When the Kootenay Ice traded Bailey Brkin to the Chiefs at the Western Hockey League trade deadline in January, he fully understood why.
He wasn’t playing well, having given up 16 goals in his previous four appearances. The Ice weren’t good, either, ultimately finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference.
The Chiefs liked the goalie, but even then Brkin only played briefly with Spokane before heading back down to Lloydminster of the Alberta Junior Hockey League – and then back to the Chiefs in March.
“Not everybody has the perfect road to where they want to go,” Brkin said.
But it seems like Brkin is in Spokane to stay this year, having solidified a position at which the Chiefs used four other players a season ago.
Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Chiefs were 6-1-2 when Brkin started in net. His save percentage (.931) and his goals-against average (2.21) both rank sixth in the WHL.
Coach Dan Lambert talks about having a 1 and 1-A option in net, but with Dawson Weatherill struggling in games this season (he has ceded 26 goals in five appearances, though Lambert said he has looked good in practices), Brkin definitely looks to be the regular starter at this point.
“Bailey came in last year and played really well for us, so I don’t know how much he’s improved,” Lambert said. “For sure, there’s maturity that happens when you go from 18 to 19, and he worked on his game this summer. … But I just think he’s feeling comfortable in there right now and things are going well for him.”
That was on display Friday in the Chiefs’ 4-1 victory over the Portland Winterhawks. Brkin compensated for a handful of odd-man rushes, saw the puck well through traffic and stopped 36 of the 37 shots he faced. His performance was especially key while killing five penalties.
“They (got) chances on the power play,” Lambert said, “and whenever they did, Bailey was there.”
The lone goal came when defenseman Nolan Reid was out of position retrieving his stick, which allowed Joachim Blichfeld free rein to deflect a shot from the point past Brkin.
“I want to say my Regina game was my best game of the year because of the shutout,” Brkin said, “but puck-tracking-wise I definitely felt like (Friday’s) game was my best game of the year and I felt like I was seeing the puck.”
Brkin’s performance hasn’t particularly surprised teammates and coaches, who say that he’s pretty much the same goalie they first played with in January. In four starts that month, Brkin went 3-1 with a 21-save shutout against the Brandon Wheat Kings.
He then spent 11 games in the AJHL with Lloydminster and rejoined the Chiefs at the end of the season for six more appearances, including three in the team’s playoff series against Portland.
Brkin’s numbers with Kootenay last season (4.51 GAA, .874 save percentage in 23 games) improved significantly after the trade. In his seven-regular season appearances with the Chiefs, those numbers improved to 2.59 and 91.3.
Brkin explained that by saying the Chiefs were a better team, the best he had played for in a while. Two years ago, in the AJHL, Brkin started 42 games for the Calgary Mustangs and gave up more than five goals per game, but that team went 8-50-2.
So there’s a bit of truth to the idea that a goalie’s stat line isn’t entirely telling of how good a goalie is. Brkin’s level of play has inspired confidence in his teammates, such as defenseman Ty Smith.
“If we’re playing well, it’s gonna help him out a bit too, but at the same time in order for us to play well and play confident it’s really important to have a good goaltender back there,” Smith said. “It makes the whole team more confident, knowing that if you give up the odd chance he’s gonna be there to save the day. He’s been doing a great job of that, and we’re thankful.”
Donning a plain white one for now, Brkin is eager for his freshly painted goalie mask, which should arrive sometime this week. He said it will bear the flags of the U.S. and Croatia, where his dad was born. It will also honor a friend from the Humboldt Broncos who died in the tragic bus crash in April.
It will also feature the Chiefs logo – something he hopes to wear for a while.
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