Canada lagging behind developing goalies

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty
January 16, 2014, 3:10 PM

Those who despair about the state of Canadian goaltending have become legion. Whether it’s the dearth of candidates to fill the bill as the No. 1 on the Canadian Olympic team or some plotzing at the world juniors, there seems to be cause for legitimate concern. We haven’t turned out a Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur for a while.

This will last at least another year. You can say this with something approaching metaphysical certitude with little more than a cursory look at the NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings of draft-eligible goaltenders. Actually, if you don’t have the stomach for it, let me just tell you: The top five North American prospects for goalies are all U.S. kids.

The top-ranked is Thatcher Demko, a freshman at Boston College and the latest in the line of elite netminders out of the San Diego Jr Gulls program. OK, he’s the first Gull to achieve this lofty station, but no matter. As a late ’95 birthday, Demko has been on the radar for a while—he was the tournament all-star goalie for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the Five Nations in 2011, starred at the under-17 Challenge Cup that same year, put in a year with the USNTDP and then posted a .899 save percentage in 15 games with the Omaha Lancers in the USHL last season. He’s six-foot-four and 185 lb., all of that made to order in a net prospect.

The next two goaltenders on the list are with the USNTDP at present: Edwin Winney at No. 2 and Blake Weyrick at No. 3. The USNTDP seems to consistently turn out netminding prospects, the top recent ones being John Gibson and Jack Campbell. The U.S. under-18s are strictly a split-time operation—everyone plays. Still, they fight above their weight class in the USHL and have great exposure in international play. Scouts can get a read on them in meaningful showcase games. No. 4 on the list is Thomas Perry of Wenatchee of the NAHL. I spoke to a few scouts this week and the native of Grand Forks, N.D., is still on their to-do list. No first-hand stuff available.

We finally get to the CHL at No. 5 but you won’t be surprised to find out that Plymouth’s Alex Nedeljkovic is from Ohio.

Only when you get to Nos. 6 and 7 do you hit Canadian netminding prospects: Niagara’s Brent Morgan and Charlottetown’s Mason McDonald respectively. If you caught the CHL Prospect’s game you got an eyeful of McDonald, a big (six-foot-four) Haligonian, and you had to be impressed with his 17 saves on 18 shots, at least five of them four-alarm scoring chances. The question hangs there: Why is McDonald so far down on the list? The explanation goes to a fundamental problem with evaluating draft-eligible goaltenders in the CHL.

McDonald was primarily a back-up to Jacob Brennan with Acadie-Bathurst early in the season. Brennan, a 19-year-old, had two years of experience, a full season as No. 1, going into training camp. McDonald was 3-7-1 with .887 SP in limited action. Simply put, McDonald was in a position to fail and had no showcase to work with.

Enter the Islanders. Charlottetown GM Grant Sonier decided to be a seller when trading opened in the “Q” a few weeks back and acquired youth with the idea of contending two years hence. Along with a bunch of draft picks, he  acquired McDonald and it’s been a tonic if not a transformation for the kid. So far he has gone 3-0 with a 1.95 GAA and a .938 SP.

It’s easy to project too freely based on those numbers and a nice performance in the Prospects Game. Anything like this little sample sustained in the back half of the season will see his stock and ranking rise. That, however, is easier to say than it is to pull off on a team rebuilding with a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds. There are bound to be a lot of long nights in against the QMJHL’s heavyweights.

The abundance of USNTDP-schooled goaltenders at the top of this list is now strange alignment of the stars—they’re clearly doing something right in Ann Arbor. Likewise, McDonald’s story is his own, but also the plight of a lot of draft-eligible goaltenders in the CHL—they’re either playing too little or playing more but in bad situations.

What to do about it is a question that can only be answered once everyone accepts that the issue is real: Whatever our strengths in player development might be, we’re poorly serving a generation of goaltending prospects. It might be that these kids at 16 and 17 would benefit from playing more in Jr. A or the USHL or whatever than being back-ups in the CHL. It’s working for the other guys.

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