Photo: Amanda Hertel Goalie Jeff Jakaitis suffered a knee injury last Feb. 4 while playing for the Gwinnett Gladiators. He's healed up and Tuesday signed with the Gladiators' division rival South Carolina.
Former Gwinnett Gladiator and last year's ECHL goalie of the year, Jeff Jakaitis, signed with the South Carolina Stingrays.
Jakaitis played just half of last season and was still voted as the best goalie in the league. He suffered a severe knee injury on Feb. 4 and has spent the last 10 months rehabilitating.
Last weekend, he was the Gladiators' emergency backup goalie while Mike Lee was called up to the AHL. Lee was reassigned Tuesday and Jakaitis was released.
Jakaitis, who has been in Gwinnett working with goalie coach Al Blevins at the Duluth IceForum, went over to Charleston on Tuesday and signed a contract.
"Once I found out I wasn't going to be ready for the start of the season, it put me in a bit of a tough spot," the thoughtful, eminently nice goaltender said. "Teams want guys to fill the position at the start of the year so I was going to be at the mercy of where there happened to be a spot when I was ready to play."
The Gladiators, who play in South Carolina on Saturday, have two goalies assigned by their NHL affiliate in Phoenix. They didn't put Jakaitis on their protected list this offseason so he was free to sign with any team.
He has talked off and on with the Stingrays in the past since his young son is living not far from there.
"It was nothing overly serious until the last week or so," Jakaitis said.
But he was given the OK to play this month and a spot was available in South Carolina.
"I wasn't expecting to get cleared until January," Jakaitis said. "But I got some good news from the doctors. It happened to be when Mike Lee was called up to the AHL, so I signed as the backup and got a couple good practices in. (Gladiators head coach John Wroblewski) was great."
Jakaitis is going to practice today with the Stingrays, who play Friday in Greenville.
"Then," he said with a laugh, "obviously at home against Gwinnett on Saturday.
"I'm not sure what the plan is for the weekend, but I'm cleared to play."
Jakaitis led the ECHL last year with five shutouts and tied for the league lead with a .930 save percentage while ranking second with a 2.03 goals-against average over 26 games.
He tied the ECHL record with three consecutive shutouts from Dec. 17-28, and his scoreless streak of 215 minutes and 31 seconds was within a period of the league mark. His five shutouts set a new Gwinnett record.
Jakaitis twice earned ECHL goaltender of the week honors, and was named ECHL goaltender of the month for December.
He had his knee rolled over by Greenville's Brandon Wong on Feb. 4 and hasn't been in a game since. He didn't have surgery until April 4 because a Grade 3 tear in his MCL had to heal before the ACL could be repaired. Jakaitis spent the first two months rehabbing in Gwinnett and then went back to his home state of Minnesota for the rest of the process. He returned to Gwinnett to work with Blevins a few weeks ago.
"It's definitely a long recovery process," Jakaitis said. "But it was a great situation down there with Al. The work we did helped speed things along."
Watching Jakaitis between the pipes during a morning workout before Thanksgiving, he looked as deft as ever. He faced shots from former Gladiators captain Paul Flache and former head coach Jeff Pyle, among others. There were almost as many jokes and laughs as saves made.
"It was the perfect situation for me," Jakaitis said.
He would have liked to play for Gwinnett again, too. But the team didn't have a goalie spot available.
"I enjoyed it there," Jakaitis said. "If it could have worked, I would have loved to come back. But in pro hockey, the numbers don't always work out.
"I'm excited to get going here, but I enjoyed the time in Gwinnett. It's going to be different being on the other side."
Jakaitis has appeared in 109 ECHL games with Columbia, Charlotte and Gwinnett. He has an overall record of 52-36-15 with 12 shutouts, a 2.63 goals-against average and a save percentage of .992.
"I'm making my rounds in the South," Jakaitis said with a laugh. "Columbia and Charlotte as the enemy. Then with Gwinnett. Now I'm back as the enemy."
Gladiators fans aren't easy on opposing goaltenders. But maybe Jakaitis earned a little goodwill for his outstanding efforts here last year.
"Whether the fans are on your side or not, it's always a fun building to play in," Jakaitis said. "It's nicer to have them on your side, but regardless, it's a fun place to play."