Carolina Hurricanes backup Justin Peters has just six appearances and four starts nearly a third of the way through this season, his first as a full-time NHL goaltender. Despite winning six games for the Canes last year when he was recalled due to injuries, Peters is still considered a rookie, and it's tough to argue that 2010-11 season is truly his first as an NHLer.
A glimpse at Peters’ statistics would suggest he's struggling to adapt: no wins, a league-worst 4.21 goals-against average and an underwhelming .870 save percentage all point to Peters having a less-than-stellar rookie campaign. But with a Conn Smythe trophy-winning goaltender in Cam Ward entrenched as the No. 1 goalie and a Vezina and Calder trophy winner coaching him, Peters is not only learning as he goes but having fun doing it.
The aforementioned statistics may not paint a pretty picture, but assistant coach Tom Barrasso — the man who won those Vezina and Calder trophies in Buffalo, plus two Stanley Cups backstopping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early ’90s — suggests otherwise.
"In the starts he’s had, I can’t be particularly critical of his performances," Barrasso said. "The thing that has really skewed his stats is the couple of mop-up performances where we got blown out. You give up some goals and you’re only playing 12 or 14 minutes a game, it really distorts your statistics."
Barrasso figured Peters was ready for the NHL last season when the Hurricanes called up the 6-1, 205-pound goalie from the AHL to assist veteran Manny Legace in replacing an injured Ward.
"I know last year when Cam got hurt, having watched all the minor league games, I had a high degree of confidence in him coming up that he was going to be able to play here last year, based on the fact that he had progressed as well as I had seen him in the two, two and half years we had worked together," Barrasso said of Peters. "I felt confident that he could play and compete at this level."
And he did. Peters went 6-3 for the out-of-the-hunt Canes in February and March, proving to Barrasso and the Hurricanes front office that he was ready to serve as Ward's understudy this season. While his adjustment to the speed and skill level of the NHL didn't seem to faze him, the transition from being an every day starter to a little-used backup is a transition that is difficult for any goalie.
"It’s not my first time being a backup, so I definitely try to take the same approach as when I’m starting — just to work hard and be ready," Peters said. "When you’re starting, you never know how the schedule is going play out. I’m just trying to work hard every day, challenge the guys in practice and in turn try to make myself better."
Last season, Peters was the No. 1 goaltender with the AHL's Albany River Rats before earning the promotion to Carolina, even being named to the AHL All-Star team. His 26 wins in Albany were seven more than his previous professional high, and when he came to Raleigh he arrived with the confidence of a player at the top of his game. But this season Peters has had to use practice as a chance to maintain his skills while preparing for his scheduled starts and any unforeseen relief duty that crops up.
"This year, the challenge for him has been more the fact that he didn’t get to play 30 games in the minors and then come up," Barrasso said. "So we’re trying to keep him game-ready and prepared and sharp, but with a lesser workload, which I think for any young goaltender would be hard because there’s still so many things you’re learning along the way"
Perhaps most importantly, though, is keeping Peters, who is still waiting on his first win of the season, confident that he can be an NHLer even though he's seen limited game action so far an is yet to get his first win on the season.
"That’s where communication between the goaltender and coaching staff is really important," Barrasso said. "I know even Jim Rutherford has talked to him about [confidence]."
Peters said he and Barrasso have used practice to help him stay focused and remain technically sound.
"There’s all these little adjustments we’re trying to make and trying not to let bad habits creep into your game during practice and trying to stay sharp every day," Peters said. "I’ve been able to work with Tommy now for a couple years, so we have a pretty good relationship."
Barrasso then tries to create game-like situations to the best of his abilities, but acknowledges it's tough to recreate what happens during an NHL game.
"The challenge has been to anticipate when he’s going to go in and then really try and focus on more game-specific drills and activities in practice that he needs to focus on," Barrasso said. "As the second goaltender, you’re working to compete hard every day in practice to make your teammates better. There are certain situations and certain things that are game-like that are not really replicated very well in practice. So we focus on those things more than just his normal high level of competition out on the ice."
It's that high compete level and drive that has not only led Peters to the NHL, but makes a good example for his teammates on the dedication it takes to be a successful pro.
"He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do," Barrasso said. "He’s an incredibly dedicated young man. He’s incredibly fit, and he works hard is practice. He’s a great role model for the rest of our guys who don’t see a lot of ice time. He’s out there getting hit by pucks and competing really hard every day. So the guys that are in our lineup that aren’t getting much ice should be following that example: compete, work hard in every practice so that when the opportunity comes you’ll be prepared"
Jeff Daniels, coach of Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte and Peters’ coach in Albany last season, agrees that the 24-year-old goalie has the drive, commitment and skills to succeed.
"From my dealing with Petey the last couple of years, he’s gotten so much stronger mentally, and he pushes himself on and off the ice," Daniels said. "His teammates see how hard he works in practice and they want to make sure when the time comes for him to be in net that they give him their best. He such a great team guy and person and a great goaltender. He has that mentality that when he’s called on he’ll be ready."
It helps that Peters not only has Barrasso, arguably one of the best American-born goaltenders ever, but also Ward to emulate and learn from. Peters looks to Ward, who is known for his even-tempered demeanor on the ice, as an example to follow.
"I learn a lot from just watching him every day, the way he plays, the way he carries himself on the ice, the way he’s a leader for this team. ... Just his demeanor on the ice is pretty calming," Peters said of Ward. "You notice if you’re sitting in the stands watching the game, there’s never any time in the game where he’s not sure of himself or he looks like he’s a little hesitant. He’s a very confident goalie on the ice, and it’s something that’s a little piece of his game that I want to try and put into mine."
With solid role models in a place and the dedication and talent to succeed, Peters is working toward establishing himself as a present and future NHL goaltender. Barrasso thinks he's on his way.
"For me, the communication to him is he’s played well in the starts he’s had, I like a lot of the things I see in the video when I watch it, and just keep moving forward on those positive notes," Barrasso said.
For Peters, it's about hard work, commitment and being ready to play when he's called upon.
"I’m a competitive guy and I keep working hard to earn more playing time," Peters said. "When I’m on the bench, I’m cheering Wardo on. I’m trying to learn from watching him every day."
Oh, and ...
"It’s been a lot of fun. It’s definitely a challenge."