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Why aren’t NHL goalies drafted like NFL quarterbacks?

Goalies are important, so why do NHL teams tend to take them so low in drafts?
Goalies are important, so why do NHL teams tend to take them so low in drafts?
Photo: Shutterstock

The NHL Draft will commence tonight, with Alexis Lafreniere the lockdown No. 1 pick for the New York Rangers. He will be the first winger to be taken first overall since Nail Yakupov eight years ago. Which makes sense, as a winger falls behind centers and defensemen on the list of priorities for teams. It speaks to the relative lack of depth or specialness to this particular draft class. Later down the first round, it is widely suspected that Yaroslav Askarov will be taken. He will be only the third goalie in the past five years to be taken in the first round. Something seems terribly off about that.

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Wingers are definitely less important than goalies to a team’s fortunes, and yet a goalie hasn’t been taken No. 1 overall since Marc-Andre Fleury 17 years ago. Fleury is only one of two goalies to be taken No. 1 overall in the past 30 years (Rick DiPietro... whoops!). Which is very weird, because the goalie position is just about the only one to rival the quarterback position in football for importance.

Hockey can seemingly never agree on anything, as it still carries around the huge bag of bricks of “the way things used to be” and trying to reconcile that with the new ways of thinking and analyzing that it is highly suspicious of. There’s still a school of thought that your goalie has to win you the Cup, which isn’t really true. But there is also a wave of thinking, thanks to the Detroit Red Wings who won a couple Cups with the decidedly non-descript Chris Osgood in net over a decade ago, that if you get the rest of the team right, your goalie merely has to rise to “doesn’t suck.” That’s not really true either.

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Illustration for article titled Why aren’t NHL goalies drafted like NFL quarterbacks?
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A couple outliers in this graphic. One is Braden Holtby’s regular season in 2017-2018, where he actually lost his job. But Holtby is also a former Vezina Trophy winner. Quick’s second Cup campaign was hardly impressive, but the Kings had constructed an all-consuming force of a team that has rarely been matched since. And Quick took him the Conn Smythe in the Kings’ first Cup win. What’s clear is that you need your goalie to be no worse than pretty good, and maybe even great, to win.

And yet, only 46 goalies have been taken in the first round in the past 30 years. Contrast that with 80 quarterbacks taken in the first round in that same time. Certainly, taking a goalie in the first round is no guarantee. Just in the past 10 years, names like Jack Campbell, Mark Visentin, and Malcolm Subban have been taken in the first round and have gone on to middling NHL careers, if they’ve gotten there at all. On the flip side, Vasilevskiy was a first round pick, as was Ilya Samsonov, who has replaced Hotlby in Washington as the starting goalie for the Caps. Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, and Tuukka Rask are other first-round goalies who have anchored teams for years.

The reasons given for the odd selection and development of goalies have been around a while. One, they take a while to develop, and you can’t toss them straight into your team as you would a QB. Two, they’re weird and hard to scout. Three, the jump from juniors or college to the pros is just too large for a goalie to make, even though skaters have been doing it on the reg for years now.

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Like all things in hockey, there is a measurable level of horseshit to just about all of these, with some truth mixed in. And the horeshit, like usual, is hockey’s fault.

Catherine Silverman, who has covered goalies for InGoal Magazine, The Goalie Guild, and Elite Prospects, thinks roster construction is part of the problem. “It comes down to the position themselves and how quickly you can ease someone into it,” she told Deadspin. “So for a forward, I don’t think they’re developing necessarily any faster than goalies are. You can drop the guy into the AHL for a year, or not, and then move him into the NHL feasibly with sheltered starts. You can start them only in the offensive zone. You can skate them with veterans. A center you can move to wing for parts of a game or season. You can’t really do that with goalies.

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“And there’s still a perception that if a young goalie has a bad game or week, he’s not ready. Another part is you only have two spots with the NHL club. And two spots with the AHL. And two with the ECHL, and if you’re lucky a spot or two in Europe.”

But NFL teams only have two or three quarterback spots, and no minor league teams to stash other prospects. And yet they’re unafraid to commit one to a young player, if not toss him into the starter’s role immediately.”

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And this is where hockey’s structure all the way down the amatuer levels and scouting gets exposed. NHL teams, or at least a good portion, don’t have any idea how to scout goalies.

“Henrik Lundqvist is a really good example. He went in the 7th round. If teams had a more robust scouting staff, he would have gone much higher. I think teams were more hesitant because they honestly didn’t have any scouts look at those guys like him.”

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It’s not just a European problem, as Silverman points out. “It was five years ago that I had an NHL scout tell me that the best way to evaluate goalie was by wins.”

That sound you hear is every baseball sabermetrician’s forehead hitting their laptop.

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Even five years on, there’s still an alarmingly large portion of NHL teams who don’t have dedicated goalie scouts. “In terms of teams that don’t have a robust goalie scouting department, I would say it’s about half. Some teams just ask their goalie coach to evaluate prospects, which is how you get one in particular drafting the goalie coach’s son (rhymes with “Edmonton”)”

The problem isn’t just the scouting of goalies by NHL teams, though. Whereas young quarterbacks will have an offensive coordinator and a dedicated quarterbacks coach in high school, if not grade school, goalies have no such thing. Junior teams rarely if ever have a goalie coach. College coaches are volunteers. Even AHL teams might not have goalie coaches. As Silverman pointed out, until recently the Bruins used Bob Essensa to coach the goalies in Boston and Providence, where their AHL team is. Which means he could only be with the AHL goalies once or twice a week at times. So maybe the reason for “goalies take a while” is that they’re just left to their own devices.

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Which affects what happens at the NHL-level. No matter how good goalies might have been at amateur levels, arriving at an NHL training camp might be the first time they work daily with a dedicated goalie coach. Which means that it is likely they have habits and tendencies that need to be broken for the first time, and that’s the main hurdle for development at the top level.

“There’s no shallow end, and it’s not even just about the team performance. But that 60 minute performance. Unless you want to yank a goalie every time they give up a bad goal, it’s a balancing act. If you pull them every time they start playing a sloppy game where they start settling back into habits that you’re trying to break them up, you break their confidence, and make it harder for them to grow.

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“But if you leave them in when they’re playing like I mentioned, you’re just cementing that repetition. You’re reinstalling that bad habit again.”

Even though the goalie position can make or break a team’s fortunes for years (hi there, Toronto Maple Leafs), the league is still years behind on where it needs to be just to understand the position, much less draft and develop it. But then hockey being backwards and behind is something you can set your watch to.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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