When Seattle Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell made a minor deal with the Kamloops Blazers at the trade deadline to acquire Taran Kozun, he expected him to improve his team’s shaky goaltending situation. But little did he know that the 19-year-old would emerge into one of the hottest netminders in the Western Hockey League.
Straight out of the gate, Kozun stood tall in a Seattle sweater by posting back-to-back shutouts in his first two games against the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans. It seemed the Nipawin, SK., native’s play would come back down to earth based on the .897 save percentage he posted throughout 29 contests in Kamloops. That, however, hasn’t been the case so far as Kozun has been consistently lights out by maintaining a 2.08 average and .936 save percentage throughout 20 games.
"We expected him to come in and play well, but I don't think we were quite expecting back-to-back shutouts,” Farwell told Tim Pigulski of ESPN Seattle. "He plays well and gives the team confidence. The guys really play well together knowing he's behind them. We spend much less time in our own end with him in net. He's great at handling the puck and gets things going the other way quickly."
Humble and modest, Kozun credits his teammates for his strong play between the pipes while noting he’s in a different situation in Seattle than he was with the Blazers.
“I think I’ve played well because the whole team has,” says Kozun. “Our defensive core has helped me out by getting the puck out of our zone and letting me see the shots. It has been a good team effort. And on (39-20-2-4) Seattle it’s a different type of team than Kamloops. The (13-49-2-3) Blazers are rebuilding and there I had to be on my game every night or it would be a tough night.”
The most impressive aspect of Kozun’s play in Seattle has been his consistency. He’s only had three games with a save percentage below .900. Meanwhile, he has pulled off four shutouts with three of them coming against the Chiefs. The same Chiefs that have leading goal-scorer Mitch Holmberg in their lineup. In addition, he helped end the Portland Winterhawks’ 21-game win streak with a 41-save showing.
“Things have went my way against Spokane,” says Kozun. “The Portland win was pretty cool – it’s nice to end a win streak like that. I think it comes down to that my confidence is high and it’s showing in the numbers. And I think I was able to just start over here with a fresh start. That helped to get a fresh start and just take it one game at a time.”
Kozun showed signs of having the potential to develop into a quality starter last year in his rookie season with the Blazers by posting a .914 save percentage in 20 games behind Cole Cheveldave. But past last season, few and far between, including Kozun, would have predicted the 6-foot, 170-pounder would emerge as a star in the blue paint. He, after all, was never selected in the bantam draft, couldn’t crack a ‘AAA’ midget team in his first year of eligibility and was the Nipawin Hawks’ backup as a 17-year-old in the SJHL.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that it would play out like it has,” says Kozun. “I just played ‘AA’ in my hometown when I was in first year midget because I didn’t make the (Prince Albert) Mintos (of the SMAAAHL) in my first try. So back then I didn’t know how everything would play out. Then I backed up some good goalies when I was in Nipawin and then last year in Kamloops. So it has been a long road to get where I am and I think I just needed the opportunity that I’ve got in Seattle. I never really got the opportunity like I have now before."
Kozun ultimately remains a long shot to be selected in the upcoming NHL entry draft because he’s 19-years-old and hasn’t been red hot since the start of the year. However, if he continues his strong play throughout the playoffs, he’ll have built a quality case to earn a camp invite from an NHL club.
“It would be great to get an invite if I don’t get drafted,” he says. “As a kid you dream of playing in the NHL and when you’re in the WHL you know scouts are watching. But I try not to think about it and just take it one game at a time. I just need to keep on working hard and hopefully things will work out.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen