Dan Kukla

The Miami University ice hockey team lost one of its best players to the NHL Thursday.

Junior goalie Jeff Zatkoff signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings. The deal was announced Thursday and per club policy, the details were not revealed.

“This is a really great opportunity for Jeff,” head coach Enrico Blasi said. “He really took his time to evaluate both sides, the positives and the negatives of signing. Ultimately he made the decision to leave and do what’s best in his opinion for his career.”

Zatkoff’s departure from Miami provides the team with the unfamiliar challenge of finding a new starting goalie. For the past three seasons the RedHawks have had the luxury of touting two of the nation’s premier goaltenders in Zatkoff and Charlie Effinger. With Effinger leaving due to

graduation and now Zatkoff signing with the Kings, the Red and White now have a huge hole to fill on its roster.

“There’s no question he was one of the top goaltenders in the country,” Blasi said. “It’s tough to replace somebody like that.”

Just a day before the Kings announced the deal with Zatkoff, Miami signed his potential replacement, Cody Reichard, to a letter of intent to play for the RedHawks.

Reichard, a native of Celina, Ohio, spent the 2007-08 season playing goalie for the North American Hockey League’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs. In 51 games, Reichard compiled a record of 33-15-2, earning the most victories by any NAHL goaltender.

Reichard posted a 2.05 goals-against average and .935 saves percentage on the year. Thanks to his stellar season, he was named to the NAHL South Division Top Prospects Team. Prior to joining Fairbanks, Reichard spent the last two years with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League.

“Cody will come to Miami with a wealth of junior hockey experience,” Blasi said. “He has proven himself to be an elite goalie at the junior level and with his skill set and outstanding work ethic; we feel he will become an elite goalie at our level. Cody is a tremendous young man who we are proud to add to our Miami hockey family”

Reichard is the second goalie Miami signed this year. In November, Connor Knapp became a RedHawk among five other signees. A 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound goaltender from York, N.Y., Knapp is currently with the Boston Junior Bruins, members of the Empire Junior Hockey League. Seeing action in eight games this season, Knapp has a goals against average of 2.02, a .925 save percentage and a 14-7-2 record.

“Connor has the skill set and work ethic to be a great goalie at our level,” Blasi said. “He is very big, tracks the puck very well and is athletic for his size.”

Zatkoff recently finished his junior season ranked second nationally with a 1.72 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. These numbers ranked first in the CCHA. His 27 wins were second in the CCHA and tied for second in the nation. Zatkoff was also named to the CCHA All-Tournament Team last month.

“We’re very proud of him and excited for him,” Blasi said. “We wish him the best of luck and hopefully we can work our two young goalies to a situation where they’re as capable as Jeff has been for us over the last couple of years.”

Miami Athletic Director Brad Bates said Zatkoff’s departure to the pros reflects well on the hockey program, the athletic department and Miami. He said it speaks to the type of recruiter coach Blasi is and the type of players he is able to bring in.

“This shows that our coaching staff has remarkable recruits,” Bates said. “They’re always looking for scholars who are extraordinary athletes. But on top of everything, they’re looking for great character and they’re bringing in highly skilled individuals who are the type of players who will have professional opportunities afterwards.”

Bates also says that while the hockey team will miss Zatkoff, his rise to the NHL will have positive effects as well.

“Certainly Jeff has made a great contribution to our program and certainly elevated our expectations,” Bates said. “But I also think because of that success and what he and his teammates have done, it’s also made Miami hockey a much more lucrative program.”

Zatkoff headlines an impressive group that is leaving the RedHawks behind. Ryan Jones, the team’s captain and nation’s scoring leader, signed with the Minnesota Wild just over a week ago. He led a talented group of seniors that helped make the Miami hockey program into what it is today.

Now the RedHawks must look forward to next year as they prepare to move on without Zatkoff and the seniors. Despite the many losses, Blasi remains optimistic about his team’s future.

“The team is excited to start the new season here and get working on their off-season workouts,” Blasi said. “I think we’re going to be a pretty good team when it’s all said and done.”