Aaron Fox plays his double goaltending hand at Sheffield Steelers

Picture: Dean Woolley.
Picture: Dean Woolley.
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AT some point very early on in his tenure as Sheffield Steelers coach - maybe even before he accepted the role - Aaron Fox made it clear what kind of netminder set-up he wanted.

The traditional way in the Elite League - in many leagues, in fact - is for teams to go with an established No 1, backed-up by an enthusiastic and, if possible, local British goalie.

If they are lucky, that back-up netminder - in recent years in Sheffield, Brad Day - would get a handful of starts along with extended action in a game where the first-choice was having a particularly hard time of it.

But in landing Czech Republic duo Pavel Kantor and Tomas Duba, Fox has thrown the position of starting netminder wide open, believing a competitive edge between the two will help not only those between the pipes, but also their team-mates.

“When you are playing a 70-game season, realistically - unless you’re really, really fortunate and have a really strong No 2 that is local and that can win you 10-12 games - you’re messing with fire” said Fox.

The former Medvescak Zagreb sporting director initially hoped it would be Kantor and Jackson Whistle battling it out. That was until last year’s first-choice declined the revised offer put to him early in the summer and opted instead to head down the M1 to take up a seemingly similar role to the one offered by Fox with Nottingham Panthers.

One of two new netminders for Sheffield Steelers, Pavel Kantor. picture supplied by Sheffield Steelers.

One of two new netminders for Sheffield Steelers, Pavel Kantor. picture supplied by Sheffield Steelers.

Fox still intends to add a British goalie as a third option, serving as back-up on match nights, unless injuries or selection decisions elsewhere allow the American to stick one of his import goalies on the bench.

Fox has narrowed that ‘third man’ role down to a couple of names in recent weeks and is expected to announce who has got the nod in the coming days.

With a season which could bring up almost 70 games his team’s way, Fox is keen to avoid either goalie suffering any kind of fatigue, the kind that could potentially cost the team silverware.

“You can have the best goalies in the world and they go through a rough 2-3 week stretch, including at NHL level,” explained Fox, “That is just a fact. Henrik Lundqvist at Rangers, for example - they all go through stretches throughout the year where they are off their game for a couple of weeks or a few weeks and, over here, to still have to run that guy could be for 6-7 games - then it’s your season done.

One of two netminders signed by the Sheffield Steelers for the 2019-20 season, Tomas Duba. Picture supplied by Sheffield Steelers.

One of two netminders signed by the Sheffield Steelers for the 2019-20 season, Tomas Duba. Picture supplied by Sheffield Steelers.

“So I want to make sure we have two guys we can run the ‘hot hand’ with and compete off each other.

“It is important to create that competitive culture during the week too, not just for goalies but for our forwards to come down and be shooting on goaltenders that are operating at 100 per cent at practice as well because it helps them to get ready for the weekend too.

“Players fight their game, it’s no different for a forward, a D-man or a goalie. There are times throughout the year where you might have a 25-goal forward who has a 6-8 game stretch where they just can’t find the back of the net.

“Having somebody to jump in and contribute into that kind of situation is important in any position.

Sheffield Steelers head coach and GM Aaron Fox is delighted with his netminder pairing.

Sheffield Steelers head coach and GM Aaron Fox is delighted with his netminder pairing.

“So, for me, it was critical to make sure that we got the goalie position right and this is the only way that we could do that.”

As with every close season, there was no shortage of goaltender resumes that made their way into Fox’s inbox.

But in experienced 38-year-old Duba - a seventh round NHL entry draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2001 - and Kantor, Fox believes his patience during the summer to get the right combination has been rewarded.

“We signed Pavel quite a while ago now, probably five weeks or so I would say and he was under the impression that he was going to be competing with Jackson for ice time, or if that Jackson didn’t come back then another import goalie,” added Fox.

“And Tomas knew that we already signed Pavel before he jumped on board so they are both aware of the situation.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out and am looking forward to being able to run with whoever has the hot hand throughout the year - I expect them both to be difference makers for us.”