Meltzer's Musings: Drafting Goaltenders
As the 2014 NHL Draft approaches, I would not be at all surprised if the Flyers choose a goaltender at some point in the Draft. The only goaltenders currently in the pipeline are 25-year-old Cal Heeter and 20-year-old Anthony Stolarz.
Stolarz is the better long-term prospect of the two but is still likely to need at least two seasons of AHL seasoning. Heeter, meanwhile, had a strong first half of the 2013-14 season but faded badly in the second half. Heeter did get to make his NHL debut in the final game of the regular season and served as the Flyers backup for portions of the stretch drive and playoffs. He is not considered NHL ready as a full-season backup.
Drafting goaltenders is always a risky proposition in the first round, and there are enough quality position players in the Draft pool to make it tough to justify taking a goalie in that spot as the best available player. This is the conundrum of goaltender drafting, and the reason why most NHL teams nowadays are reluctant to take a goalie in the first round.
On the one hand, the goaltender plays the single most important position on the ice. As we saw with Steve Mason in the playoffs this year, great goaltending can give a team a chance in games where it is otherwise being massively outplayed. Leaky goaltending can torpedo a team's momentum.
On the other hand, teenage goaltenders are the hardest of all players to project as NHLers. Their development cycle often takes the longest before the player is even NHL-ready, let alone ready to become a full-time starter. It is not all uncommon for goaltenders who were not considered standouts in their Draft classes to catch and surpass the more highly touted names by the time they reach their mid-20s.
This year's draft is considered a pretty good one for goaltending prospects. In light of the lack of organizational depth -- the 2012 second-round selection of Stolarz and 2013 sixth-round choice of Merrick Madsen are the only picks the Flyers have used on goaltenders in the last four NHL Drafts -- chances are strong that the Flyers will use a pick or two on a goaltender this year.
The good news is that the 2014 Draft is considered to be an above-average one for goaltending prospects.
It seems unlikely that the Flyers will take Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko -- the Draft-eligible goaltender who is most often projected to be selected first among players at his position -- with the 17th overall pick. He will most likely be off the board by the time the Flyers make the 48th overall pick. As such, Demko seems destined to be picked by another team unless the Flyers trade down from 17th overall or somehow another pick ahead of their own second-round spot.
However, there is a pretty good chance that someone among the likes of Brent Moran, Edwin Minney, Ville Husso, Alex Nedeljkovic, Jonas Johansson or Linus Söderström gets selected by Flyers. It's also very possible the Flyers would take an Central Scouting unranked or lower-ranked goalie prospect at some point from the middle to late rounds of this year's Draft.
In today's NHL, goaltenders are getting bigger and bigger. It has gotten to the point where goalies who stand less than six-feet tall virtually need not apply and ones who are listed at 6-foot-1 are considered to have "average" size. All of the aforementioned goaltenders except Husso and Nedeljkovic stand at least 6-foot-4, and the latter two (who both are listed at 6-foot-0) are both considered among the quickest and most athletically gifted goalies in this year's Draft class.
In a blog I wrote ahead of least year's Draft, I spelled out my philosophy on goaltender drafting. My views have not changed at all, so i will repeat it here.
The late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg used to tell a joke about how long it takes to cook a baked potato in a conventional oven. "Sometimes, I'll just throw one in there, even if I don't want it," he said. "By the time it's done, who knows?"
Drafting and developing goaltenders is much the same. It takes so long for most draft-eligible goaltenders to be ready for the NHL that, by the time they are finished "cooking", there's no telling what a team might actually have in that player. Most NHL scouts will tell you that they consider the projection of teenage goalies to involve the most guesswork of any pre-Draft preparation they do.
For this reason, I am usually leery of teams using first-round picks on goaltender. There are exceptions, of course, but the risk of subsequent buyers' remorse is just too high in most cases to justify going with a goalie over a position player in Round One.
On the other hand, I am very much a believer in taking a goalie at some point in most every Draft. An NHL team may be set in goal for right now. By the time the drafted goal is done done developing, who knows?
The 2008 Draft is a good example.
Heading into the Draft, Tri-City Americans goaltender Chet Pickard was far and away considered the best available goalie in the Draft, with some saying he had franchise player potential. It was widely reported on Draft day that the Flyers tried to move up in order to select Pickard. They were unable to do so, and the Nashville Predators chose Pickard with the 18th overall pick of the first round. Philadelphia, selecting 19th, chose defenseman Luca Sbisa.
As it turned out, Pickard was a major bust. He struggled in AHL, was demoted to the ECHL, and did not fare too well even at that level. Nashville's seventh-round selection (207th overall) in the same Draft, Anders Lindbäck, has at least gone on to become an NHL player. Up to this point, Washington Capitals fourth-round pick, Braden Holtby, has arguably been the top NHL goalie to come out of the 2008 Draft.
There is no such thing as too much organizational depth at a particular position, including goaltenders. Goalie prospects too often fall by the wayside. No matter what a goalie does in collegiate or Canadian junior hockey, the World Junior Championships or even the top European pro leagues or AHL, it's a whole different ballgame once they he gets to the NHL.
The Flyers know this first-hand.
From 1995 to 1999, the organization used its top overall Draft pick -- two first-rounders and an early second-rounder -- three times. By 1999, goaltending prospect depth was considered the biggest strength of the Philadelphia farm system. In the summer of 1999, there were no fewer than five goalies in the Flyers system who were considered to be potential future NHL starters. There was also one fringe prospect. This does not even include Johan Hedberg (drafted in the 9th round of the 1994 Draft), whose rights had been traded to San Jose after his agent and Bob Clarke were unable to agree on a contract.
Let's revisit the NHL prospect goaltenders the Flyers had in their system in the summer of 1999. Five of them played in the NHL (three only briefly). Two had stints as starters. None became long-term impact players in the NHL. Welcome to the vicissitudes of goalie drafting and development.
In 1995, the Flyers used their first-round pick (22nd overall) to select Brian Boucher. According to The Hockey News' Draft Preview that year, most scouts considered him the fourth-best goalie prospect in a goalie-rich draft, behind Martin Biron, J-S Giguere and Marc Denis but a first-round worthy prospect in his own right. As of 1999, he looked to be on track to graduate to the NHL in the near future.
In the 1996 draft, Philly took Swedish goaltender Per-Ragnar Bergkvist, in the 5th round (124th overall), largely because Bergkvist had outplayed Boucher head-to-head at the most recent World Junior Championships. Unfortunately, Bergkvist proved to be a flash in the pan and never became even an average Elitserien goalie. In 1999, however, he had a brief revival with Färjestad and was at least considered a fringe prospect.
In the 1997 draft, the Flyers used their first pick of the draft (30th overall) to select Jean-Marc Pelletier. The second-round draftee made a quick splash with the Phantoms in 1998-99 and even earned a start with the big club -- which didn't go very well -- while the club was struggling and looking for a spark. Although his stock soon fell, Pelletier still looked like a solid NHL prospect in the summer of 1999.
In the 1998 draft, the Flyers took Antero Niitymäki in the 6th round (168th overall). A product of the vaunted TPS Turku system, which produced a string of future NHL goalies, Niittymäki got an extended chance to play with the TPS team in SM-Liiga when Fredrik Norrena went down with an injury. Niitty ended up winning the 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year award in SM-Liiga and TPS won the championship.
In the 1999 draft, the Flyers selected Maxime Ouellet in the first round after Boston snapped up defenseman Nick Boyton (a draft re-entry after he was selected 9th overall by Washington in 1997 but did not sign a contract) one pick earlier. Considered by many to be the best goalie available in the draft, many scouts thought he had future NHL All-Star potential. Ouellet would go to play for Team Canada at the WJC and actually started the 2000-01 season on the Flyers' NHL roster before being returned to the QMJHL.
Of course we know what happened to this deep pool of prospects; chock full of potential "goalie-of-the-future" candidates. One by one, they fell by the wayside.
Boucher had an amazing NHL rookie season and led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1999-2000. He faltered in his second season and lost his job to Roman Cechmanek (drafted by the Flyers at age 29 in the 6th round of the 2000 NHL draft after he won five straight Czech championships with HC Vsetin). Boosh never blossomed into a star but ended up becoming a solid journeyman goalie who spent four stints -- three that included time in the NHL -- with the Flyers' organization.
After flopping with Leksand and playing a year in Norway, Bergkvist's brief revival with FBK didn't last beyond the first month of the 1999-2000 season. He ended up playing his way down to third-string goalie and faded away from the hockey scene.
Pelletier's cockiness was considered a plus when he stepped up in the first half of his rookie pro season with the Phantoms, but soon started to work against him as he leveled off and gained the reputation for being uncoachable. He ended up being traded to Carolina in the deal that brought Keith Primeau to Philadelphia and sent Rod Brind'Amour to the Hurricanes. Pelletier turned into pretty much a career minor-league goaltender.
Niittymäki ended up being arguably the best of the bunch, if you exclude Czech veteran Cechmanek (who was already a finished product by the time he was drafted). Niitty won three straight Finnish championships, a Calder Cup, an AHL playoff MVP award, an Olympic silver medal and Olympic MVP award. But he had only spotty success in the NHL. Like Boucher, he was unable to keep a full-time starting job in the NHL, and he did not prove to be the answer to the Flyers' search for a long-term answer in goal. Repeated hip injuries -- which eventually resulted in hip replacement surgery and hastened the premature end to his career -- undoubtedly set back his development once he reached the NHL.
Ouellet's flaws started to become apparent soon after he graduated from junior to professional hockey. He was still highly regarded at the time the Flyers sent him to Washington in the ill-fated Adam Oates rental. However, his game never progressed and, like Pelletier, he ended up becoming more or less a career minor league goaltender.
Cechmanek was beyond traditional prospect age by the time he entered the Flyers' organization, so I will not discuss him at length here.
The purpose for looking back at all of those Flyers draftees from that mid- to late-1990s time frame is to show that, of all positions on the ice, goalies are truly the hardest to predict once they turn pro. Even when they reach the top level, there are many goalies who are late bloomers.