The Kitchener Rangers netminder became a No. 2 goalie in name only this season, finishing second in the OHL in save percentage to teammate John Gibson as he distanced himself from a disappointing post-season flameout in 2011 with the Kingston Frontenacs. The bounce-back campaign was enough for Palazzese, who's in his second year of NHL draft eligibility, to earn an invitation to the NHL scouting combine. The wiry 6-foot-1, 160-pounder doesn't fit the current NHL goalie protoype, but his solid technique and maturity was a reason the Rangers finished a strong third in the OHL's Western Conference. He actually played more regular-season minutes than Gibson, a member of the U.S. world junior team.
"I was going there behind someone who I think is the best goalie in the CHL or the best goalie not in the NHL right now," said Palazzese, who is NHL Central Scouting's ninth-ranked North American goaltender. "His numbers speak for itself. To get every minute I needed to push him. John helped my game a lot, being there with him and having to raise my play all season long."
Palazzese could have a long road to the next level due to doubts about his size. At minimum, the Mississauga, Ont., native showed he will be a capable of being someone's No. 1 goalie come September, be it at the renovated Kitchener Memorial Auditorium or with another team. His address will depend on Gibson's status. The Anaheim Ducks second-round pick is eligible to play in the American League since he was drafted from the U.S. under-18 team, exempting him from the controversial CHL-NHL agreement. So Palazzese could end up inheriting the job or the Rangers could have to look at a trade.
"We've talked about that and yes, I want to play most of the games," Palazzese said last weekend at the combine. "Who knows what's going to happen, I can't really say too much about that. We've had discussions on that but right now I'm focused on the draft and that will play itself out. Certainly, I want to be a starting goalie next year."
Palazzese finished with a 2.93 average and .927 save percentage in 41 games for Kitchener. He also showed a facility for recovering well after stopping a shot and for controlling rebounds. He more than put his age-17 season with the Frontenacs in the rearview mirror. In 2010-11, Palazzese was pushed into the starters' role after Philipp Grubauer contracted mononucleosis; he struggled while the Fronts downward-spiraled out of the playoffs in the first round.
"The big change was definitely confidence. The people in Kitchener — the coaching staff, my teammates — really instilled confidence in me from the start of the season to the end. Not saying in Kingston that they didn't because in Kingston I was confident too. But sometime everybody needs a fresh start in their team. This season was obviously a lot different than the last one in Kingston."
At the combine, Palazzese's heart rate reached 199 beats per minute during the grueling VO2 Max Text. He made light of his slight build — something peculiar to teenaged goalies — by pointing out he did manage a few bench presses. With 150 pounds on the bar, he was practically benching his own weight.
"I wanted to say that I did at least some," he quipped. "I was able to get it up and down a few times, which I'm really happy with."
1. Each goalie has to develop his own style, but whom in the NHL do you really watch closely for pointers?
"Like a lot of guys, I watch [Montreal Canadiens goalie] Carey Price a lot. I think he has a new technique, new style of goaltending, a lot on the angles, taking the angles away, playing the puck and directing rebounds to the corners. That's one of my big things, keeping it simple out there, making it look easy. He's my guy in the NHL to watch and I try to replicate him."
2. What teammate has had the greatest impact on you in the OHL?
"I would have to say John Gibson. I learned a ton from him. I talked to him before this and he gave me some tips on what to do in interviews."
3. There was a report after you were traded to the Rangers that your eyesight gave you trouble late in your season with Kingston. Did you have any more issues with it this season?
"That was interesting. Obviously I didn't say too much about it because the way the season ended in Kingston, I'm not going to go out and say, 'my contacts.' People are going to think you're looking for an excuse, too, eh? I had gone to the eye doctor right after that and my prescription had changed drastically. I'm happy I got that fixed and Kitchener had me going every month to get it checked to see if it had changed again."
4. Elite hockey is so all-consuming — what is something you like to do when you need to clear your mind of hockey for a few hours or a day?
"I go fishing a lot with my buddies. I find that relaxes me and gets me outdoors. I like golf. I like relaxing stuff."
5. Favourite workout song?
"Probably Animals by Nickelback."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.