Five young goalie prospects ready to take the next step
It's no secret that the developmental process of churning goaltending draftees into everyday bona fide NHL starters is far more intricate and time consuming than that of any other position.
However, it’s becoming more evident that we are in the midst of a strange era in NHL history. The Western Conference has in almost epidemic fashion, failed to produce any current NHL starting goaltenders through the draft in nearly a decade! All 15 current starters in the West were drafted between 1997 and 2006, with 53 percent of them getting selected between 2003 and 2005. The most recently drafted goaltender to own a current NHL starting job in the West would be Semyon Varlamov; selected in 2006, nearly seven and a half years ago.
The full list along with their respective draft years, in chronological order are as follows:
Roberto Luongo (1997), Mike Smith (2001), Kari Lehtonen (2002), Jimmy Howard (2003), Jaroslav Halak (2003), Corey Crawford (2003), Pekka Rinne (2004), Karri Ramo (2004), Devan Dubnyk (2004), Jonathan Quick (2005), Ondrej Pavelec (2005) Semyon Varlamov (2006), Niklas Backstrom (Undrafted- 2006 debut), Jonas Hiller (Undrafted- 2007 debut) & Antti Niemi (Undrafted- 2008 debut).
Some of the current crop of starters evidently fast tracked their road to NHL stardom, unlike anyone drafted since 2006. Take for instance Roberto Luongo, who was starting for Florida in 2000-2001, only three years after his 1997 draft year. Similarly, Jonathan Quick already established himself as the everyday king of the crease in Los Angeles in 2008, three years removed from his June 2005 drafting.
Although this run of recently drafted netminders failing to own their team’s crease is more likely due the stars aligning toward the end of the free market system, whereby a large number of top flight netminders were all reaching the end of the road at the same time. The Dominik Hasek's, Patrick Roy's, Curtis Joseph's of the world hung up the skates within a relatively slim time frame (Same goes for Eddie the Eagle & Mike Richter in the East) paving the way for wholesale change and conference-wide transition heading into the cap world.
While many of the above mentioned netminders don’t look ready to give up their posts, let's take a deeper look at the next group of potential starters waiting in the wings. I’ll rank the top 5 in the west using the following criteria: A) The existing level of opportunity to usurp the current starter and B) Their individual ceilings.
#5) Jake Allen – St.Louis Blues
One of the top goaltenders in the American Hockey League since 2010, a backlog of talent in St.Louis’ crease has forced Allen to ply his trade for almost Jimmy Howard-esque lengths of time, apprenticing in Peoria. Given the streaky nature of Jaroslav Haak and Brian Elliott, the two of them have seemingly alternated their respective hot streaks for the better part of the last three seasons. This has proved inopportune for Jake as neither Blue has struggled simultaneously, opening a door for a somewhat lengthy call-up.
Allen is known for his superior lateral post-to-post movement, and solid peripheral alertness. It's only a matter of time before he hangs out among the AHL goaltending leaders long enough, before a trade is made to make room for him on the big club. Important to note is that Doug Armstrong will not likely call him up to be a backup and play sparingly. It is much better for him to get regular playing time and the continued AHL assignment will allow that for the time being.
#4) Al Montoya – Winnipeg Jets
We’ve seen Montoya excel at several different levels, from the NCAA developmental system, to shining on the international stage, besting Marc-Andre Fleury in the world Junior Championships to making impressive spot duties with the New York Islanders. Now in his first full season in Winnipeg, in three appearances behind a horrible Ondrej Pavelec, he has shown glimpses of his glittering potential which once made him a very highly touted upcoming American Star. Granted, three games are a terribly small sample size for which to reference, however his 1.57 GAA (Goals Against Average) and .944% Save Percentage in those starts have certainly been a sight for sore eyes for the Winnipeg faithful.
Pavelec’s 3.09 GAA and putrid .902 SV% pits him outside of the top 20 qualified starters in both categories. Ken Cheveldayoff cannot assume his Jets will be making the playoffs anytime soon with such goaltending performances. Look for Montoya to get an increased number of opportunities. (Funny enough, although I list Montoya in the next wave waiting in the wings, he too was drafted in 2004, in the same year as Pekka Rinne and co).
#3) Reto Berra – Calgary Flames
In the wake of Franchise netminder, Miikka Kiprusoff, foregoing this final year of his contract and departing the game for good, there has already been a circus of potential replacements plying their trade and stating their case in Calgary. In fact they for the most part have done well enough through five weeks to postpone the inevitable—The Flames descent into the bowels of the Western Conference. (This will still happen folks, by the way. In due time….In due time!)
Karri Ramo may well be the bigger name given his 2004 draft year and original surfacing with the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, his mark on the league to date, has not been the least bit impressive, owning a career 3.37 GAA and .894% save percentage spread over four seasons. It’s been more of the same thus far in 2013/2014 returning to the NHL after a five year absence, toiling in European league. Joey MacDonald, has already been demoted to Abbottsford (AHL affiliate), despite doing enough to help Calgary earn a few wins in the early goings.
Meanwhile, Berra’s rapidly escalated to possibly the top goaltender in the organization. With a memorable debut Sunday, besting the defending Stanley Cup champs, while making 42 save of 44 shots, Berra just may have shown glimpses of many good things to come.
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TIE at #1
#1 Frederik Andersen AND John Gibson– Anaheim Ducks
While it’s fair to say Anaheim is blessed with the deepest and richest organizational goaltending depth, a name not necessarily on the radar of many, might just be the cream of the crop amongst the Ducks’ futures. For the time being its mind-bending to pull a decisive factor between the two, so I leave them toe to toe for now, not just fighting their way up the ladder of the Ducks’ crowded hierarchy, but for NHL starting jobs.
I would not be shocked if at least two, if not all three of Viktor Fasth, Gibson and Andersen join Hiller as NHL starters in various cities by 2017. Frederik has put up phenomenal numbers at literally every level he’s ever been tested at in ultra competitive hockey. The Dane naturally tore up Denmark’s pro league for three seasons from the 2007-2008 seasons through 2009-2010, with annually increasing save percentages and GAAs, peaking at 932% and 2.19. At 23 years of age, he took the next challenge in the Swedish Elite league, with famous Frolunda, posting an even better 1.67 GAA and .941 save percentage.
After being drafted by Anaheim that off-season, Anderson was immediately sent to Norfolk to try and adapt his game to North America with elite talent. All he did there was dominate the AHL for the past season and change. Finally given his NHL debut this season, he did not fail to disappoint, shutting out the Dallas Stars in a 40 minute relief appearance. He has gone on to record a 1.50 GAA and .944 save percentage through three appearances in the NHL---yes, once again a tiny sample, normally to be taken with a grain of salt, but with his unbelievable track record throughout his career, this early glimpses of success should not be taken the least bit lightly.
John Gibson, on the other hand clearly has been no slouch, the highest drafted (and hyped) of the top four current Anaheim netminders. In fact, he’s been the epitome of calm and collectiveness in his stance and style. His dominance at the U.S. National Development program, followed by his excellent play in the Ontario Major Junior Hockey league has been well documented. Now, with his first taste as a pro with the Norfolk Admirals, Gibson has actually improved on his career trajectory thus far with excellent peripherals of a 1.44 GAA and .955% save percentage over the opening five weeks of the season.
Time will tell which of the Anaheim draft picks will have turned out to be the better starter. Yes, I firmly believe both will be starters at some point. However separating the two will be nearly impossible until Gibson too gets his feet wet at the NHL level. Do not be shocked if Viktor Fasth is dealt by the trade deadline this season for pieces to aid the Ducks in their last playoff push with Teemu Selanne. Given the franchise’s embarrassment of goaltending riches, this remains a very distinct possibility.
~~~ Follow Anthony Lancione on Twitter @ANTHISDAMAN ~~~
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