Spencer Knight wouldn’t mind being the next Carter Hart — a goalie turning heads as a 20-year-old in the NHL.
If he winds up like Jordan Binnington, a netminder forced to take a long and winding road before finally getting his shot at age 25, that’s OK too.
Just as long as he gets there.
With the first round of the NHL draft set for next Friday in Vancouver, this year’s crop of goalie hopefuls know it’s unlikely they’ll hear their names called early by teams stepping to the microphone at Rogers Arena.
That’s just the reality of playing the position in 2019.
“I’m not really worried about where I go,” said Knight, a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program and the top-ranked North American puck-stopper. “At the end of the day there’s nothing different about you, regardless of where you go.”
Teams Wait to Draft Goalies
No goalie has been selected in the top-10 since Carey Price went No. 5 to the Montreal Canadiens in 2005. Marc-Andre Fleury was chosen No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, but those two studs have been the exception instead of the rule over the last 15 years.
Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said one reason goalie stocks have fallen at the top of recent drafts comes down to teams needing to be 100 per cent convinced “a player’s going to be a cornerstone.”
With goalies, there’s often too many unknowns at a position that can take a long time to develop. It’s also hard to know how a 17- or 18-year-old will one day deal with adversity — a crucial element of their craft — under the microscope in an NHL crease.
“The mental side of the game for goalies is just as important as the physical side,” Marr said. “There are intangibles you can’t test for.”
At the 2018 draft in Dallas, a goalie didn’t come off the board until the New York Rangers took Olof Lindbom at No. 39 to begin a run of 39 getting selected by 23 teams from rounds two through seven.
Colorado Avalanche director of amateur scouting Alan Hepple — whose club owns five selections in the first three rounds next week, including No. 4 and No. 16 — said it comes down maximizing a pick’s potential.
“You have to be patient (with goalies),” he said. “You have to be willing to have some growing pains.
“The value on a guy might not be as high in the first round as say in the third round.”
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who won this season’s Ontario Hockey League goalie of the year award with the Sudbury Wolves, was selected 57th by the Buffalo Sabres in 2017.
“You want to get drafted high because it shows the team that takes you really believes in you,” he said. “In the end it’s realizing it’s not the number of your pick.
“How you work after that is what matters.”
NHL teams tend to focus on size with goalies — four of the top-5 North American prospects stand six foot four or taller, with Mads Sogaard of the Medicine Hat Tigers towering over everyone at 6-8 — which also shrinks the pool of potential options.
“I don’t know if that’s been proven to be the best way, but a lot of successful, higher-paid goalies are tall,” Marr said. “Teams have hesitated to take some of the smaller goalies.”
Goalies Aren’t a Sure Thing
Getting a premiere talent at forward or defence is also much more of a sure thing than a goalie that could be five years away from cracking the roster.
“The past couple years the skater calibre in the draft has been exceptional,” said Prince George Cougars netminder Taylor Gauthier, ranked seventh in North America this year. “It doesn’t mean the goalies are getting worse. It’s just that players are good and someone’s got to take the fall.
“It’s disappointing, but you’ve just got to hope to hear your name called.”
Selected 48th overall by the Flyers in 2016, Hart benefited from a crowded goalie sick bay in Philadelphia this season. He went 16-13-1 — including an eight-game winning streak from Jan. 14 to Feb. 9 — to go along with a .917 save percentage and a 2.83 goals-against average after getting recalled from the American Hockey League in December.
And then there’s Binnington, a mid-season call-up by St. Louis, who grabbed the starting job and wound up backstopping the Blues to their first-ever Stanley Cup.
Drafted 88th in 2011, Binnington spent five full seasons in the minors before getting his chance in January. He was placed on waivers in September and began 2018-19 as an AHL backup, but went 24-5-1 — propelled by a nine-game winning streak — with a .927 save percentage, a 1.89 GAA and five shutouts as St. Louis surged from last in the standings to make the playoffs.
“Things can change quick for goalies,” said Marr, who is already eyeing Russian netminder Yaroslav Askarov as a coveted draft option 12 months from now. “It’s about the maturity and preparedness of these guys.
“Jordan … right place, right time, right opportunity.”
It’s a story that should give the goalies selected next week — and even the ones that aren’t — hope for the future no matter where they’re picked.
“It just depends on the person,” Knight said. “There’s more than one path to the NHL.”
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press