Texas may not be the first place you think about when it comes to goalie development, but the Lone Star State has actually had an outsized impact on the NHL in recent years thanks to the NAHL: Connor Hellebuyck cut his teeth with the Odessa Jackalopes, Ben Bishop made a leap with the Texas Tornado and Anthony Stolarz put himself on the map with the Corpus Christi IceRays.
The latest to garner interest in Texas is Wichita Falls Warriors netminder Owen Bartoszkiewicz (Barta-SKAY-vitch), who has been a rock for the first-year NAHL expansion team. NHL scouts are very intrigued by the 2021 draft prospect – the only hitch is that they haven’t seen him in person yet.
Because of the pandemic, travel amongst NHL scouts was very limited at the beginning of the season and only recently has begun to open up more. Having said that, teams are trying to limit plane travel as much as possible.
“It’s been a challenge,” said one scout. “These are the outliers, right? Normally we could just get on a flight to Dallas to see him play the Lone Star Brahmas and come back, or see him at the NAHL Showcase, but that’s not happening right now.”
That means there is some mystery around kids such as Bartoszkiewicz and fellow NAHL goalie prospect Arseni Sergeyev, who plays in Louisiana for the Shreveport Mudbugs (Owen Millward, who plays for Janesville in Wisconsin and Anton Castro of Massachusetts’ Northeast Generals are in a different boat because scouts live in those areas).
But the cavalry is coming. Warriors coach Garrett Roth said that scouts have been reaching out recently to book games heading into March and based on what the kid has done so far, they’re in for a treat.
“He’s been the backbone of our team,” Roth said. “As a young goaltender, it’s all about getting acclimated and gaining that confidence early in the season. As an expansion team, we were obviously a little loose in our defensive zone structure early on – guys trying to get acclimated to junior hockey, guys getting familiar with our systems and their roles – and the first five or six games, we hung him out to dry and he had to make some big-time saves. After that, our team started to gel and play better defensively and that’s when Owen’s ability took over and he started putting up really good numbers.”
Bartoszkiewicz is currently riding a six-game win streak, surrendering just seven total goals and earning two shutouts in that span. At 6-foot-2, he has NHL size and his athletic ability and compete level allows him to make big saves, something the netminder prides himself on.
“I think I’m a ‘money’ goalie,” Bartoszkiewicz said. “I make big saves when we need big saves. I’m crucial in the stressful moments and I can hold my team in it if we’re down by a goal.”
He did that a lot early on and getting those reps really helped Bartoszkiewicz grow the mental side of his game. Roth sees a player who is controlling his emotions better and growing in front of everyone’s eyes.
For an expansion team, the Warriors have been very good, with a respectable 12-8-4 record. A flurry of trades and a focus on bringing a veteran presence into town has helped along with the goaltending and chemistry has not been a problem.
“We’ve actually come together really well,” Bartoszkiewicz said. “This is probably one of my first teams where I can hang out with any guy on the team and I’m happy to hang out with them. We’re a serious family and we all love each other.”
After practice, Bartoszkiewicz heads to the local YMCA and works out for another two hours before hitting the hot tub to relax. He’s clearly focused on his craft and on the ice, he wants to improve his feet in order to be faster in the crease. For an NHL model, he actually watches Juuse Saros of Nashville – which is funny, since Bartoszkiewicz is a lot bigger than the Predators netminder – but he likes how Saros moves and tracks the puck into his body.
In terms of his future, Bartoszkiewicz’s USHL rights belong to Youngstown. The Phantoms went with veteran goaltending this season (as has much of the league), but the team could definitely use Bartoszkiewicz next season. Beyond that, the 2021 NHL draft prospect is looking at NCAA schools but hasn’t made visits yet. What he does know is that he’s not afraid to step into the spotlight.
“I would like to go to a big school with a rowdy crowd,” he said.
For those NCAA programs who qualify, you know where to find him right now: deep in the heart of Texas, stopping pucks.