ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – When Manchester Monarchs goaltender Jeff Zatkoff was first assigned to the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, he knew that he was going to get a chance to check out the west coast. For some of his teammates, however, the itinerary wasn’t so clear.
"I knew it was in California going in, but a lot of people didn’t," said Zatkoff through a laugh. "People were like, ‘Canada?’ Nope, actually California."
After a standout collegiate career for the Miami University (Ohio) Redhawks, the now 24-year-old joined the Ontario Reign for his first professional season in 2008-09 and is hoping to once again call the west coast home. The Detroit, Mich. native was drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Kings in 2006, and had started to turn some heads in his final season in the CCHA, posting a miniscule 1.72 goals against average in 36 appearances during the 2007-08 season.
But the pro game was a whole different animal for Zatkoff, and he says his experience in the ECHL was key in allowing him to make a smooth transition.
"It was good for me," Zatkoff told ECHL.com at the AHL All-Star Game.
"I think it got me adapted to the pro game, coming from college where I hadn’t played as many games, especially in back-to-back-to-back days. It kind of exposed me to the pro game and got me into it, and it was good to get my feet wet that way and allow me time to develop."
In addition to getting into three games for the AHL Manchester Monarchs during his first pro season, Zatkoff appeared in 37 games with the Reign, with a 2.97 goals against average and .915 save percentage to his credit. He also appeared in all seven games of Ontario’s first round Kelly Cup Playoffs series against Stockton.
"That was a fun series," recalled Zatkoff. "It didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but I think any time you can go seven games, it’s exciting. There’s just something exciting about being in that situation and having that experience for the next time that it comes around."
Zatkoff has been with the Monarchs ever since that first round playoff exit, and his numbers have steadily improved ever since. He went from a 2.92 GAA in 09-10 to a 2.68 mark in 10-11, and currently is at even lower 2.63 in 37 games this season.
"I think the biggest thing for me was learning to read the game, and that comes with experience," he said. "The more games you play, the more you’re able to read plays, react and get yourself set before they actually happen. When you have a better understanding of the game, you give yourself in better position to make saves easier."
Despite solid numbers, Zatkoff has yet to play in an NHL game, and his prospects of doing so seem cloudy with fellow young goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier manning the pipes at the Staples Center. But Zatkoff believes that his opportunity will eventually come.
"All you can do is just focus on what you’re doing," he said.
"I think last year, I got away from that at the beginning of the year, worrying about when I was going to get called up or if I ever was.
The bottom line is that you can’t control that. All you can control is how you play when you’re in the net and if you take care of your business when you’re in the net. If you do all that, eventually someone’s going to give you an opportunity. And when that opportunity comes, you’ve got to make sure you’re ready and take advantage of it."
Comforting to Zatkoff is his knowledge that the Kings have promoted many goaltenders after humble beginnings in the ECHL; with Barry Brust, Yutaka Fukufuji, Danny Taylor and Quick serving as recent graduates.
"I think if you take a look at what the organization has done from a goaltending standpoint, they like to bring guys up slowly," Zatkoff said.
"Even with a guy like Berny, he didn’t play in the ECHL, but they made him pay his dues in the American League. Quickie came up through all the ranks. And I think from that type of position, it allows you to grow and kind of adapt to the game and learn it and have a better understanding. I think that’s what you see is happening with more and more goalies these days."