Net Differences

Early signings slightly different for goaltenders

July 12, 2007

By Elliot Olshansky

CSTV.com

 



ELLIOT OLSHANSKY

Elliot is CSTV.com's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on CSTV.com.
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It's been said over and over again: Goaltenders are a different breed.

 

It doesn't take long in a game to notice that goalies are different, of course, but beyond the superficialities like equipment and the fact that college netminders are often the primary target of fan derision for the full 60 minutes, the truth of the matter is that when a goaltender takes his place between the pipes, he's preparing to play at one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.

 

"It's obviously the most demanding position to play," said Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall, who knows a thing or two about the subject after 701 career games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs) and the 1986-87 Vezina Trophy. "You can make mistakes up front, but obviously, at the back end, it's tough to make mistakes."


 

 

 

That exposure and the increased demand for perfection make for a different development process than defensemen or forwards go through.

 

"You rarely find a 19- or 20-year old goalie playing in the NHL, whereas you will find the odd 18- or 19-year old forward," said Michigan head coach Red Berenson, who's seen Wolverine goaltenders Steve Shields and Marty Turco make it to the NHL since he took the reins at his alma mater in 1984. "The forwards, you can get away with their mistakes, and play them when they're younger. Defensemen, their mistakes are more important, and it takes them longer, and goalies' mistakes are critical. Look around the history of the NHL and find me a rookie goalie who's 18 or 19 years old who's on a winning team."

 

"I think it's a longer process," Hextall said. "It takes defensemen longer than forwards, and it takes goalies, typically, longer than defensemen. It takes longer to get to a higher level."

 

It also takes longer to figure out just how high a level a young goalie will be able to reach.

 

"The forwards, you usually have a pretty good idea within a couple of years whether he's what you think he is," said Gordie Clark, head amateur scout for the New York Rangers. "With goaltenders and defensemen, it just seems to take, for some reason, until they're 23, 24 or 25 before you really see what's going on there. It's such a unique position, goaltending, especially at the NHL level."

 

"It's a difficult read," Hextall said. "No doubt about it. The other thing you've got going on is the mental game, and that's a pretty hard thing to get a grip on until you've had a while with any player, so there's no question that the goaltender is the toughest read."

 

Not only is it the toughest read, it may be the most important as well.  The margin for error with signing prospects corresponds to the players' own margins for error on the ice at various positions. In other words, the worst-case scenario for a goaltending prospect who doesn't pan out is quite different than the worst case scenario for a defenseman or a forward.

 

"You might project a guy to be a second-line forward," Hextall said, "and if he falls to a three, fine, or if he falls to a four. With a defenseman, you might project him to be a No. 3, and he falls to a five or a six, but you've still got a player. With a goalie, it's a little different. There's no hiding. There's no playing him against certain lines. You don't play him in certain situations, whether it be power play or penalty kill.  With goalies, there's no hiding a guy. You can either play, or you can't play."

 

The margin for error at different positions seems to have an effect on the decision to sign underclassmen as well. Twenty-nine underclassmen have signed with NHL teams since their teams ended the 2006-07 season: 19 forwards, eight defensemen and only two goaltenders: UMass goaltender Jon Quick, who signed with the Kings on March 29, and Boston College's Cory Schneider, who signed with the Vancouver Canucks on July 3.

 

"The skater, most likely, it'd be easier for him to come out earlier than a goaltender from a college standpoint," said Steve Tambellini, the Canucks' assistant general manager.

 

The most obvious reason for that is that the number of available spots for goaltenders is much more limited, not only for the season immediately after a player signs a contract, but for next couple of years after that. Former Michigan goaltender Al Montoya, for example, signed with the New York Rangers in the summer of 2005, after the Rangers drafted him with the sixth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. At that point, the Blueshirts' goaltending situation was unsettled, and it seemed as if Montoya would have a spot waiting for him once he was ready for the NHL.

 

"I think the Rangers were excited about Al," Berenson said, "Al had a good reputation, and he'd won the gold medal at the World Junior tournament. Everyone had seen him on that stage, and obviously, he was doing well at Michigan, and they thought it was time for him to step into a competitive situation at the pro level, and they may have thought that he had a chance of playing in the NHL in a short time."

 

Of course, that's not exactly how it worked out, as Henrik Lundqvist has established himself in the Rangers' net, setting a team record for victories in his first two seasons and becoming a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this past season. While the Olympic gold medallist's performance has been most welcome at Madison Square Garden, it couldn't have been predicted.

 

"Lundqvist and [Kevin] Weekes actually started out," Clark said, "and Lundqvist ended up taking over, and Al was going to be the No. 1 guy in Hartford. A lot of teams like to have five goalies. We don't know how they're going to turn out. You're really just putting them in there and saying, `Let's see.'"

 

However, organizational need plays a minimal role, if any, in a team's signing decision. Since goaltenders are not expected to be ready for the NHL until after they've played a couple of seasons in the minors (in addition to whatever amateur experience they enter the pro ranks with), a team's immediate needs become less important, since those needs may well have changed by the time a player is ready for the NHL.

 

"The fact that there's a perception that we have a need up top had nothing to do with the decision with Jon," Hextall said. "I can tell you this: if we had Roberto Luongo on the Kings right now, and we had Jon Quick in the same situation, I don't see us doing anything different with him."

 

Tambellini, whose Canucks do have Luongo, clearly are in no hurry for Schneider to make his NHL debut. However, again, it comes down to what Schneider and the Canucks felt was best for the former Eagle's development.

 

"I think he felt in his own mind that one, he was physically mature enough to handle the next step as far as workload," Tambellini said. "Two, I think he was very comfortable with his accomplishments at Boston College. I don't think he felt, in his own mind, he had a lot left to prove as far as whether or not he could be the best at that level. To say at the moment that we have our guy...three years from now, who knows what the team looks like?

 

"We do have a long-term plan. His goal should be to play two-thirds of the games in the American Hockey League. He's going to be competing against a veteran goalie, Drew McIntyre, who's not that old, that has established himself as a good American League goaltender. We expect him, over the next couple of years, to play 60 games a year and lead one of the top AHL teams somewhere in the playoffs and get that experience. Then, after two years or so, if it goes along as we think it will, he should be looking for time in the NHL."

 

Berenson's thoughts on that sort of development plan for a goalie don't differ much from his long-held views on skaters signing early when they aren't NHL-ready.

 

"Are you ready, as a college player, to give up your senior year to play in the American League?" Berenson asked. "If you are, then you're thinking differently than I am. If I were a goalie, I'd go to college, and I'd stay for four years, and I would get as ready as I can for pro hockey, but even then, I would expect I might have to play a year or two in the minors."

 

Hextall may be on the other side of the conversation, but like Berenson, he doesn't see much of a difference between the different positions when it comes to signing prospects.

 

"I don't think that it's a lot different," Hextall said. "If you think a player has done everything he can do at a certain level, then you usually look to move him on to the next level."

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