It’s summer break and college hockey won’t start again until next October. That’s five months away! Luckily, we can still talk about college hockey and the Huskies. And that’s how the Old Dog started thinking about Blake Pietila.
Besides, the full schedule for college hockey has just been released, so it’s always time to yak about hockey.
He’s Coming Back For Another Season
After being named as a First Team All American, First Team Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) All Star, after being a finalist for national goalie of the year (the Mike Richter Award), tying the all-time career shutout total for Michigan Tech, and chosen as Tech’s MVP for the season, Blake Pietila had one terrific year. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that Blake is the reason that the Huskies just missed winning the MacNaughton Cup and he was also the primary reason Tech made the NCAA Tournament last season.
And, unless you’ve been living under a rock (or counting wolves and studying moose scat on Isle Royale), you probably know that Blake has announced that he will be using his extra “COVID year” of eligibility to return to the ice for Tech next season. His twin brother Logan will as well, and together this gives the Huskies a solid core for next year’s team.
I Love Blake As Tech’s Goalie, BUT…
Nothing like a three dot ellipsis to mark the Old Dog as an out of touch boomer, is there?
No matter, I need to say openly that Blake will, no matter what happens next year, go down in the record books as one of the best, if not the best, goaltender since Tony Esposito was minding the net at Dee Stadium. He’s one of my all-time favorite Huskies, and that’s a long time for the Old Dog.
Still, there’s a great deal that I think Pietila can do this summer to become even better. With volunteer goalie coach Jaime Phillips leaving to further his advanced medical training, Blake should feel free to explore aspects of his game that need improvement.
There’s Always Room to Get Better
We should start this discussion by asking why Blake wasn’t offered a professional contract after Tech lost in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe he was and didn’t want to turn pro; Blake is notoriously tight-lipped about most things and playing in the entry-level East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) isn’t a way to get rich. I tend to believe, however, that he didn’t get an offer. Here are some reasons:
- Blake isn’t tall, say well over 6 foot tall—and the current trend for “hot” pro prospects is to look for really big guys who can block a lot of shots just by being in position. He’s listed as 5-11, but I tend to think that’s a bit of a stretch—no pun intended.
- To some extent, the NHL doesn’t have a lot of love for college goalies. It’s taken Phenix Copley many years of hanging around on the fringes of the NHL before he got hot this year for the LA Kings. Dryden McKay, Minnesota State’s star who had the same kinds of statistics that Blake has posted, struggled a bit in the ECHL. He’s been hot in the playoffs, though, so it may be he’s figuring out the pro game after one season. Conner Hellebuyck is a star, and Jake Oettinger and Thatcher Demko are also consistent, reliable starters. Alex Stalock has been in the NHL for a long time, but he’s never been a first-line goalie. Out of 40 or 50 keepers who played most of the NHL games last season, that’s a small minority.
- Blake has more than a few flaws in his game, and that’s what we need to discuss next.
Where Can Blake Improve?
If there’s one glaring weakness in Pietila’s game, it’s his puck handling ability. When he first arrived in Houghton, every trip behind the net to play the puck was an adventure. He’s improved, but he’s still not particularly skilled in this area.
This is an important talent, because a goalie who can get out of the net, handle the puck cleanly and make sharp passes either along the boards or even up the ice to clear the zone, is a real treasure, particularly in the college game where there’s no “trapezoid” to limit their puck play behind the goal line.
The second aspect of his game that could improve is his play of high shots. Pietila is superb positionally in many ways, but he goes to the butterfly position on virtually every shot. He moves well, though, and doesn’t get trapped down on his knees—but being in the butterfly on every shot when you aren’t terribly tall leaves space in the upper reaches of the goal. If he would read the shot before committing–not make the butterfly move his first move nearly every time–he could overcome some of the pro game’s concern about his height.
And, while he is sharp positionally, he doesn’t play long shots as well as he might, and is vulnerable to tips and deflections. Now, every goalie can be victimized by stray deflections and skillful tips, but there is a way to improve the odds.
You need to set up above the “paint” or outside of the goal crease on longer shots. That cuts down the angles that tips and deflections can take to get by and can take some of those shots off the scoreboard. If you watch Pietila play, you rarely see him outside of the blue area of the crease when the puck is high in the Huskies’ defensive zone. It’s so rare I’m tempted to say “never” but that’s not quite true, either.
Another area that could improve relates to puck handling, but it’s not the same thing. Pietila needs to become, in some limited ways, a “third” defenseman. The biggest way this can occur is by using his stick more often to block or deflect passes that either slide in front of the crease or come from behind the goal. I can’t remember him ever doing that in his entire career at Tech. (As I write this, I’m sure there’s video that will contradict me on this, but it’s not something he’s done very often.)
Finally, Pietila’s play on breakaways and overtime shootouts is, at best, above average. Now, to be fair, he’s faced far more breakaways than he should have, and Tech’s general tendency to end regulation in a tie has exposed him to more of these than most. Nevertheless, Pietila is utterly predictable in his play in these situations. He sits back, comes out (again, still within the crease) and attempts to win the battle through his reflexes, squareness to the shooter, and a limited “five hole” opening.
He gets beaten on the deke or by high shots (again) most often. He never comes out farther to challenge the shooter and try to cut down the angle. He never, ever poke checks. This means that a shooter who studies his play has an almost certain advantage because he knows exactly what to expect and can therefore look for his “spots” without worrying about being upended by a poke check or blocked by a limited angle. The best college players will win with those odds more often than they will with a less predictable (and more aggressive) goalie. NHL snipers will win that battle far too often for most teams to take an interest in a 24 year old college player.
The Counterpoint on Every Opportunity for Improvement
There’s a certain “know it all” air about the criticisms I’ve just laid in front of Pietila. It’s easy to critique from the stands and much, much harder to execute on the ice in game conditions.
And, on every single issue the Old Dog has just raised there’s risk, particularly for a keeper who, like Pietila, has honed his game to a fine edge. Every one of the things I’ve just mentioned has a downside. Playing the puck behind the net can result in giveaways. Not going into the butterfly might allow some “leaky” goals along the ice.
Coming out high when the puck is at the point risks more contact for a goalie and makes them vulnerable to “shots” that are actually passes to an offensive player down low at the side of the net—or to bounces off the back boards that ricochet to that same area. Blocking passes with your stick leaves you open in other ways (like side-to-side maneuvers), while being more aggressive on clean breakaways almost certainly means you’ll look bad occasionally.
Overall, my take is that Pietila plays an extremely conservative style, almost never varies the way he plays, and has probably just about reached the limits of what that style can produce. To go to the next level, he needs to expand his repertoire and develop some of these more assertive tactics. Part of that transition is developing judgment about when to use some of the moves and when to rely on his trusted skills.
The Leadership Issue
Last but not least, Blake needs to assert his leadership more forcefully. He seems to be a very soft-spoken young man and does not have an inherently fiery personality. His leadership has come from the example he sets with incredibly hard work and the way he approaches both practices and game preparation.
In returning for a fifth year, though, he has yet another opportunity for personal development. First, he needs to become a mentor to Max Vayrynen and Mike Morelli. With Phillips leaving, that’s more important than it has been in the past. Blake can cement his iconic status in Husky History by shaping their habits and play in his final season.
And part of that means he needs to cede the starting role to some extent in this new season. Tech hockey will go on after Pietila graduates, and if he plays every game and Vayrynen doesn’t get significant game time, it would hardly be a surprise to see Tech’s 2024-25 goal tending situation thrown into disarray because his two backups exited via the transfer portal.
Of course, that’s not just Pietila’s challenge. It also falls on Joe Shawhan to have the courage to sit his best player occasionally, and the wisdom to choose those spots sagely. With the margin for failure so slim in terms of CCHA championships and NCAA tournament slots, that’s a very hard place to be for a coach.
To bolster Shawhan on this, I’d simply ask him to look at the stats for Pietila on Friday and Saturday nights last year. Pietila had most of his shutouts, and clearly played most of his best minutes, on Friday night. Playing back-to-back is draining, both physically and emotionally. And there’s also the risk that Pietila suffers an injury. Having at least one goalie with meaningful game time beyond the starter is a truly valuable asset.
Adding It Up
Blake Pietila is one of Tech’s all-time greats and Husky Nation is very, very fortunate that he’s going to play a fifth year. But I believe he can be better still—and can, with some luck and his well-known willingness to work harder than anyone else—become a serious professional player. Whether he wants that or not is not my place to say.
Goaltending is one of the most challenging things to do in team sports, and the techniques and tactics of that position are always changing and evolving. I think Pietila can evolve, too, and become even better than he has been so far in his career.
And that’s a very high bar to clear.
Mike Anleitner is a 1972 Michigan Tech grad, and he was in the first class of what has become the Scientific & Technical Communications program. He also has an engineering degree from Wayne State and an MBA from Michigan-Ross. He spent forty seven years in various manufacturing and engineering positions, and is currently a semi-retired freelance engineer. He lives during the fall and winter with his wife of 49 years Carol–also a ’72 Tech grad–in Addison, TX, a Dallas suburb with more restaurants per capita than any other municipality in the US. During the summer, Mike and Carol reside in Elmira, MI and avoid the Texas heat.