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The Malik Report

For players like FuturePro Goaltending’s Jeff Lerg, the pro hockey journey is a winding road

I spoke with former Michigan State University goaltender Jeff Lerg during the Red Wings' summer development camp, but between the workload and the nutso summer, the story got away from me. This is quite belated, but especially given that the Red Wings just released their prospect tournament roster with no goalie under Jake Paterson's 6'1" on their roster, and given that Michigan Hockey's Michael Caples recently reported that a similarly-diminutive goalie in U of M's Matt Hunwick just retired...

Maybe now's the time to talk about Lerg and the battle that "small" goalies face.

Lerg stands a solid 5'6" and 155 pounds (and battling severe asthma), and while he posted superb stats and led Michigan State to an NCAA Division I hockey title--and had the rare honor of serving as the Spartans' captain during his senior season.

After completing his degree, the New Jersey Devils gave him some limited playing time at the AHL level on an AHL-only deal...

And after that, he headed off to where he could get work, spending two seasons with Asiago of the Italian Super A league before spending this past season--and this upcoming season--with Ours de Villard-de-Lans in France.

During the summer, he joined forces with former and current players from both Michigan State and Michigan at the FuturePro Goaltending Schools (they're a year-round goaltending school, offering everything from clinics to DVD's to mentorship[!], and I can tell yo from experience that they're very highly-regarded), working with former Leafs goalie coach Steve McKichan.

When we spoke, he and his fellow goalies were dealing with a boisterous crowd of goalies who'd lugged their gear to Centre Ice Arena during an 88-degree day, and he was trying to keep the kids' minds on hockey in between a set of two-a-day drills.

There was no disappointment or bitterness in his voice when we talked about the fact that his pro prospects are slim to nil; he's simply a bright young man doing his thing and trying to keep his North American-playing hopes alive while being privileged enough to (almost) make a living wage.

Chip on his shoulder? Sure, he had one, and it was not insubstantial, but it was a, "Let me show you what I can do" level of confidence and being accustomed to being taken...Lightly...Not an angry one. He was just doing his thing, helping kids during the summer and enjoying being around the next generation of passionate hockey players.

Not all of the prospects who take part in the Wings' prospect tournament are going to be NHL stars. The best player that I thought played in the 2010 tournament from a talent standpoint, Dallas' Tomas Vincour, just signed with the Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL, and some of the players who've taken part in that tourney are already out of hockey.

After watching the Wings invest an inordinate amount of time, energy, effort and especially money in over 100 players' worth of summer development camps, hoping to find a dozen NHL'ers and maybe one or two stars, I can tell you that the best organizations pour just as much of their efforts into giving the stars-to-be and accountants-to-be the same opportunities to succeed by learning how to train properly, eat properly and improve their skill sets via access to the best coaches available, and there is just as much of an emphasis on conducting oneself professionally.

Regrettably, in this day and age, size matters in the NHL, especially in the net, and people of Lerg's stature are simply looked over these days, regardless of how well he might be playing.

The facts that players like Lerg are playing in Europe, that former Wings prospects like Evan McGrath, Eric Himelfarb, Tyler Haskins etc. are all making their living overseas, and the fact that some of these players will reach the highest point in their professional careers next week in Traverse City, none of these facts indicate any sort of slight against the players and people who are going to be taking part in the tournament.

One's level of aspiring hockey player's professional achievement does not indicate the size of one's heart or the depth of one's character. If I've learned anything over watching the Wings' prospect campers since 2007, it's that the players' bodies, brains and skill sets must intersect while they stay relatively healthy and in their coaches' good graces, all at the same time, for prospects to land pro deals, and inking an NHL contract really represents the halfway point for players who end up increasingly needing to put in time at the AHL and ECHL levels to earn opportunities in the best league in the world.

It really does come back to skill, God-given talent, and a lot of luck.

Have no doubt, however, that the mark of truly successful hockey programs--like Michigan State University's, and like the Red Wings' prospect tournament--lies in the levels of people they help mature into quality human beings.

Some of 'em hit the jackpot. Some of 'em, like Lerg, go where they have to go to keep livin' the dream, and spend their spare time giving back. Some of 'em end their careers early. And some of them really struggle in life because they're human beings.

But the investment good organizations put into making solid citizens out of aspiring hockey players is always worthwhile in each and every instance, and people like Jeff Lerg are proof of it.

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Chris from NOHS's avatar

Keeks really is top notch - I’ve both done some of his camps and helped coach with him as well and he’s a good guy and great coach.

Posted by Chris from NOHS from Columbus, OH/Grand Rapids, MI on 08/30/13 at 10:13 AM ET

TreKronor's avatar

Lerg was always solid in college, and I always thought it was a darn shame he was too small for the NHL, as he had the drive and passion to push for a role on an AHL/NHL team.  The way I see it is for a guy of his size to play as well as he did (he posted a college-average GAA of 2.38), he has a great understanding of positioning.  Maybe with a little more league action he can be a valuable Goalie Coach at the AHL/NHL level some day.

Posted by TreKronor on 08/30/13 at 11:31 AM ET

Primis's avatar

Lerg is interesting.

The goalie before Lerg was named Dominic Vicari (himself still playing in Europe now IIRC) and had a reputation as a spectacular goalie that could keep MSU in games.  I think Vicari had started for two full seasons prior. Lerg beat him out, outright, much to the surprise of many of us.  And Lerg later justified it with a national title.

Lerg was a little guy that was far better at puck management/controlling rebounds than Vicari was, and that made a huge difference with that MSU team even though he couldn’t make spectacular saves like Dominic did.

Pro teams overrate size for goalies.  Just because you’re big doesn’t mean you control the puck and rebounds well.

Posted by Primis on 08/30/13 at 11:35 AM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.