Saturday, March 20, 2010

Billett wins EJHL Goaltender of the Year honors

He's the most underrated goaltender in the entire 2010 draft class, but Brian Billett rightly captured the EJHL's top goalie award for an outstanding regular season that he followed up with by helping the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs to the Gary Dineen Cup league championship last weekend.

Last season, Billett broke into the league as a 16-year-old and exceeded expectations playing on the team with future '09 Carolina second-rounder Brian Dumoulin. Although Billett and the Monarchs lost the EJHL championship game to the New Jersey Hitmen, they got revenge in the Tier III National Jr. A title match. This year, Billett and Co. hope to make a clean sweep of league and national honors, having won their fifth EJHL title (and first since '07) but having a chance to win their third consecutive national championship.

But what has been so intriguing to me is the fact that so few people are talking about Billett this season despite the jaw-dropping numbers he put up for the Monarchs. I don't care what level of competition you're in- when your goals against is under-2.00 and your save percentage is approaching 95%, you're a gamer. Another factor in what has made Billett's season so impressive is the fact that he plays on a very good team that doesn't give up a lot of shots. Having to stand around for long stretches while the ice is tilted in the other end takes a goalie with a special kind of mental makeup to not only be effective, but to actually excel in.

He rolled his ankle and it affected his play in the Beantown summer games, and his condition wasn't improved enough for him to be on top of his game when the EJHL season began. But, once December and January rolled around, all the kid did was win. He went 21-2 this season, and then stepped it up when it mattered most: in the playoff, going a perfect 4-0 in wins over the NY Apple Core (2x), the Boston Jr. Bruins and the Charlie Coyle-led, Scott Harlow-coached South Shore Kings. Yes, the Monarchs were the class of the league (although the Kings and fellow BC recruit Brad Barone gave the Monarchs their biggest test in the final game).

In short, Billett is a winner. If I was picking at the end of the 2nd round, I'd be tempted to grab him. Third round is a no-brainer. But, the idea of him slipping to the fourth round or later is just crazy talk to me. Yes, Billett faces stiff competition for a place in the BC nets, but I heard the same kind of chatter in 2004 with Cory Schneider. All Schneider did was play his way into the starter's role and never relinquished it. If Billett proves he can play, Jerry York will give him every opportunity to be in there.

His coach, Sean Tremblay, who's had his share of excellent goaltenders come through his program there in Hooksett, likened Billett's work ethic, preparation and leadership skills to that of former Merrimack College standout and current USA Hockey NTDP goalie coach, Joe Exter. Brian's dad was in the U.S. Navy, and so you can imagine that a strong, stable, disciplined upbringing hasn't hurt him either. (As an interesting side note- I actually ran into Billett's minor [squirt] hockey coach at the prep championship game, and he told me that he got his start playing in the hockey hotbeds of Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina of all places!)

Maybe the lukewarm discussion about Billett is from NHL scouts hoping their teams can steal him, but I've seen the kid play enough to think he belongs in this strong, deep group of goalies for 2010. We'll find out in June if the NHL's Original 30 share my opinion.

Until then, Billett has a golden opportunity to make another big statement to potential NHL employers next weekend, when he has a chance to win his second consecutive Tier III National title. More info. on the tournament, here:

But winning this thing would go a long way toward dispelling the notion that level of competition or quality of team is why Billett has enjoyed the immense statistical success he's had.

Update: Funny, but after I wrote this, I actually chatted with Brian a bit this afternoon. He's a quality person, and rather than seed this post with quotes, I'll do a 2 minutes with... feature on him sometime this week.

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