About a month ago I set out to try to explain why a disproportionate amount of goalies end up being busts. I started by looking at every bust in a ten year span to see if they had anything in common. I had already long believed, and still believe, that teams just don’t know enough about goaltending to accurately draft them. Although, I wanted to see if there were any on-paper trends. Among the goaltenders taken in the first round between the 2005 and 2015 drafts, there were seven 1st round busts. That’s pretty staggering considering only 13 goalies were taken in the 1st round over that time. That’s only a 46% success rate. In those seven, two clear trends arised. Of the seven, every single one of them either played in the CHL or had uncharacteristically good international tournament performances compared to okay regular season results.
Five of the seven busts from 2005-2015 played in the Canadian Hockey League during their draft year. What I’ve found is that goaltenders coming out of the CHL tend to be overvalued. Why that is can be debated, but I’d consider that the CHL model likely isn’t a good way to develop a goaltender. CHLers have to jump straight from juniors to the AHL, a massive leap that can throw off the development of a goalie. The change in pace of play can be a shock to goalies who have to immediately adjust their game to keep up. This, compared to Europeans who get to be slowly introduced to pro hockey. Oftentimes they’ll get to practice with their pro team while still playing juniors, or get promoted to play in the 2nd tier pro league in their country, which is much more forgiving. This leads to a smoother transition into pro hockey rather than just being thrown to the wolves.
Another thing could be that the CHL gets the most exposure of any league to NHL scouts. CHLers get more viewings and are talked about more at NHL draft tables. With a bigger spotlight what tends to happen is that guys can get overhyped very quickly and easily. This would also make sense because a vast majority of 1st round goalie picks are Canadian, but if you look at the makeup of today’s NHL the rate of Canadian goalies compared to other nations goes way down. To be specific, 66% of 1st rounders are Canadian, but only 34% of the top 50 NHL goalies (min 10GP) are Canadian. That’s pretty shocking when you think about it, how CHL goalies are so clearly very overvalued. Oftentimes these guys really had no business being in the first to begin with. A lot of them either had breakout seasons or didn’t even have a great season. One thing to look for in a top goaltending prospect is not only how many pucks they’re stopping but for how long they’ve done it for. They should not only have very high save percentages, but also have a history of having very high save percentages. You can’t draft a goalie early based off of only one season of success. Looking at a goalie like Andrei Vasilevskiy, he had been talked about as Team Russia’s goalie of the future since he was 15. Often highly drafted CHL goalies lack one of these two key statistical traits.
Of course all of this isn’t to say a CHL goalie can’t have success. Obviously great goalies have come out of that league with tremendous results. Although the ones that do have had very high save percentages for multiple years leading up to their draft year. For example, Carter Hart was top 5 in WHL save percentage and led the WHL in playoff save percentage all in his rookie year before going on to win CHL Goalie of the Year in his draft year. Carey Price is another good example, he was statistically a top 5 WHL goalie in his draft year while playing on an atrocious Tri-City team. That’s the type of profile you should be looking for in a CHL goalie that should go in the 1st round.
Another common trend in busts is great performance in international competition without the same results in the regular season. I mentioned how 5 out of 7 goalies came from the CHL and the other two I left out (Jack Campbell and Riku Helenius) both had strong performances on the international stage. Jack Campbell played for team USA at the U18s and U20s where he won gold at each and performed extremely well at both. Riku Helenius competed at the U18s for Finland where he posted a whopping .942 save percentage. While both goalies showed well in regular season play, it should not have justified a first round pick. International tournaments are almost always overvalued when scouting a prospect. Campbell and Helenius played a combined 15 international games, but played 65 regular season games. Still, those international games served as reason enough for teams to draft them in the first round.
Although this trend may seem like a bit of a coincidence; out of the 7 busts in a 10 year time span every single one of them fit into two categories? So I decided to expand my search. I went into every single draft since 1990 and looked at every 1st round goalie pick and organized them into 4 categories: CHL Busts, International Performance (busts), Unexplained Busts, and Successes. Here’s what I came up with:
So out of 28 total busts how many fit into those two categories? 25… TWENTY FIVE! That’s ridiculous! 90% of recent goalie busts have one of two things in common and nobody has noticed it?! When 90% of busts can be this easily identified you’d think it would be found out pretty fast. This, to me, breaks the notion that goalies are unpredictable. If you avoid two easily identifiable aspects the success rate of a goalie 1st round draft pick goes from 40% to much closer to the success rate of a skater at 80% (According to Bleacher Report).
The three that I can’t explain are: Marek Schwarz, Evgeni Ryabchikov, and Jason Bacashihua. Marek Schwarz had extremely good showings in international tournaments, but also fared very well in the Czech pro league at 18. Ryabchkiov played in the top Russian pro league in his draft year. No stats are available for that league so it’s hard to judge there. I don’t have an explanation for why those two didn’t pan out, but the fact that Jason Bacashihua went in the 1st round boggles my mind. He was an average goalie in the NAHL (not a great league). I had to do a double take while looking at his stats. If you take him out of this experiment completely then 25 of 27 or 93% of the busts fit into the two categories.
One that I’m counting in the busts due to international play is Rick DiPietro, and because he was so high profile I think it’s worth highlighting him. He was a good goalie for Boston University, but not anywhere near first overall good. DiPietro was 21st in NCAA save percentage while playing behind a very good Boston University team that was ranked top 5 in the nation by the end of the season. He then went on to play very well for Team USA at the World Juniors where he posted a whopping .935. While I think that DiPietro still goes in the 1st round without that international performance, he doesn’t go 1st overall. Consider too that DiPietro had injury troubles and probably would’ve been a worthy 1st rounder without injuries. In addition, the 2000 draft was exceptionally weak with the leading point getter being Marian Gaborik with 815, but even then it drops off fast after Gaborik.
Al Montoya is also similar to DiPietro. He was 25th in NCAA save percentage while playing for the University of Michigan who were also top 5 in the nation, but put up a .944 at the World Juniors. He went 6th. Without the World Juniors he still goes 1st round, but not nearly as high. Although considering he still had an alright NHL career, he wouldn’t have been a bad pick in the late 1st.
Some people might argue that “over performance in international competition” is too broad, but let’s look into that. I’ve already covered four of the seven guys who fit into that category, the other three are: Hannu Toivonen, Ari Ahonen, and Mika Noronen. Both Toivonen and Ahonen played in the Finnish junior league and posted a .911 and .906 respectively. Frankly, that is nowhere near 1st round calibre. Joel Blomqvist is a prospect for this year’s draft and he’s expected to go in the 2nd round while having a .931 in the same league. Lastly, Mika Noronen played five games in the Finnish pro league in his draft year and posted a .876. The three of them then went on to play at the U18s and had a .930, .940, and .945. Without those performances I highly doubt they go in the 1st.
Taking this all into account it is pretty clear that the goaltending disasters of the past could have been fairly easily avoided. By exercising caution with CHL goalies and not overvaluing international competition we could drasitcally cut down on goalie busts. It also debunks the idea that drafting goalies is risky. So when people tell you that having a goalie in the first round isn’t worth the risk, link them to this article (please; I want the exposure).