You can have a down year. You can hit a gap. You can need a reboot.
But none of those things describes what’s happening with the Canadian junior team and its goaltending issues.
There are various and sundry crises in Canadian hockey and a few painfully soft goals that leaked through a couple of teenage netminders might not seem like such a big deal.
Middle-class families are priced out of the game—okay, you say that’s a real crisis and I agree wholeheartedly.
A couple of kids don’t make saves in a big game for a national team—if you say “Things happen,” I have to call you on that.
“Things happen” is an abbreviation of “things occasionally happen.”
“Things happen” doesn’t apply when it happens every year at the elite-development event, the world junior championship.
I don’t want to throw any poor kid under the bus. This isn’t about Carter Hart, who entered the WJC as Canada’s No. 1, or Connor Ingram, who has played the last two games. They are just the latest products of the problem.
Defenders of the status quo will say that hockey institutions in this country do a great job developing players and I wouldn’t object to the sentiment in broad strokes.
I’d just amend one word. We do a great job developing skaters.
If anybody disputes the idea that Carey Price is the best goaltender in the game, even that contrarian would have to concede that he’s in the top three.
The Canadiens drafted Price out of Tri-City in 2005. Since then a lot of Canadian kids have been stars on draft day: Toews, Stamkos, Doughty, Tavares and McDavid.
That’s just the start of the list. Conspicuously missing: goaltenders.
More to the point, a single goaltender.
Okay, Washington’s Braden Holtby earned First All-Star Team honours last season. We’ll see if Holtby is there for the long haul, a successor to Price when Olympic teams are named down the line. Maybe, maybe not.
If you look at the last seven NHL First and Second All-Star Teams, you’ll find a lot of turn-over in net: 13 goalies in all. (Only Henrik Lundqvist has been named twice.)
Three Canadians (Price, Holtby and Devan Dubnyk) are on that list along with four Americans, three Russians, two Finns and Lundqvist.
Neither Holtby (draft class of 2008) or Dubnyk (2004) played for Canada at the WJC.
Look at the last Canadian teams that won at U20s: In the Ottawa tournament in 2010 the No. 1 goaltender was Dustin Tokarski, who plateaued as a NHL back-up; in 2015 it was Zach Fucale, who is in the East Coast league and is basically a wash-out in the Canadiens organization.
Selection to the Canadian under-20s doesn’t guarantee every player on the roster a place in the NHL down the line—every year the line-up features kids who don’t stick in the league or even get a sniff. In goal, though, it’s even more dramatic.
In 2011 it was Mark Visentin, the kid swallowed up by the Russians in the gold-medal game—last spotted in the East Coast Hockey League.
In 2012 Visentin was back but didn’t get the start in the semi-final, a loss to Russia. He ended up coming in mid-game for Scott Wedgewood, who has since played four games with New Jersey last year and might have an NHL future, probably as a back-up.
In 2013 and ’14 there’s no uptick: Malcolm Subban and Jordan Binnington are currently toiling in the AHL and seem to have hit the wall there, and Jake Paterson is in the East Coast league.
There isn’t a John Gibson among them. The closest thing to Gibson among young Canadian goaltenders is the Penguins’ Matt Murray, who wasn’t on Hockey Canada’s radar.
Accept as fact that there is a problem in developing goaltenders in this country. Then move beyond the phenomenon to the cause and the solution.
CHL teams lean on 19-year-olds and over-agers as starters, and the vast majority of kids younger than that are back-ups and infrequently used ones at that. Carter Hart might count himself lucky to get two starts as a 16-year-old and 30 at 17. And he still had a big jump on Connor Ingram, who didn’t even play in the WHL until his first year of NHL draft-eligibility.
One NHL scout, a former goaltender, told me this week that until the younger goalies see real action in the run-up to their draft years it’s going to be an issue. The CHL imposed a ban on European goaltenders a few years back and maybe we’ll see the fruits of that legislation down the line. Really, though, the league needs to get young goaltenders playing more and watching less at 16 and 17.