A starting goaltender going under the knife is never what a team wants to hear.
But in this case, the Kitchener Rangers didn’t really have a choice. A doctor told the St. Louis Blues that goalie Luke Opilka needed surgery. The Blues told the Rangers they were doing it now, to help the player long term.
“There was a small amount of conversation, but the bottom line is you have to do what’s right for the player,” says Rangers General Manager Murray Hiebert. “Not only is St. Louis looking at making it right for them, they’re trying to make it right for us as well. The whole thing is for Luke’s good, and for his future.”
After hip surgery last month, Opilka stares down at least a 4-6 month recovery time.
For Opilka’s part, it seems he’s in good spirits, and has an optimistic return time of late October. When asked if he wanted to comment on his recovery, he responded, “I plan on trick-or-treating in Kitchener in my Batman costume,” before adding, “I like to keep it light.”
“The last thing St. Louis wants to do, and the last thing we want, is to rush Luke back. Luke needs to be 100 per cent healthy,” says Hiebert. “He’s pushing himself. Our guys have talked to him, and he’s trying to do the fastest recovery he possibly can. But at the same time the St. Louis doctors, and ours, will be examining him. We’re looking for him to be as good as Luke Opilka can be; we’re not going to push.”
They’re in a position, where they don’t need to. Fellow goaltender Dawson Carty is eligible to return as an overage player, and would likely have been a starter on many teams in the league last year, had it not been for being behind Opilka. Carty was nothing short of fantastic last year for the Rangers, posting a 15-2 record with a 2.36 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.
“Don’t forget, as an overage player, Dawson has options,” Hiebert reminds us. “He’s been invited to an NHL camp. Is he going to come back? He wants to come back and we want him to come back, and but never say never. We’ve all seen where a player goes and has a great camp, and there are all kinds of options that are presented to them.”
Carty took over the net last year in the playoffs in Game One of the first round after Opilka faltered early. But struggles for the Blues’ fifth-round selection in 2015 date back to when he came down with an illness in December, which kept him out of the lineup for a month, and kept him from attempting to make the US National Junior Team.
“I don’t know whether Luke himself would want to use that as an excuse, but I never felt he was the same goaltender after he got mono at Christmas,” says Hiebert.
Before Christmas: 17-3-2, 2.49 GAA, .915 SV%
After Christmas: 10-7-1-2, 3.17 GAA, .887 SV%
“He still went out there and performed pretty darn well. With the exception of 10 minutes in the playoffs, where something didn’t quite go the right way, we had the utmost confidence in Luke, and we still do. Luke Opilka is a really good goaltender and will continue to be a really good goaltender. We hope the surgery will allow him to be a real good goaltender for the rest of his life.”
The Rangers have eight people eligible to be overage players this year: Dawson Carty, Dylan Di Perna, Frank Hora, Darby Llewellyn, Ryan MacInnis, Nick Magyar, David Miller and Dmitrii Sergeev.
The loss of Opilka for the first couple months of the season – at least – may push the Rangers hand to keep Carty as an overager, a decision they may have leaned away from, in hopes of cashing in on his high value as a starter elsewhere.
“We just have to go into it with an open mind, and be prepared as we possibly can,” says Hiebert.
OHL rules mean a team can keep as many overage players as they wish at the start of the season, but can only dress three for a game. Teams have to cut down to four by early November, and later have have to limit the number of 20-year-old players to three.
The Rangers signed free-agent goalie Chris McGonigle (’98) Tuesday. He joins Opilka (’97), Carty (’96), Luke Richardson (’99) and Liam Devine (’98) as goaltenders under contract with the Rangers.