Leeds Knights: Dave Whistle adds teenage prospect as he considers back-up options for No 1 goalie Sam Gospel
ALL any team wants from their starting goaltender is to be given a chance to win on any given night. In Sam Gospel, Leeds Knights have just that kind of goalie.
The Knights remain the only NIHL National team to boast a 100 per cent win record in the Autumn Cup for two main reasons: their ability to score goals - so far they are the competition’s leading scorers with 32 in five games - and Gospel’s ability to keep the puck out at the other end.
At the conclusion of an undoubtedly testing debut campaign in 2019-20 for the Leeds Chiefs, Gospel still emerged in many peoples eyes as the league’s best netminder.
There is little doubt that he produced a string of top-drawer performances in front of a team that, at least for the first two-thirds of the campaign, seemed to be forever short-benched.
The stats back then didn’t support his subsequent winning of the league’s award for top goalie, after all he finished the season with a save percentage of 88.91, fifth in a list of nine goalies with comparable ice time.
And while, quite rightly, the game is not just about ‘the stats’, this season’s figures already back the belief that it will take something, or someone, pretty special to emerge from 2021-22 ahead of 27-year-old Gospel.
In five games, Gospel has faced 207 shots - more than any other goalie - and has been beaten just 11 times, boasting the league’s best save percentage of 94.69 per cent.
Sheffield Steeldogs’ Dmitri Zimozdra is next closest on 94.24 per cent, with eight goals against him from 139 shots.
Knights’ head coach Dave Whistle has been hugely impressed with Gospel’s, at times, heroics in between the pipes, particularly during pre-season and the first Cup weekend when he felt his team were leaving their netminder exposed too often.
But Whistle is aware that, from time to time, he will need, to give his No 1 goalie a deserved night off, however much he’d probably like to play him all game, every night.
With Harrison Walker already on a two-way from Widnes Wild, Whistle already has a reliable back-up but, this weekend, he is required both nights by the Cheshire club.
It has prompted Whistle to source alternative cover and bring in youngster Jacob Hammond on a two-way deal, the 17-year-old being the No 2 for NIHL North One outfit Billingham Stars.
If the Knights get the win that Whistle believes will guarantee them a semi-final spot in the Autumn Cup in Milton Keynes Lightning tonight, he will be tempted to give Gospel a rest at some point over the weekend.
“It’s important to get Sammy some rest time,” said Whistle. “Right now, he is, if not our top guy, certainly one of our top performing guys. So we want to keep him healthy and you just can’t play 60-65 games, you can’t keep playing two games every weekend, especially the way he plays.
“He’s so agile in net, he’s constantly going from side to side. He’s a smaller goalie, but he is so fast and it’s easy for him to pull a muscle or a groin because of the way he moves.
“So I don’t want that, I’d rather have somebody else play 15 games for us and let him be healthy all year and between Harrison and Jacob we’ve now got a couple of guys who can take the load off Sammy from time to time.
“But that in itself is difficult, because their teams will want them on certain nights.”
Billingham have a weekend off meaning they are happy to release Hammond to the Knights, while Whistle is exploring other back-up goalie options. For this weekend, he is more than happy to have teenager Hammond on board, having liked what he has seen in practice this week.
“He’s a big guy and he covers a lot of the net and he’s 17-years-old,” said Whistle.
“Personally, I believe he’s going to be a strong goaltender a couple of years from now.
“And if we beat Milton Keynes on Saturday, then who knows what might happen on Sunday.”