial Cup, started 10 of the last 12 games for the Amerks, earning a 7-3-0 record with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. The first-year goaltender allowed just one goal in three of his last four games and never allowed more than three goals in each of his 10 starts to close out the season and help Rochester clinch a playoff spot. Makarov also had a personal and season-long seven-game winning streak over that span in which he posted a 1.98 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Makarov then played every second of the postseason, making 147 saves on 162 shots while finishing with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
“It’s obviously a good feeling right now, especially how after the season ended for me,” said Makarov after Monday’s on-ice session. “Now it’s just getting prepared for training camp and getting ready for some more games.”
“I think the circumstances provided him with a really good opportunity last year and he seized it,” said Cassidy on Makarov. “But now, if everything comes back and with everything being equal, everybody is healthy, he’s going to have to work for a spot again. And that’s the nature of this business. It’s going to be earned and not given; we’ve got a lot of good players in a lot of different areas. With the goaltending position, there’s only one net, so he’s got to be willing to fight for it. He certainly played well last year, but we have to move forward this year.”
While the number of available jobs is far fewer than the number of goalies in camp, it’s certainly overwhelming and very easy to become unraveled. Realizing that goaltending is a unique position in hockey, their performance over the course of the week plays an important role in determining their fate for the coming season.
But the true question is: how do you handle the added pressure knowing how many other young, talented goaltenders are currently in the system and where do you fall on that depth chart?
“My mindset going into camp is the same as it’s always has been,” said Lieuwen. “I worry about myself and I earn everything I get. You talk about a depth chart or how many guys are out there or just how many in general, goalies – there are two on a team. But you play well and good things will happen.”
Makarov, too, echoed Lieuwen’s sentiments on the pressures of being a goaltender within an organization that is relatively deep at the position. Makarov, though, says it’s important to not be too focused on that and simply control what you can control.
“I never look too much into it because every day is different. Today is one day, tomorrow is going to be a new day. You never know what can happen. The competition is tough with five goalies out there all looking for spots. You just go out there and play your best.”
“From a goaltending situation, the players in that position are excited about opportunity,” said Cassidy about the five netminders in camp. “We have a lot of guys with a lot of talent working their way up. The guy that gets in there and shows some consistency and is willing to compete for that job every night is going to be the guy that gets it done in the long haul. I think the guys are excited about the opportunity, but somebody has got to seize the moment a little bit.”
“At the end of the day, it’s whoever is playing well,” added Lieuwen. For now, it’s all about playing well whenever I get out on the ice. I try to look at every situation as an open situation and give yourself that extra motivation to move forward and get your opportunities. The talent level here in camp is so high and as an organization we’re definitely moving forward in the right direction.”