When Brad Thiessen turned pro after the 2008 season, Northeastern had a bit of a goalie crisis. So Greg Cronin turned to the BCHL player of the year, Chris Rawlings. Rawlings was undrafted and the BCHL isn’t the best junior league out there, so expectations varied, but with no other options the #1 job was his. His freshman season was one you’d expect from a freshman. He had some big performances, but overall it was just a middle of the road year.
So when Clay Witt was recruited to come in the following season, it was unclear how the playing time would be split. Witt went undrafted, despite being mentioned on the NHL’s Central Scouting list before the draft. Witt was coming off a good season in the USHL, so it seemed reasonable to expect him to challenge Rawlings for the #1 spot.
But that never really happened. Rawlings was the guy and Witt was given just 3 starts on the season, plus 4 relief appearances. Witt took full advantage of every chance he got, posting 1.86 GAA and .940 save percentage, albeit in very limited action. But his play down the stretch is what his season was remembered for. In the finally game of the season, he made 41 saves to lead the Huskies to a 4-3 victory over BU at Agganis Arena. 7 days later, he put in another great performance at Agganis, this time in the playoffs. After jumping out to a quick 1-0, Northeastern found themselves down 3-1 just 12 minutes in. Rawlings was pulled and Witt came in. The Huskies couldn’t comeback and win the game, but Witt saved 29 out of the 30 shots he face and kept his team in the game.
His performances were so good that there was talk among the coaching staff about letting Witt start the deciding Game 3 of the series the next night. Cronin decided against this though and Rawlings led the team to a huge win and a spot in the semifinals. In the semifinals, Witt would once again get called into action. With Northeastern down 4-2, it was Witt who started the 3rd period. He gave up a goal to make it 5-2, but then the Huskies mounted a comeback. The comeback would ultimately fall short, but Witt finished the night with 5 saves on 6 shots and another impressive performance.
Though used sparingly, Witt’s late season performances made it seem like he was a lock for more playing time this season. Even when the coaching staff changed, it seemed reasonable to believe that Witt would challenge Rawlings for the starting gig and at least get the occasional start.
The season did not go as planned though. Witt’s first action of the year came when he entered the exhibition game in the second period. In his 20 minutes of action, Witt allowed 6 goals on 14 shots and just looked lost. After the game, Madigan dismissed the performance and admitted it was hard for a guy to come into the middle of the game cold.
But just a week later, that was what Witt found himself doing once again. In the second game of the season, the Huskies were down 6-2 in Maine and Rawlings was pulled for Witt with 10 minutes left. Witt saved all 11 shots he faced and it seemed an awful lot like the end of last season. Witt could still not get a start, but it wouldn’t be long before his next action. Just 2 weeks after the Maine game, Rawlings was once again pulled in favor of Witt. And once again Witt saved all the shots he faced. (7 in 12 minutes). This was enough to finally get Witt a chance to start.
The following week, Witt started for the Huskies as they traveled up to UNH to face the Wildcats. The team did not perform well and Witt was no help. Despite making 33 saves, Witt allowed 5 goals and made several mistakes. And that was basically it for Witt. The team soon turned it around and went on a long winning streak that Chris Rawlings was a huge part of it. Witt found himself relegated to the bench. His next chance would come in early January in another exhibition game. Witt played the second half of the game, and allowed 3 goals on 18 shots. But once again, he just seemed shaky.
He would wait a month for his next action: relief in the first round of the Beanpot. With the Huskies down 5-1, Witt started the third period. The sophomore made 15 saves, but allowed 2 goals. And with the team in front of him basically quitting, it was tough to really gauge his performance, but at the same time.
He would get his second start of the season the following week in the consolation game. Another unimpressive performance by the team and by Witt, saw his take the loss after giving up 3 goals. He did make 36 saves, but once again there was some shaky moments.
This past weekend, Witt once again found himself in mop up duty. After entering early in the first, Witt made 14 saves, but allowed 4 goals.
So who is Witt? Is he the guy who stepped up back time last March? Or is he the guy who just looked off everytime he has come in this season? Madigan has said all the right things and has given Witt credit for coming in cold, but obviously part of his extreme reliance on Rawlings is a lack of faith in Witt. I think part of Witt’s struggles can be blamed on a lack of playing time, but he hasn’t really earned any additional playing time with any of his performances lately. Its always tough to find games to test your backup goalie in a conference as deep as Hockey East, but this guy has been here two years now and I don’t think anyone really knows how good he is. Thats on the coaching staff. Both the previous one and the current one. And now we could be looking at a situation where Rawlings leaves and Gillies goes to Major Juniors, which would mean Witt is the guy next season. So the coaches have really handcuffed themselves here. I wouldn’t say it is likely, but it is definitely a possibility that Northeastern will go into next season relying on a Junior goaltender that may not even be good enough for this level. That would be a disaster. And since no one ever took the time to find out, the coaches have no idea if they should be looking to bring some in. Hopefully it all works out: Gillies comes here and takes the #1 role from the get go and Witt can get some work in occasionally. But this is Northeastern we are talking about, so its best to prepare for the worst. And the worst is a very scary possibility.