If Developing Goaltenders is Alchemy, Are These Guys Alchemists?

Photo by Resolute, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution License

After reading Derek Zona's piece on Tyler Bunz here - where he goes on record as "comparing the process of developing goaltenders to alchemy" - and perusing Scott Reynolds' piece comparing goaltenders to their draft positions (Drafting Goaltenders (1997-2005), I decided to take a look at organizational success at developing goaltenders. Reynolds' piece would seem to indicate that outside of the top few picks draft position is a lousy predictor of a goaltender's future development and success. I have no argument with that. However, if draft position is a poor predictor of a goaltender's future development and success, perhaps there is a better predictor? What about an organizational factor? With that in mind, I took a look at starting goalies in the NHL and which organizations they have come from.

First off, I agree with Derek Zona and Scott Reynolds that producing goaltenders is far from an exact science and that draft position outside of the top few picks means very little as a predictor of a goaltender's future success. However, a first glance at recent starter-quality goaltenders (including platoon starters) from the last decade or so and where they developed leads me to believe that if goaltender development is alchemy, a select few organizations may very well be alchemists. That is, some teams may have, at least to a certain extent, "figured out" how to effectively spot goaltending ability and develop goaltenders.

Before getting started, a few definitions. I have separated goalies into three categories:

  • A clear-cut starting goalie is someone who starts at least 60% of his team's games.
  • Goalies who start 40%-60% off their team's games are considered "platoon starters".
  • Anything less than 40% is a clear backup.

By these definitions, 23 NHL teams have a clear starting goaltender while seven teams have some sort of platoon system. The platoon teams are Colorado, Columbus, Edmonton, Florida, the Islanders, St. Louis and Toronto. They have 12 platoon starters between them (I know it seems odd, but due to injuries the Islanders and Panthers have only one goalie with 40%+ starts). This means there are 35 "starting" goaltenders currently in the NHL. One could argue - and I would agree with them - that Florida, the Islanders, and Toronto all have clear starters (Jose Theodore, Evgeni Nabokov, James Reimer) who currently start fewer than 60% of the time only due to injury. However, for the sake of sticking to definitions I will consider these three to be platoon starters.

Now, those few organizations and their significant goaltending successes who played in the last decade are:

Asterisks Explained:

  • Patrick Roy really pushes "last decade or so" to the brink, having retired after the 2002-2003 season. Furthermore, while he came up the ranks in the 80s, all of the other goalies on this list developed in the late 90s or 2000s. He is a definite outlier, but he is nonetheless a product of the Canadiens' system.
  • Tomas Vokoun was drafted in 1994 and stayed in the Canadiens' organization until 1998 but only saw action in one NHL game before being acquired by Nashville in the expansion draft. He then split parts of two seasons with the Predators and their farm team before becoming a full time NHLer.
  • Chris Mason was drafted by the Devils and played one season (47 games) for their AHL affiliate. However, I am considering him a product of the Predators' organization as he spent considerably more time in their system (5 seasons and 172 GP in the AHL, as well as NHL call-ups) than he did with the Devils prior to becoming an NHL regular.
  • Jonathan Bernier has just 38 career starts at this point. Whether his opportunity to start comes with the Kings or elsewhere remains unclear, but every indication is that Bernier may already be a "starter-quality" goalie and barring injury he will eventually be given the opportunity to start. Again, barring injury, he seems a sure bet to have multiple 40%+ start seasons.
  • Thomas Greiss is somewhat of a personal favourite. I consider him to be better than several current starting NHL goalies and thus "starter-quality". He may never get an opportunity to start, but I somewhat expect him to be given an opportunity to start, at least as a platoon starter, when his contract expires.

Youngsters and Roy aside, regardless of what you think of these players and their recent play, they have all been at least platoon starters at some point. In addition, they have all achieved a degree of longevity, which is important in order to weed out backup goaltenders who may have started 40%+ or more games due to an injury to the true starter (Scott Clemmenson in 08-09, for example). Among the starters who appear questionable at first glance, Mathieu Garon has had six seasons of 30+ GP, Gerber had five consecutive seasons of 25+ starts (including two seasons of 55+ starts), and Toskala had four consecutive seasons of 30+ starts as well as 242 career starts. The rest have unquestionably been starting goaltenders and many continue to start for their current teams.

Each of these teams has produced at least 3 starting-quality goaltenders, with the exception of perhaps Nashville. I consider the situation with Vokoun questionable since Vokoun spent 4 years in the Canadiens' organization. However, as he spent parts of two seasons with the Predators' affiliate and made the jump to the NHL with the Predators, I felt the need to give Nashville at least partial credit for developing Tomas Vokoun.

Of the 23 clear starters and 12 platoon starters in today's NHL, these five teams have developed 8 clear starters and 3 platoon starters for this season. Accounting for the injury situations in New York and Florida, one could even argue that these teams developed 10 clear starters and just one platoon starter. Either way, that's five teams, or 16.7% of the league, accounting for 31% of the league's starting goalies. Furthermore, if you attribute Vokoun's success to his time in the Montreal system and argue Nashville doesn't belong on this list (a fair point), the remaining four teams, or 13.3% of the league, account for 10 (28.6%) of this seasons starting goaltenders.

Alright, these teams clearly produce a disproportionate amount of starting-quality goaltenders relative to other teams, accounting for 11 current starters out of just 35. Furthermore, looking back a few years, that total would be even higher as Theodore (a current platoon starter), Mason (a current clear backup), Toskala (out of the league), Gerber (current AHLer), and Huet (out of the league) were all starting goalies for their respective teams just a few seasons ago. In 2007-2008, for example, Chris Mason's 45 starts make him the only one of the five of the aforementioned goaltenders to start fewer than 50 games that season. But what about elite goaltenders? Looking at the past 10 seasons, these 5 teams and their goaltending products have accounted for

  • 8 Vezina nominations, or 26.6% of all Vezina nominations during the previous decade
  • 2 Vezina winners, with Kiprusoff and Theodore both winning the Vezina once
  • 2 Hart nominees
  • 1 Hart winner
  • If we want to go back farther than 10 years to include all of Patrick Roy's awards, that makes five Vezina wins as well as several more nominations

Now it would appear as though these teams produce a disproportionate amount of starting-quality goaltenders and, by extension, a disproportionate number of elite goaltenders too. However, one thing not taken into account here (which I looked at briefly but decided to put off until later) is the number of goalies drafted by each team. That is, do these teams have a greater success rate at developing goaltenders or, alternatively, do they just draft more of them than the other teams? Put otherwise, is it the quantity of goaltenders drafted or the quality of developing them that allows these teams to develop a disproportionate amount of good goaltenders? Perhaps a combination of the two with some these teams achieving their success through quality while others achieved their success through quantity? This is an important factor that I intend to look into in the near future.

However, this being an Oilers-centric blog, I did look at the Oilers' draft history to see how this relates to the Oilers. How successful has Edmonton been at developing goaltenders? Unfortunately, what I found was quite ugly. Getting back to what led me down this road, because of this I don't have high hopes for Tyler Bunz. Devan Dubnyk, currently with 41.3% of the starts, is in his first season of 40%+ starts. We're not sure what the future holds for Dubnyk and he has yet to achieve longevity as a starting goaltender, but his current start % makes him a platoon starter by my definition. If Dubnyk continues at this rate (and it appears he will, since Nikolai Khabibulin will miss at least the next week), this would also mark the first season that an Oilers-developed goalie has started 40% or more of the team's games since Ty Conklin got 42.7% of the team's starts in 2003-2004. Essentially, Devan Dubnyk, who has barely achieved anything at this point in his career, is already the best goaltender the Oilers have developed in the last decade. He's the best homegrown goaltending talent since Ty Conklin.

If that sounds bad, it's because it is. But wait, it gets worse. Conklin started 42.7% of the team's games in 03-04 only due to injuries to starter Tommy Salo. Outside of Conklin's one injury fill-in season, Dubnyk's current season would mark the first time a goaltender developed by the Oilers has started 40% of his team's games since Grant Fuhr, the Oilers' 8th overall draft choice in 1981. Fuhr turned out pretty damn well, but he also hasn't been the Oilers' starter since the late 80s. Thus, put another way, Devan Dubnyk - who has barely any major achievements to speak of at this point - may have already achieved enough to make him the best Oilers-developed goaltender in 30 years. And Dubnyk's only real competition for that honour is Ty Conklin. Not good.

As Scott Reynolds displayed here, a goaltender's draft position outside of the top 5 seems to mean little. Picks from #6 overall until the end of the 3rd round appear to turn into successful goaltenders more often than late picks though, spawning a successful goalie about 20% of the time (15 successes out of 77 picks) compared to just a 10.1% success rate for picks later than round 3. When you pile on that the Oilers drafted 26 goaltenders - including five drafted in the top 3 rounds - between drafting Fuhr and Dubnyk, plus who knows how many undrafted free agents like Conklin, the Oilers' record at developing goaltenders looks downright pathetic. For the sake of comparison, the Canadiens drafted 22 goaltenders in the same period, also had five selections in the first three rounds, and developed five starters, two Vezina trophy winners and one Hart trophy winner. ( In addition, as an interesting if only somewhat related aside, one of those 22 draft choices was pretty much wasted on Vladislav Tretiak in the hopes that he would come to the NHL, essentially making the Canadiens' success rate 5/21.)

Whatever that "it" factor is that it takes to develop goaltenders - the scouting, the coaching, the system, the environment, the organization, perhaps the alignment of the moon - the Oilers clearly don't have it. Upon first glance though, some NHL teams seem to be quite effective at developing goaltenders regardless of draft position. Call it witchcraft or alchemy or whatever you want, but it appears that some teams have figured the process out. Sort of.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.

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