What a difference a year makes.
At this time last season, Erik Portillo was the starting goaltender for the University of Michigan Wolverines, with his NHL rights belonging to the Buffalo Sabres. Off the radar of Kings fans at the time, Portillo had been putting up stellar collegiate numbers for the Wolverines. The Swedish goalie held a record of 56-21-3. As the 2022-23 BIG-10 season approached its end, Kings fans and the former 2019 third-round draft pick had no idea what was to come. The calendar flipped to March and so did Portillo’s future. On March 1st, the Kings traded for Portillo and sent a 2023 third-round pick to the Sabres in return.
Fast forward to present day and the 6–6, 224-pound netminder is now 8-1-0-1 for the Ontario Reign, as he plays professional hockey for the first time and ranks tied for third in the AHL in goals-against average (2.15) and fifth in save percentage (.924%). If you didn’t know it by the numbers, Portillo has felt comfortable as he transitions from college hockey to the professional ranks.
“I feel very comfortable around my teammates and this team,” he said. “I think all the work we’ve put in during the summer, me, [goaltending coach Adam Brown] and all the way from the top like, it’s been great. We’ve been working really hard on building my foundation and building that to be more professionally sound, and sound over a long period of time. So, I think we’ve had some success here early in the beginning, but I think it all comes from working hard and building a foundation strong over time.”
With the help of Portillo’s outstanding play, the Reign are out to a 15-7-3 start and have the fourth most points in the AHL. With a big frame, Portillo has been working with a first-year coach in Brown, though having spent the previous two seasons as the Kings’ Goaltending Development Coach, Brown is familiar with the organization’s tactics and wants in a goaltender.
Now at the helm with the AHL club, Brown has shaped, tweaked and focused on the big Swede and has found success.
“I think what Brownie has helped me do is to put my game together nicely,” Portillo said. “I think I had a lot of elements and tools when I got here, but he’s just been able to help me utilize all the things I had in my game already and put them together and make me more consistent. He’s helped me be consistently good. He’s helped me fit into the pro game too. I think that’s what he really has helped me with and he’s really good at finding the details in my game. It’s been super exciting to work with Brownie and just get better.”
More specifically, the 31-year-old Brown and the 23-year-old Portillo have been focusing on the goalie’s skating, hands and utilizing his size in the right situations.
By working on when to be aggressive and cut off angles, time and space with his size, Portillo has actually had better numbers in the AHL than either of two outstanding seasons as a starter at Michigan.
“[Brown] has been very good with taking it step by step with me and building it from the ground up, which has been really exciting,” Portillo added. “We just keep following the plan. We work really well together.”
Articulate and composed off the ice, it’s not always that way on the ice.
Early into his career, Portillo seemingly presents himself as a no-nonsense and fiery goalie on the ice. Vocal and animated, Portillo plays his position with passion. As he’s grown as a professional, Portillo is working on harnessing that energy to help his club.
“I think I’m probably calmer in my head than what it sounds like out loud,” he added. “Most of the time, I’m just trying to help my defense and my guys on the ice to make the best possible decision. That’s also one thing I’m trying to fit into the pro game too, being maybe a little more conservative, but being more direct when I actually say something. I think the emotional part isn’t really a problem because it’s more so to help out the guys and being engaged for me than really an emotional reaction or outburst.”
Portillo’s early season success and results have been sparkling so far, but he hasn’t gotten ahead of himself. Taking it day-by-day, Portillo isn’t focused on where he ranks among his peers in the statistics category, but rather pushing himself to be better every single day.
“I’m only nine games in so it’s pretty early, but I think for me, taking that step from college and having a good foundation from Michigan and playing against a lot of high skill has really helped me transition into the AHL,” he said “Coming here to LA and having Bill Ranford, Mike Buckley and Brownie to help me has really transformed my game into this professional style. I just feel like I’m on a really good path and I’m excited where this can take me.”
With many successful junior and professional leagues in Sweden, it isn’t the most common route to leave that world and come get an education while playing hockey. According to College Hockey Inc., just seven percent of college-hockey players last season were from Europe and just 53 of those players in total were born in Sweden. Looking for more than just hockey, Portillo prioritized an education as well. Majoring in Business at the Ross Business School at Michigan, a highly competitive academic curriculum pushed Portillo on and off the ice, which was exactly what the goalie wanted.
“Going to college absolutely helped me hockey wise, but also I think at times there’s more to life than just hockey,” he said. “I think you need to be developed as a person as well and being able to take steps in other directions. It always helps. I was a business major at Michigan and the thing is, it’s a lot of things that are very similar in building a good business and building a good team. It was fun for me to be able to draw those connections and build myself as a person in different areas as well. College definitely prepared me, but in more than just the hockey way.”
As he moves forward, that preparation will continue to be put to the test, as Portillo assumes what will be a heavier workload moving forward.
Goaltender Pheonix Copley was placed on long-term injured reserve yesterday, which led to the recall of goaltender David Rittich from Ontario, who was Portillo’s goaltending partner with the Reign. Expect to see Portillo take on more of the lion’s share of the workload here moving forward, at least while Copley is injured. A terrific test for the young goaltender to take what he’s learned, with how he’s developed, and apply it to the starting role with the Reign.
With some solid goaltending from Portillo, the Reign are currently sitting second in the Pacific Division with a 15-7-2-1 record. Portillo and the Reign’s next game comes on Wednesday, December 20th in Canada when the face off against the Abbotsford Canucks.