Mac Carruth’s return to Portland latest shakeup in WHL’s U.S. Division goalie ranks

The Spokane Chiefs have finally resolved their goaltending issues, but recent developments in Portland and Everett have left those teams with more questions than answers between the pipes.

With his team off to a somewhat middling 4-3 start, Portland Winterhawks GM/coach Mike Johnston is now faced with a huge conundrum as overage goaltender Mac Carruth has been reassigned to the Winterhawks by the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

Johnston has maintained all along that he'd welcome Carruth back to the club, but the stellar play of Cam Lanigan, the 20-year-old ex-Kamloops and Edmonton goalie the Hawks picked up off the scrap heap in the offseason, has made the decision a bit tougher.

Complicating matters further is the fact that 17-year-old Brendan Burke, who was supposed to assume the starting role this season, has had a bit of a rough time early on (1-3, 3.79, .864).

The Hawks, of course, can't keep two 20-year-old netminders and drop Burke, though a vocal group of Portland fans online are already proclaiming Burke a dud and lobbying for Lanigan to stay.

Small sample sizes, of course, can greatly overstate or understate a goalie's true ability. Lanigan sits on top of the WHL in GAA (1.00) and save pct. (.960) in three games, and a strong performance for the Blazers in a seven-game loss to Portland last season has suddenly made him the most popular guy wearing a Winterhawk sweater.

But this is the same Lanigan who underachieved over more than 100 previous games in the league, and lost the starting job early last season in Kamloops to Cole Cheveldave.

On the flip side, Burke (son of ex-NHLer Sean Burke) has looked shaky at times and needs a confidence boost, but he hasn't been a total train wreck and is taking a disproportionate share of the blame for the games he's lost (as goalies often do).

As a youngster in a high-pressure situation, it's not shocking that it's taking him a while to get comfortable. He played sparingly as a 16-year-old rookie, and many netminders who weren't lights out early on have gone on to fine WHL careers. Casting him as a bust already seems shortsighted and impatient, even by fan standards.

Enter Carruth, the polarizing figure who's won more postseason games than anyone else in the history of the Winterhawks. Some say he's been one of the key ingredients in Portland's recent success; others who are less impressed contend the Hawks have won in spite of him.

The Winterhawks confirmed today that Carruth has joined the team on their trip through the Eastern Division (Portland plays at Regina tomorrow). Johnston almost surely won't part with fellow overagers Troy Rutkowski (the team captain) and Taylor Peters, so he has until Thursday's overage deadline to move Lanigan or Carruth.

The conventional wisdom is that Lanigan, despite his gaudy early numbers, will go and Carruth will return to the starting role and take some of the heat off Burke. But Johnston has been anything but conventional in building the Winterhawks into a winner over the past four years.

If Portland's situation is getting more muddled, Spokane clarified its goaltending issue by releasing veteran Mac Engel late last week.

Engel became the odd-man out when Chiefs GM Tim Speltz decided that he didn't want to carry a pair of 19-year-old netminders, instead opting to bring 17-year-old rookie Garrett Hughson into the mix as the backup to Eric Williams, who separated himself from Engel with a great postseason performance last season.

As a rookie in 2010-11, Engel was spectacular at times, especially when he had to fill in for starter James Reid while Reid was injured late in the season. Engel posted a GAA of under 2.00 and a save percentage north of .930 over the last two months, and it looked as if the Chiefs would have a seamless transition when Reid moved on.

Although Engel got off to a good start last season (1.97 GAA and .916 save pct. through October), things went south last November as the Chiefs took a nosedive. Though Spokane was outshooting its opponents by the widest margin in the league, the Chiefs limped into the Christmas break under .500.

In an effort to shake things up and give Engel some competition, Speltz made a trade with Prince Albert to acquire Williams, and he and Engel shared the job for the remainder of the regular season.

But Engel got off to a rough start in a first-round playoff series against Vancouver, dropping the first two games, and Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur turned to Williams in Game 3. Spokane won four straight over the Giants with Williams in net, and pushed the top-seeded Tri-City Americans to a seventh game behind Williams's strong play.

Still, Engel started this year's season-opening 5-2 win over the Americans, leading to further confusion over the state of things. Twitter jumped the gun a bit last Thursday when it was rumoured that Engel had been traded. Speltz confirmed that wasn't true at the time, but the Chiefs acknowledged Friday that Engel had been removed from the roster while he awaits a trade that may or may not be coming.

So now what? There aren't a whole lot of teams looking for a 19-year-old netminder at this point. Prince George makes some sense as a destination, as the Cougars look like they could have a decent team this year. They don't have a lot of experience in goal, with the duo of Devon Fordyce and Brett Zarowny sharing the load. Beyond that, Engel's options seem to be limited.

Meanwhile, in Everett, the Silvertips are still searching for an answer in goal. When 17-year-old sophomore Austin Lotz went down with a groin injury last week, the Tips needed to find a backup to recently acquired Colo Holowenko in a hurry. So they shipped a late-round draft pick to the Seattle Thunderbirds for Daniel Cotton, an 18-year-old who was on the roster as a third goaltender but hadn't dressed for a game yet this year. Since Kent (where the T-Birds play) and Everett are only about 45 miles apart, the deal made sense in order to get Cotton to Everett in time for Sunday's home game against Tri-City.

Holowenko has struggled since coming to the Tips from Prince Albert, and Cotton actually had to play last night in relief, stopping all 14 shots he faced after Holowenko allowed four goals on 16 shots.

As a 19-year-old, Holowenko was supposed to provide some stability behind Lotz, but that hasn't worked out yet. Cotton is best known as Calvin Pickard's punching bag of a backup last season, who went 0-8, 4.91, .876 in limited action last season with the Thunderbirds.

With the Tips off to a 1-5-0-1 start, there's some urgency to get things figured out soon. Everett is heading off on a crucial six-game road trip through the Eastern Division, and with Lotz unavailable for at least part of the trip, the Silvertips need someone to step up and play well to keep the season from getting away from them.

Perhaps Engel is a short-term solution?

Scott Sepich is a WHL contributor to Buzzing the Net. Follow him on Twitter @SSepich.