DALLAS — The stress of stopping the puck with a game on the line is no sweat compared to what young goaltenders deal with waiting to be taken in the NHL draft.
Even the best goaltending prospects usually have to wait through the first round and then some before their names are called. Top-rated Olivier Rodrigue went through that this weekend.
“No expectation for the draft,” Rodrigue said. “Totally a mystery. We all know it’s difficult for a goalie to be selected early.”
It’s nearly impossible now as teams wait until the later rounds to shore up the most important position in the sport. Unlike quarterbacks and pitchers who are often top-10 picks in football and baseball, goaltenders in hockey are so difficult to project that only six have gone in the first round over the past decade — including none this year.
No goaltender has been taken in the top 10 since Carey Price went fifth to Montreal in 2005. In the years since, the philosophy has shifted drastically from trying to hit on an elite goaltender early in the draft to hoping for the best in rounds 2 through 7 like 23 different teams did on Saturday.
“They’re so up and down and very few of them dominate,” Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “It’s hard. There are very few guys that are first-rounders that you can say at 18 are going to be Price or that type of goalie right off the bat. It doesn’t happen very often.”
The first goalie off the board at this year’s draft was Olof Lindbom 39th to the Rangers. Armed with a successful Swedish goalie in 36-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, New York GM Jeff Gorton called taking Lindbom “an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
But as Rodrigue knows, teams pass on goalies all the time. His father, Sylvaine, is a goaltending instructor for Edmonton, which traded up to take him 62nd at the end of the second round.
Rodrigue was the second of 39 goalies taken in the 2018 draft that followed the recent pattern of the position being in demand but not early. Longtime Los Angeles Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yanetti believes there haven’t been many generational goalies like Price and Marc-Andre Fleury recently but also points to the long development curve as a reason why they’re so rarely first-round picks.
“With the rare, rare, rare exception of like a Carey Price, Fleury, it takes a minimum of probably four to six years for a goalie to develop,” Yanetti said. “Drafting a goalie very, very high with the success that they tend to have or don’t have —I think it’s right around 50 percent (odds of) becoming a regular NHL goaltender. I’m not even talking about elite.”
For every Price, Fleury and Roberto Luongo who have strong NHL careers, there’s a laundry list of top-10 goalies who never panned out. A year after Nashville missed on Brian Finley sixth overall in 1999, Calgary whiffed on Brent Krahn ninth in 2000, and while Al Montoya had a respectable career as a backup, he never lived up to going No. 6 to the Rangers in 2004.
Montoya never played a game for New York, which is a common tale for highly touted goaltending prospects.
“Most goalies around the league, with the exception of maybe three or four, they don’t really hit their stride until they’re probably 25 years old,” Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. “That’s seven years down the road and most of those guys have moved on to another organization. Not as many of them make it with the team that drafted them just because of the life cycle.”
That uncertain life cycle makes front offices approach goaltender entirely differently than forwards and defensemen. Los Angeles has signed Martin Jones and Cal Petersen as free agents long after they went undrafted. Philadelphia did the same with Sergei Bobrovsky, who they gave up on early and traded him to Columbus, where he won the Vezina Trophy twice.
“It’s almost like adding a first- or second-round pick to your roster for nothing,” Yanetti said of signing older goalie prospects. “They’re much closer to a finished product and you’re getting a first- or second-round asset without using a first or second-round draft pick.”
GMs like Tallon who aren’t goaltenders find evaluating the position harder and lean on their goalie coaches. To show just how inexact a science drafting a goalie is, nine went before the Washington Capitals took Braden Holtby in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, and he won the Vezina in 2016 before helping them win the Stanley Cup this season.
In the past decade, teams hardly even try anymore and often stockpile goalies rather than rolling the dice on taking them with high picks.