Brendan Burke served his time last season.
More nights than not, he occupied a spot at the end of the Portland Winterhawks' bench. It was his year to study starting goaltender Mac Carruth, to learn and grow.
Burke knew, though, that being second fiddle was only temporary. After last season, coach and General Manager Mike Johnston made sure the backup would receive a promotion, and Johnston isn't wavering from that commitment. As an 18-year-old, Burke will be eligible for the 2013 NHL draft, and Portland plans to showcase him to potential suitors. Going into the Sept. 21 season opener at the Rose Garden against Seattle, the native of Scottsdale, Ariz., is the starter.
Burke is definitely going to play a lot more than he did last year, Johnston says.
Knowing he'd be the anchor of a team that has reached the Western Hockey League finals the past two seasons, Burke intensified his training during the summer and worked religiously with his father, Sean Burke, a longtime goalie coach and now assistant general manager of the NHL Phoenix Coyotes.
No goalie wants to be the backup, Brendan Burke says. In our minds, we're all good enough to start. But you still have to prove it.
In everybody's mind, I'm still a backup here until I start. In my mind, I have what it takes. I'm going to be a starter in this league. As long as I play well, I'll get that chance.
After going 7-2 with a 0.875 save percentage in 18 games last season, the lithe Burke was challenged by the coaching staff to bulk up. He entered camp bigger and stronger, at 6-3 and 175 pounds, and allowed only four goals in three preseason games, with a 0.913 save percentage.
He looks really good, Johnston says. He's stronger physically. He has that extra year of maturity. He took a big step over the summer. He's going to be ready to play.
The only thing that could detract from Burke's ice-time is Carruth.
Portland's primary starter the previous two seasons is in limbo, awaiting his fate in the Chicago Blackhawks' system. Carruth, a seventh-round draft choice of Chicago in 2010, will be in camp with the American Hockey League's Rockford (III.) IceHogs.
But the start of that camp hinges on the looming NHL lockout. If the NHL owners and players reach a deal by Saturday, camps will open then. If no deal is reached, camps will begin Sept. 27.
It doesn't affect me too much," Carruth says. "I'm still battling for a spot (with Rockford). All I can control is how hard I'm working, and just be ready to go to the AHL camp.
Carruth, 20, is battling with five goalies for three spots in the Blackhawks' organization two in the AHL and one on the Toledo (Ohio) Walleye of the East Coast Hockey League. If he doesn't make the AHL roster, Chicago can send him to Toledo or back to Portland.
Carruth is aware that he'd see less ice time than he did in previous Winterhawk seasons.
It's Burke's draft year, and he needs some starts, says Carruth, who won 57 games (regular season and playoffs) with the Hawks last season. It's a developmental league."
But, he adds, "It really comes down to who's playing better and who's winning games.
Carruth's return would shake up the backup situation, where Cam Lanigan and Brendan Jensen are competing for the spot behind Burke. Regardless of who earns that job, Johnston says he'll keep Carruth if he returns.
Obviously, Mac is the guy we'd like to have back in our organization, he says.
For now, though, Portland is proceeding without Carruth in the equation. Burke is the guy, and Johnston says Jensen and Lanigan are in a close battle for the second spot.
Lanigan, 20, who has had five years in the WHL, was Cole Cheveldave's backup on the Kamloops Blazers last season. Lanigan filled in for an injured Cheveldave in the playoffs and impressed Johnston, who signed him as a free agent.
Jensen played for the WHL's Vancouver Giants the past three seasons, but after a rocky performance in four games last season, he was released.
He seemed to lose his confidence or lose his rhythm, and then all of a sudden was out of the league, Johnston says.
After finishing the year in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Jensen signed with Portland, hoping to re-enter the WHL.
But this will be Burke's team, and he is eager for his opportunity.
If Mac's gone, that means I'll get the chance to take most of the load, and I'm ready for that, he says. I know I'm going to have a good year.