Predicting NHL goaltenders an inexact science

The Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Tommy McVie played his first pro hockey game back in 1956 for the Toledo Mercurys, on a roster full of guys called Butch, Buddy, and Skip. And some poor netminder named Al Bennett who appears to have played every minute of every Mercury game that season.

Since then, McVie’s gravelly voice and well-worn suitcase have taken him through nearly two decades in the minors, another 25 years as an NHL, WHA and AHL coach, and now through to age 79 on an open-ended contract to scout for the team whose colours he bleeds, the Boston Bruins.

McVie has seen more games than God, and heard more inside tales than Omaha Donna, herself one of hockey’s great inside tales. But the one thing he’ll never tell you he’s an expert on?

“Goaltenders,” he begins. “One time a guy said to me, ‘McVie, the only thing you know about goaltending was when you played they were hard to score against.’ All’s I know, since about 1974 I’ve been at the draft table. I’d hear one scout say to the other, ‘This goaltender, he really caught my eye.’ And the other would say. ‘Goaltender?!? We’re not using a second or third round pick on a goaltender.’

“When I first started going to the draft, the goalie was like an alien. Now, they say that goaltending is 85% of your team. But we won’t spend a fourth or fifth round pick on one? How’s that?”

The NHL and its people are, by and large, completely befuddled by the position. Consider:

  • In consecutive years, Toronto drafted both World Junior netminders Justin Pogge (2004) and Tuukka Rask (2005). Then one day they cast an eye towards Boston’s backup, Andrew Raycroft. Today, Rask is a franchise goalie in Boston, while Pogge was last seen in Sweden, long removed from an illustrious seven-game NHL career.
  • In Winnipeg, the Jets invested $19.5 million over five years into Ondrej Pavelec. Today the Jets are finally good — very good — and it is largely due to the steadying influence of Michael Hutchinson, who earns roughly one-seventh of Pavelec’s pay. Who drafted Hutchinson, originally? Why, Boston, of course.
  • In Edmonton, the Oilers painstakingly groomed Devan Dubnyk through nearly a decade before handing him the No. 1 job. He quickly imploded, was sent to Nashville where he was declared to be an abject mess, and finished last season in the minors. Today Dubnyk is the hottest goalie in the NHL, and Edmonton is going with Ben Scrivens — while hunting for an upgrade as we speak.
  • Scrivens, of course, was used by the Leafs to help pry backup Jonathan Bernier out of Los Angeles. It was quite a coup — Scrivens, Matt Frattin and a second round pick for Bernier. We’ve now seen Bernier play for two seasons. He is good, but not Carey-Price good as Leafs fans had hoped for. Edmonton, meanwhile, is among the teams interested in the next great Kings backup, Martin Jones.

    Jones, of course, was so highly regarded coming out of the junior Calgary Hitmen that nobody drafted him.

  • The twice-dealt Ben Bishop was last swapped for a fourth round pick and Cory Conacher. Today, Bishop is elite, Conacher is on Vancouver’s farm, and the Canucks — who had more collective goaltender than any team ion the NHL not long ago — have Ryan Miller, whose numbers are almost identical to Bishop’s, with a cap hit of more than twice as much.
  • So, how do NHL teams get better at identifying the applicants for the most important position in the game?

    “If I really, really, had the answer,” said my friend and colleague, Kevin Woodley of InGoal Magazine, “I’d be making a lot more money and working for an NHL team. The late-blooming nature of goalies, it’s a problem.”

    Analytics should help this science, Woodley points out, as should the latest phenomenon, something called “Head Trajectory” that is being largely credited for Dubnyk’s resurgence. Naturally, Head Trajectory is the intellectual property of an ex-goalie who managed just 46 NHL games in 14 pro seasons: one Stephen Valiquette, a career backup and minor league stalwart.

    Hey, how many NHL games did Francois Allaire play? Or Urpo Ylönen, the legendary goalie whisperer of Finland? (Answer: zero combined.)

    And it’s not a problem that Ikea seems any closer to solving. Sweden has given the NHL scores of legendary players over the years, yet only two of the lot were goalies — Henrik Lundqvist and Pelle Lindbergh. The rest have simply been the Billy bookshelf to some Finnish or Quebecois big screen TV.

    The latest conundrum is Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom, who got in a solid 7:45 of action before being pulled with a 3-0 deficit Tuesday night. “He’s this massive body, but does he have an NHL ‘block-react threshold,’” asks Woodley. “When does he default to the ‘close the holes and hope it hits me mentality?’”

    I’m not even sure what language Woodley is speaking, half of the time. But I do get it when he predicts that, after a wave of French Canadians, followed by a wave of Finns, the next great goalie factory is going to be Russia.

    Why? “Because they haven’t been coached.”


    Now, can someone tell me, who the hell is Andrew Hammond and where did he come from?

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