Taking a Goalie in the First Round: Is the Risk Worth the Potential Reward?

On Friday, there will be buzz.

Who will go number one? Will the Edmonton Oilers trade their number one pick and draft a defenseman? How many blue-chip d-men will go in the top 10? When will the first Canadian forward be drafted? Who will teams reach for? Who will fall?

An interminable amount of questions will be asked, but one trend should halt: goalies will stop their free-fall in the draft rankings.

Following the lockout, taking goalies with a number one pick became a faux pas. A cursory look around the league’s starting goalies will tell you the NHL is shifting towards whoever can play nets, not necessarily who has the highest ceiling between the pipes. For every Cam Ward (25th overall) or Carey Price (5th overall), there is Pekka Rinne (258) or Henrik Lundqvist (205). The need for taking a top-flight goaler in the NHL Draft simply isn’t a necessity anymore.

However, the current crop of future netminders may have enough talent to push desperate teams in their direction. Even if these potential starters aren’t taken in the top half of the opening round like an Al Montoya (6th) or Riku Helenius (15th), their capability to turn into top-tier ‘tenders is invaluable to any team looking to re-stock their cupboards.

The story will remain centered around the defenseman, and the inexhaustible fail-for-Nail campaign as Friday approaches, but this crop of goalies really should not be taken for granted.

Matthew Murray

Matt Murray of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL Images)

The Players

Several netminders should be selected in both the first and second round of this weekend’s draft for a plethora of reasons. For one, the draft crop for starting goalies is particularly strong, especially compared to the weak forward ranks. Second, and perhaps more importantly, almost every World Junior Hockey Championship team — a tournament that makes or breaks prospects — watched their starter graduate last season, opening the door for a few can’t-miss prospects.

Team Canada will miss Scott Wedgewood and Mark Visentin; Team USA loses Jack Campbell to the AHL and/or Dallas Stars; Team Sweden will miss the troika of Anton Forsberg, Johan Gustafsson, and Johan Mattsson. And of course, the draft-eligible Andrei Vasilevski is expected to help Team Russia reclaim the gold medal in January (his backup Andrey Makarov is also draft-eligible and could be the steal of the draft if he stays in North America).

The loss of these players should be an excellent opportunity for several 2012 draftees to step up on a monumental stage. Malcolm Subban is likely the one guaranteed first rounder, as he is expected to win his country’s confidence for the WJHC. By that same token, talented Canadian goalers like Matt Murray, Brandon Whitney, and Jake Paterson also have a crack at the opening. Similarly, the US will evaluate Jon Gillies and Anthony Stolarz as they look to beat out John Gibson and Garret Sparks for a job. But perhaps the most intriguing option has to be the uber-talented Oscar Dansk, who should be a shoo-in for the gold-medal defending Swedes.

In the past, several trends have pushed goalies into the first round. Campbell’s standout performance for the gold medal winning 2010 Team USA WJHC team vaulted him into a first round selection. Chet Pickard earned his 18th overall selection in 2008 after leading his Tri-City Americans to their first ever WHL Western Conference Final.

In 2006– the last draft to see a legitimate first-round run on goalies — goalies were chosen on both their past success, and their future potential. Riku Helenius was taken 15th overall, mainly because he was a boy playing a man’s game in the SM-liiga. Likewise, Semyon Varlamov had great potential as the future starting goalie of the KHL’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.  Leland Irving was seen as a very safe pick at 26 as one of the best goalies in the WHL, at the helm of a very strong Everett Silvertips squad. Jonathan Bernier’s showed great promise in his draft year, and the Los Angeles Kings saw just that. Just one year later his now-defunct Lewiston MAINEiacs team won the QMJHL title in 2007, and narrowly lost in the Memorial Cup round robin.

Outside of Vasilevski, taking netminders this season will all be on potential. Yet there remains similarities between 2006 and present day. Frank Palazzese of the Kitchener Rangers, Michael Houser of the London Knights, and Paterson in Saginaw all saw varying levels of success in the OHL playoffs. Likewise, Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades will play in next year’s Memorial Cup, and Francois Brassard is expected to take over the powerhouse Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. Others like Etienne Marcoux of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Joonas Korpisalo of Jokerit also show great potential due to their current environment.

Again, all the buzz will stick with the defenders, but there is plenty of goaltending talent in the midst of a barren crop of forwards. But is that enough to sway league general managers to start investing higher picks on a future goalie?

(Arnold C, User:Buchanan-Hermit/Wikimedia)

The Trend

For whatever reason, league GMs have been especially stingy with their top round picks. The preference is for a top-flight forward, an ‘enigmatic’ forward with potential, or even a project player. Defensemen have slipped in past years with only veritable top picks like Victor Hedman and Adam Larsson making their way into the draft lottery. And as previously alluded to, goalies have taken the worst hit in value, with their top ranked players slipping into the second and third rounds for most of the post-lockout drafts.

The chart below indicates the slip between first rounders taken pre-lockout (2000-2005) and post.

We touched on the subject in the last section but 2006 saw a renaissance of sorts with Bernier, Irving, Helenius, and Varlamov all going in the first. Four goalies in the first round marks the high-water mark for the 11 cataloged drafts, but it also is the same number of goalies taken from 2007-2011 — a trend that seems simply ridiculous. If you didn’t dominate like Campbell or Pickard, chances are your draft stock strikingly falls .

As an aside, recall a top prospect named by the name of Billy Sauer. Sauer, who has no relation to defensemen Michael and Kurt, was ultimately taken in the 7th round by the Colorado Avalanche. At the time he was an up-and-comer with the University of Michigan, and a lock to take over as the starter in his sophomore season. Most mock drafts listed him as the third or fourth best goalie in his class, taken no later than the second round. At this point, it became apparent that general managers would rather risk that higher pick on a boom-or-bust skater, rather than risk it on a gifted but volatile goalie. And with 20/20 hindsight, Sauer never made it above the AHL, getting a 15-game look back in 2009-2010. Perhaps it is cases like these that prevent teams from pulling the trigger on a talented goaler.

Continuing on, the quality of first round picks has especially waned since the beginning of the Noughties. While Rick DiPietro, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kari Lehtonen casually strolled their way into the lottery three times over a four year span, only one more pick — Carey Price — was selected with the a top-5 pick after 2003, and even then he was considered a risky move and, essentially, off the board.

The blue color denotes a lottery pick, which clearly doesn’t exist past 2005. The purple 5-10 range also doesn’t make it past 2004 with Bernier and Campbell at 11 marking the highest selections of the concussion era. Not only are the number of first rounders spent decreasing, but the quality is as well. Moreover, there isn’t any indication that the latter trend will end this year as Subban– arguably the top-rated ’93-’94 ‘tender– probably goes in the 20-30 range.

So will the rest of the top-flight youngsters fall into the same trend?

Magnus Hellberg was the first goalie taken in 2011, falling to 38th overall (Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

The Exception?

The general consensus on the 2012 NHL Draft is mediocre. It isn’t the greatest crop, and certainly not the worst. The lack of forwards would lead an educated guess into believing the forwards get taken first, and quickly. The defenseman will likely consume pick after pick as the goalies remain a wild card.

If the latter part of the first round is weaker than the rest, does that mean teams will draft according to need– otherwise an indiscretion in the industry. Subban is essentially a shoe-in for the first round; others like Dansk or Vasilevski could creep into the first if a second team finds the need for a potential number one. The New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, among a few others, could all use a bit of an upgrade in their crease and pipeline. And due to the plethora of talent, we may see an exception in the last third of the first.

Over the last few years picks 25-35 have been relatively interchangeable as players projected in the 30s or 40s simply won’t be there again when a good team steps up to the podium with their second round pick. Is it really a reach to take a goalie if that is the player you really want? Furthermore, what would stop a team like the Blackhawks from taking Jake Paterson in the first if they really like what they saw this season. Similarly, what about the Flyers reaching at 20 to nab Matt Murray if their projected list of players are off the board.

In a weaker or relatively mediocre draft, what is stopping teams from reaching for an athletic and well-projected starting goalie? Will this draft be the year of the exception?

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