When Grayson Malinoski made his Western Hockey League debut with the Seattle Thunderbirds on Dec. 17 against the Vancouver Giants, it didn’t quite go to plan.
Less than 11 minutes into the game he had already given up goals to Colton Roberts and Jaden Lipinski, seeing his team fall into an early 2-0 hole.
“I was sitting there 10 minutes into the game thinking, ‘Oh god it’s not a good start,’” said Malinoski. “But I just kept with it and it ended up being a pretty good game.”
Malinoski rebounded in a big way, making 33 stops on the night, and while Seattle wasn’t able to pick up a win, it helped the Saskatoon product feel confident about playing at the major junior level.
Playing in three games as part of a holiday call-up by Seattle, Malinoski is now gearing up for a playoff push with the first-place Saskatoon U18 AAA Blazers as the team’s starting goaltender.
Through 16 games, he’s stepped up as one of the province’s top teenaged netminders leadings the Saskatchewan Male U18 AAA League with a .932 save percentage.
“Last year I was definitely a little bit more uncomfortable as a first year,” said Malinoski. “This year, getting the experience to go up and playing in the WHL and get a few games in, now coming back I feel even more confident and feel more ready.”
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Along with his league-leading save percentage, Malinoski ranks third in the province with a 2.41 goals against average and has posted a 10-4-2 record in backstopping the Blazers to the top of the standings.
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Blazers head coach Troy Walkington has noticed an increased confidence in net from his second-year goaltender and it’s resulting in wins for the team.
“His habits are so good,” said Walkington. “He’s such a competitor in net, he never gives up on a puck and it’s certainly infectious to be around from a team point of view.”
Malinoski’s rapid ascent began in earnest at last year’s national championship tournament splitting games with former Blazer Alex Garrett, before taking over the net in the bronze medal game against the Toronto Junior Canadiens.
Stopping all three Canadiens he faced in the shootout, Malinoski helped the Blazers to return home with a medal around their necks with a 32-save performance.
“We knew this was going to be Grayson’s year,” said Walkington. “I talked with him before the bronze medal game and I said, ‘This is going to be your team next year.’ Ultimately he was outstanding in that bronze game and that’s probably one of the big reasons that we came away with a medal at nationals last year.”
It’s been a memorable year for the Malinoski family, as Grayson’s older brother Hudson captured a Centennial Cup national title with the Brooks Bandits formerly of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
That would lead to Hudson being selected 153rd overall in the NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, before moving on to play at Providence College in the NCAA.
Neither Hudson nor Grayson were drafted into the WHL, with the younger brother using that disappointment as fuel to continue his development in the Blazers crease.
“Same with my brother, he didn’t get drafted in the WHL and he’s now doing pretty good,” said Grayson. “I just think it doesn’t really matter that much, you just got to keep working.”
Signing a WHL standard player agreement with the Thunderbirds in late November, Malinoski had earned interest from a handful of WHL clubs according to Walkington.
As the Blazers prepare to contend for a second consecutive provincial U18 AAA title, their success will largely hinge on Malinoski keeping up his all-star calibre play.
“We’re proud of what he’s accomplished and he should be proud of what he’s accomplished,” said Walkington. “He’s put the work in. I think he’s the best goalie in Saskatchewan at the AAA level and he’s certainly showed it again this year.”
Nine games remain in the regular season for the Blazers, as they prepare to host the Yorkton Maulers for a two-game set on Saturday and Sunday at SaskTel Centre.
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