Erik Portillo didn’t have to come to Michigan.
A 2019 third-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres, the freshman came over from Sweden prior to the 2019-20 season already a polished goaltender.
And last season, he only improved his resume. Portillo, playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints, was named USHL goalie of the year while posting a .915 save percentage — third in the league — and a 2.11 goals allowed average that was good enough for first in the league.
“He’s poised in the net,” Dubuque coach Oliver David said. “You talk about waiting out the shooter or holding your line and so on, taking away angles and things like that. I think it’s a big deal to have that kind of confidence to … hold your position, and ultimately I think it comes down to being poised.”
With reigning Big Ten goaltender of the year Strauss Mann returning to Michigan for his junior season, the starting spot in net is locked up. And with Portillo’s track record, he could have gone somewhere that could guarantee him more consistent playing time.
But Portillo isn’t just coming to Michigan to play hockey. He’s here for the college experience — one he couldn’t get playing in a professional league — and views Mann’s presence as a positive.
“He was fully aware of the situation,” David said. “The one thing with Erik that was very clear in the recruiting process … was his wanting to gain a university education in America, and simultaneously play hockey. It wasn’t a deterring factor that he wouldn’t be playing as much as he played here.”
Mann himself came into a similar situation his freshman year. Incumbent Hayden Lavigne had started 31-of-40 games the season prior and led the Wolverines to the Frozen Four, so playing time wasn’t guaranteed for Mann. Having a goalie with that kind of experience could be a great benefit for Portillo.
“A goalie relationship can be complicated because there’s only one guy that can play at a time, but at the same time, we’re both very motivated,” Mann said. “The way I phrased it to him when I saw him for the first time is ‘We’re both trying to be the best goalies we can be five years from now, so let’s just kind of push each other every day and learn from each other and have fun in the process.
“Focus less on who’s in the net on game day because at the end of the day, it’s day by day and you’re trying to get better in the long run.’ ”
The challenge for Portillo will be staying ready when he could go long stretches of time without seeing game action — something he has never done before, and something that’s difficult for any goaltender, let alone a young one.
“You want to have an A every day on the ice, and in order to have an A on the ice every day, you’ve gotta rely on yourself to keep that focus,” David said. “So goalie or not, it’s having that competitive mindset in practice, and if you’re sitting on the bench, same thing as players, I would say really following the play … Because if you get in the net, you want to have a feel for the game, rather than have to work through a few minutes to gain that feel.”
Portillo may not play a huge role on this year’s team, but he has a bright future. And if Mann gets injured or falters at any point this season, Portillo will be there to step in
“You guys will see that when Erik is in the net, he’s the ultimate performer,” David said.
“When he gets his chance, I’m sure he’ll deliver consistently.”