By Kirk Luedeke
With his fourth Boston Bruins development camp under his belt, some of the more junior prospects in the organization might be excused for referring to Zane Gothberg as “the old man.”
The goaltender and sixth-round pick (165th overall) by the B’s in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft is entering his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota and is looking to build on a solid freshman campaign. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound netminder who turns 21 next week took time to reflect on where he is after his latest experience with the Boston organization.
“I’d say I’ve come a long way physically and mentally as well (since being drafted),” Gothberg told New England Hockey Journal while spending a few final weeks at home before he returns to Grand Forks. “I’ve benefited from experiencing the mental grind of a 60-game junior schedule, plus playoffs, and then the different grind of the college schedule that introduces other factors beyond the hockey: classes, exams and studying for those exams. All of it combines to make you mentally and physically stronger.”
The native of Thief River Falls, Minn. earned accolades as the state’s top high school goaltender before spending two junior seasons with the Fargo Force of the USHL. In his second year, Gothberg set several franchise records en route to winning that league’s goaltender of the year honors. It is not surprising, therefore, that despite splitting starts with Clarke Saunders in 2012-13, the Bruins hopeful showed flashes of being a top-level starter. In 17 appearances, he won nine games while posting a .920 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average for the Sioux.
“It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride for sure,” he said of beginning the year as a backup and having to scrap for playing time in the early going. “I have a healthy respect for Clarke and I think we do a good job of pushing each other to bring our best effort to every practice, every game.”
When the B’s drafted Gothberg in Los Angeles more than three years ago, everyone understood that he was a long-term project player. At the time, Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas were established starters in Boston, but aside from OHL netminder Michael Hutchinson, there wasn’t a great deal of goaltending depth across the organization. Since then, the B’s have spent a top pick on Malcolm Subban, signed Swedish veteran Niklas Svedberg as a free agent, and added a raw project in Adam Morrison, also via free agency. Even with the more crowded crease, Gothberg is free to continue his NCAA development and there is no pressure on him to pay dividends right away.
“Bob Essensa’s been amazing,” he said of his interaction with the Bruins goalie coach, who has worked with him since his first development camp three years ago. “He has obvious coaching credentials in terms of the work he did with (Tim) Thomas and (Tuukka) Rask, but it’s pretty impressive to get on the ice with him and look at the way he analyzes the game and techniques, and then applies his observations to make you a better player.
“We call him ‘Goalie Bob’ because of his knowledge of the game, extensive drills for the position and in certain situations, he’s been known to put on the pads himself and go out and stop pucks against the boys, so he’s just someone who still has a real passion for the game. It’s been really cool to have the opportunity work with him.”
Gothberg was able to leverage his own experience and leadership to be more of a veteran mentor to some of the newer players in Wilmington. Whether it was demonstrating a work ethic borne from knowing what was expected on the ice, in the weight room and during the team’s annual team-building activity, the goaltender relished the opportunity to be a more vocal leader and encouraging presence throughout the weeklong event.
As Gothberg prepares for his second full collegiate season, he is focused on trying to win the starting job away from Saunders. He was on his way to doing that a year ago, earning key starts down the stretch and when the NCAA tournament began, only to miss the loss against eventual champion Yale with an infection that forced him out of action. If losing out on the opportunity to play and having to watch his club’s championship hopes dashed, a small silver lining was seeing fellow B’s prospect Rob O’Gara go the distance with the Bulldogs to win it all.
“He’s poised to have a really, really good year and hopefully take that program, which is a tremendous program, to the next level,” said Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney during development camp. “I know he’s eager to take that net. He had a chance to, and he got sick in the playoffs and wasn't able to take the net after winning the night before. But Zane’s made some nice progress as well.”
Now, with the Sioux returning some key players, Gothberg is excited for the new year and the challenge of going head-to-head with Saunders for more playing time.
"I take nothing for granted," said Gothberg. "It's going to be a battle, and we have a mutual respect for one another. Next year is about going to a new conference and playing well as a team to set the tone. Obviously, our goal is to win our last game, with that one coming in the national championship. Other than that, it's about doing the work to prepare for the season and then performing when it's on the line."
Gothberg learned a great deal in his first NCAA year, including a setback in the form of an off-ice incident that forced him to do some extra work over the summer. Having learned from the experience, he is ready to take his game to the next level and help North Dakota build on the success the team enjoyed a year ago.
Beyond that, Gothberg will continue to focus on what he does best: stop pucks and put himself in position to be in contention for an NHL job with the Boston Bruins one day.
“If you ask me what style of goaltender I am, I’d say that I just go out and stop the puck,” he said. “I’m a hybrid player who likes to stay on my feet or hug that post as long as I can, but if the situation calls for me to drop down to the ice to take away the bottom of the net, then as long as it means I can make that first or second save, then I’m all for it. That’s what the position is all about- making that first save and being in position to make the next one or two if need be.”