Young Goalies On The Rise

“He’s one of those goalies who only comes around once every ten years.” We’ve all heard these words to describe many up and coming goaltenders. In today’s breed of NHL hockey, a select goaltender can mean the difference between a loss and a win, a playoff berth, and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

Only a few teams are blessed with this elite level goaltending night in and night out. A young goaltending prospect can bring new life to an organization with this promising form of leadership, but with so many top goaltending prospects, how do we separate the studs from the duds? What has happened to goaltenders like Jocelyn Thibault, on course to be the league’s all time wins leader, until his career began to fall apart? Does the present goaltending situation in the NHL lead many of these promising young stars to prematurely burn out and fade away?

Somewhere along the line, these young goalies fall victim to confidence and environmental issues. Young goalies are often burnt out and used up long before their primes. This works both ways, as goaltenders can also be held back from the NHL for too long. There has to be a happy medium where goalies can develop their games and then be introduced into the NHL at the appropriate time.

Are teams like the Rangers holding talented goalies such as Al Montoya back? Are the Pittsburgh Penguins lucky to still have a young talented goalie after throwing him to the wolves in his first year? With this as the present goaltending situation in the NHL, we may never see another modern Patrick Roy, but if anything, this group of young talent gives us hope that someday maybe goaltenders will be given the respect they deserve.

With what seems to be one of the deepest talent pools goaltending has seen in a while, each of these up and comers is trying to prove they are the cream of the crop. Some roads will be harder to travel than others, as some will be looked upon immediately for a contribution, while others find themselves at the bottom of a lengthy depth chart.

With so many top young goalies, one has to think there is some equation that produces a top-notch netminder. Certainly the Canadian junior leagues bring in a lot of talent, and an appearance in a Team Canada jersey can almost guarantee you with a nice new jersey on draft day. Almost every goalie that plays for Canada at the World Junior Championships automatically draws a large amount of attention. Canada’s junior leagues are second to none, and if a goalie can prove himself there, it says a lot about his ability and potential to become an NHL player.

One of the most heralded young goaltenders to come through the Canadian junior circuit is the Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Carey Price. Montreal fans are calling Price the next Patrick Roy. Such a comparison may be seen as a tad overboard if not for his ability to lead the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL to the Calder Cup while being named the playoff’s MVP, all at the age of 19.

Price was also named the tournament MVP at the IIHL World Junior (U-20) championship as he helped Canada take their third straight gold medal. Price is the only goalie in history to be named the CHL goaltender of the year, the World Junior Championships tournament MVP, as well as the MVP of the Calder Cup, all in the same year.

Though he seems to be the real deal, it would be wrong to push Price into a full starter’s role next season. It’s true that Price has accomplished everything that a goalie can in juniors as well as the AHL, and many will say that if Roy got a shot when he was young, why not Price? Montreal is a hockey town, and with every almost every camera in Quebec aimed in his direction, the stardom may be too much for the young goalie to handle. Slowly moving into the limelight would be in Price’s best interest.

Henrik Lundqvist found himself in a similar situation in the 2005-06 season. Lundqvist split time with Kevin Weekes for the first three months and had to fight for the starting job. Though he was much better than Weekes, fighting for his spot made him a much better goaltender for the long haul. The Canadiens should take a similar route with Price in hopes of yielding a future NHL All-Star.

The Canadiens’ player recruitment and development have expressed that the Habs don’t want to rush things with their golden boy, and are willing to take their time. With some more time to develop, this incredibly talented goalie should have Montreal fans saying “The Price is right!” before too long.

Price isn’t the only talented keeper to come out of the Canadian Juniors. There are a handful of other goalies who are all trying to get hockey fans to say, “Carey who?”

Maple Leafs prospect Justin Pogge, though very talented, has found himself between a rock and a hard place. Last season, in his first campaign for the Toronto Marlies, Pogge went 19-25. Drafted in the third round (90th overall) in 2004, many scouts did not see him as a marquee prospect, but Pogge has proven himself on the world stage being named Team Canada’s MVP as they took the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2006.

The only problem for Pogge is that he finds himself in the third or fourth spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs depth chart along with Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, and newly-signed Scott Clemmensen, who spent last season backing up Martin Brodeur. One thing Pogge does have going for him is the fact that all of these goalies have proven to be quite streaky. If the Leafs should be in a position where these other goaltenders prove to be unreliable, Pogge will get his shot to prove himself on hockey’s biggest stage.

Though these two are looking to make a run at becoming a solid NHL goalie and making a name for themselves, some of Canada’s up and comers should take some more time to develop their games. If they were to force themselves into the NHL, it could very well cut their careers short. A goalie rushed into the NHL may only last a few seasons before becoming burnt out, while not even reaching their full potential. A goalie that waits for the right time to make his move to the NHL will most likely find his niche and move into a role where he can continue flourish for many seasons.

Leland Irving of the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, was drafted 26th overall by Calgary in the 2006 entry draft. Among many other talented Canadian goaltenders, Irving has spent time in Team Canada’s junior program, helping his U-18 team with the gold medal at the World Championships.

Irving also played in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game, making 21 saves and leading his team to a 7-2 victory. He is a well centered, intelligent goalie who doesn’t seem to let bad goals go to his head, but at only 19-years-old, he needs to spend time improving small things such as stick-handling in order to prepare for the rigors of the NHL.

Another Team Canada Junior team member, Devan Dubnyk, shows promise but is not yet ready for the NHL. With a respectable four season career in the WHL for the Kamloops Blazers under his belt, Dubnyk was drafted 14th overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2004 entry draft.

After trying out for Team Canada’s 2005 World Junior Championship and being cut, Dubnyk returned in 2006 and made the team and went on to win Gold at the 2006 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Standing 6’ 5”, he possesses great size, and along with great positioning, takes up a large portion of the net. Now playing for the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, Dubnyk continues to get better and grow as a player. He has the potential to become a starting goalie in the NHL, but not for some time.

It is important that these goalies gain confidence in their abilities before they attempt to make a jump to the NHL. Confidence is one of the biggest keys in being a goaltender. Take two goalies of the exact same skill level, and the one who is more confident in his abilities is the one who will shine brighter. It is important that these young goalies are not rushed into a situation where they take pounding after pounding, as they will lose their confidence as a goalie that can make a difference for their team in the NHL.

NCAA goalies are also proving that the collegiate route can also yield great rewards. Former NCAA standout Alvaro Montoya is making a name for himself in the AHL and hopes to do the same in the coming NHL season. After leading Team USA to the Gold in the 2004 World Junior Championships, as well as an impressive season at Michigan going 30-7-3, the Glenville, Illinois native was drafted by the New York Rangers with the sixth overall pick.

Since then, Montoya has found a home in Hartford, playing for the Wolf Pack, the Rangers AHL club. Montoya has shown he is reliable at the AHL level going 27-17 last season, but finds himself behind Lundqvist, who can’t be seen giving up his all-star status in net anytime soon. It’s a tough situation for Montoya and he could certainly be capable of playing in the NHL, but with Lundquist at the reigns, it’s doubtful that he will see any substantial time in the coming season.

The University of Maine’s Ben Bishop, or known as “Big Ben” by the Black Bear fan base, is certainly making a mark as a top young goalie. Standing a towering 6’ 7”, Bishop is a goalie that can use the butterfly and still have his head well above the crossbar. Down in position, his legs take up everything on the ice while his giant wingspan picks pucks out of the air.

Going 21-9-2 in his sophomore season as well as taking a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four, Bishop has proven himself to be one of the best goaltenders in college hockey. Bishop was drafted in the third round by St. Louis in the 2005 NHL entry draft. Though Bishop is climbing to the top of his game, it’s best that he stays in Black Bear country for his junior season.

Above him in the depth charts is Blues prospect Marek Schwarz. Schwarz has already been in an NHL game at a young age and will be the go-to guy before Bishop. It’s best that he stay in the collegiate ranks and try to develop the movement of his big body, not to mention that a NCAA Championship looks good on ones’ resume.

Just recently, Boston College’s Cory Schneider signed an entry level contract with the Vancouver Canucks who drafted the Marblehead, Massachusetts native 26th overall in the NHL entry draft. While at Boston College, Schneider put up outstanding numbers going 66-26-7 in his three-year tenure. Two trips to the NCAA finals left Schneider heartbroken and without an NCAA championship and now it seems the BC Eagle is ready to spread his wings for the next level.

With Roberto Luongo between the pipes for Vancouver, Schneider won’t see a starting role for awhile, but hopes to develop his game like fellow collegiate standout Al Montoya. Some may think that the decision to leave before his senior was premature, but there is a time when a player feels that to stay at the top of his game, he needs to be challenged. Though he hasn’t won a championship, Schneider dominated the ranks in the NCAA and may feel ready for the next level.

European Juniors are also bringing in a good talent base. These goaltenders are often hyped up by scouts and the media, but only some make the transition across the Atlantic to the NHL. Some young European goalies, such as the aforementioned Schwarz, have had the opportunity to be in an organization that has allowed them to get a taste of the NHL game. The Czech, who was drafted 17th overall by St. Louis in 2004, became the third youngest goaltender to play a game in Blues history on December 12, 2006. The then 20-year-old, made 21 saves on 24 shots in a 3-2 loss against Chicago.

After spending time playing for some of the best Czech midget and junior programs, Schwarz gained a load of experience playing on the international stage, tending goal in the World Junior Championships. His strong play earned him the best goaltender award at the 2004 U-18 World Junior Championship.

Schwarz spent last year in the net for the Peoria Rivermen, the Blues AHL affiliate, posting a respectable 19-13 record. Schwarz has not been rushed into a playing role for St. Louis, which is a smart move. He was given a glimpse of NHL play and settled into a role in Peoria where he could hone his skills in hopes of getting more chances to play in a Blues jersey in the upcoming season.

Some European goaltenders have yet to get their feet wet in North American hockey but have already drawn a large amount of attention. Boston Bruins prospect Tuukka Rask has been playing professionally in Finland for the Ilves of the Finnish Junior League.

Rask is confident in his abilities and isn’t counting himself out of the running for a spot on the Bruins NHL roster. “Well you never know what’s going to happen. Pierre has said he’s going to give everyone a chance to make the big team. It depends how good you are. If you play well and practice well you’ll probably make the big team. If not, you play in Providence, that’s okay too.”

Boston’s goaltending situation seems to be solved at least for the moment with the recent acquisition of Manny Fernandez. Time will tell if Fernandez will make an impact in Beantown, but if he is seen as the quick fix, then Rask is seen as the long term solution a few years down the road. Rask seems committed to Boston, and helping the Bruins get back to the playoffs in the near future. “Of course I want to see myself playing for the Bruins. I made a three-year contract and I have plenty of time to get to know the guys on the team and the style of play here, so hopefully I have a good future ahead in Boston.”

Rask can’t be expected to be thrust in a starting role for the coming season, as it would be too soon for the young Fin. Last season, as the Providence Bruins made a run for the Calder Cup, Rask reportedly practiced with the team briefly and believed that he had a solid chance to become the number-one goalie for Boston’s AHL affiliate. With time, Rask has the ability to become an elite goalie in the NHL but with every prospect, no player can be labeled a sure thing.

Though the Canadian junior leagues seem to have a slight edge in developing top goalies, there is no shortage in Europe or the NCAA. Goalies from Europe have crossed to North America and transitioned well. Goalies that choose the college route seem to be more mature and all around sound players. Though it may not be as competitive as Canadian Juniors, the NCAA defiantly helps players develop as a whole including their personalities on and off the ice. Though some of these top prospects will most certainly make their NHL debut this coming season, some should do just the opposite and continue to develop their skills.

As far as style goes, the days of stand up goaltending are long gone. The butterfly style certainly seems to be the only choice for today’s goalies. All of these goaltenders greatly depend on their large size, quick reflexes, and a tight butterfly. The one change that may be seen in coming years is the shift from a strict butterfly style to a more hybrid style.

A strict butterfly goaltender relies on that one save and its variations alone. Though very dependable, some goaltenders are starting to use a hybrid style, which, when put to use by athletic goalies, is pretty amazing to see. The use of the butterfly can take away relatively routine shots and while harder saves can be made by using the goalies natural athleticism where they are often sprawled across the net or diving for a puck in mid-air. The hybrid style just leaves more options for goalies to make more saves that they shouldn’t be making in the first place.

It’s been said before, but the sad truth is that the present situation in the NHL is one where general managers refuse to put a lot of money into their goaltending. It seems that teams are looking for a quick fix for their goaltending problems, and they see a solution is a lot of these young goalies. The reason that we have only seen a handful of great goalies come through the ranks lately is because team use and abuse their young talent to the point of damaging a goalie’s confidence.

With the right development, all of these young goalies can go on to have great professional hockey careers. No matter where they came from, with the right level of play, and enough time, these goalies are sure to be incredible to watch for many years to come.

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