Starter in waiting

Locked in as the Spokane Chiefs’ back-up goaltender, Mac Engel is learning that practice will have to make perfect.

Red Deer Midget AAA Optimist Rebels product Mac Engel is being groomed to take over the reins from 20-year-old James Reid in Spokane next season.

Red Deer Midget AAA Optimist Rebels product Mac Engel is being groomed to take over the reins from 20-year-old James Reid in Spokane next season.

Locked in as the Spokane Chiefs’ back-up goaltender, Mac Engel is learning that practice will have to make perfect.

The 17-year-old Red Deer product has appeared in only two WHL games in this, his rookie campaign, but the fact he’s being groomed to take over as No. 1 when 20-year-old James Reid graduates at the end of the season has Engel biding his time with a healthy degree of patience.

“There are things I’m still working on with the goalie coach here, some small things that I need to improve on in order to get ready to make the big step next season,” he said this week from Spokane.

While he’s 0-2 in his two starts in 2010-11 with a 3.38 goals-against average and a save percentage of .851, Engel is ranked sixth by the Central Scouting Bureau among WHL goalies eligible for next year’s NHL entry draft. Clearly, the CSB scouts like his potential.

“Overall, I feel I did well in the two games I played. The last start wasn’t great, although I did play well in parts of the game and I’m confident that I’ll improve as we go along,” he said.

The goaltender coach Engel referred to is Dennis Sproxton, who owns a painting company in Red Deer and spends one week per month in Spokane during the hockey season working with the Chiefs stoppers.

“Mac is a decent-sized kid who works hard,” said Sproxton. “No question, he’s worked hard and the improvements we’ve seen through practice over the last month . . . we’re just waiting for them to translate to games, and hopefully that will come perhaps this weekend (with the Chiefs playing at Seattle, Tri-City and Portland Friday through Sunday).

“His two games this season were just OK, but his practices are getting better and better. He’s stopping more pucks and he’s working at fine-tuning his game. So we’re seeing improvement, it just hasn’t transferred to his game results yet. Hopefully we’ll see that right away.”

The Chiefs listed Engel in November of last year while the six-foot netminder was splitting duties with midget AAA Red Deer Optimist teammate Travis Weber. Engel took over at No. 1 as the regular-season ended, and was between the pipes during the Optimist Rebels’ lengthy playoff run which garnered a Pacific Region championship and a berth in the Telus Cup tournament.

Chiefs head scout Chris Moulton was well aware of Engel’s talents, but took a closer look at the netminder after talking to Sproxton.

“I watched him a lot while he was with the midgets last season and Chris and I agreed that Mac was better than the two other ‘93 (born) goalies we had on our list,” said Sproxton, who worked extensively with Engel this past summer.

“He played really well in the playoffs last spring and he has that experience through the great midget program in Red Deer that’s helped his progression to the WHL. He’s learning and figuring it all out as we go along.”

Engel possesses a quick glove hand and is working on keeping it high.

“The shooters in this league are a lot better overall that the ones I faced in midget,” he explained. “The top-end guys in particular — the players who have been at NHL camps — have heavy, accurate shots. I’ve also had to adjust to the pace of the game at this level. Obviously, it’s a lot faster than midget.”

Engel jumped from the Red Deer IROC Chiefs of the minor midget AAA ranks to the Alberta Midget League in the fall of 2009, so he has a track record of making the necessary adjustments when moving to the next level.

“When I made the Optimist Rebels last year it was kind of a big step from where I was the year before that,” he said “Going into last season I was kind of the younger guy. I had to work hard to earn my playing time.”

He has maintained that work ethic and might be a fan favourite in Spokane as early as next season.

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com