Without question, some organizations are clearly better than others at drafting NHL calibre goaltenders. Others have managed to remain competitive by identifying and acquiring prospects drafted by other organizations while a few have managed to sign goaltenders that went over-looked in the draft, signing them as free agents.
Strategy over the drafting of goaltenders has always been a topic of much debate and everyone has their own strongly held opinions. Are they worth a first round pick, perhaps even a lottery pick? Can goalies of comparable talent be found in the later rounds of the draft and what, if anything has changed as the number of draft rounds has diminished over the years, especially since the lockout?
I decided to undertake a comprehensive study of more than 650 goaltenders spanning 25 years, from 1985 to 2010 covering 26 NHL drafts. I’ve divided the years into 3 eras, based on the declining number of rounds to see how teams have adjusted. I’ll examine the draft rounds in detail over time to uncover the point where quantity and quality are optimal for today’s NHL, how successful teams have been over the years and how they’re positioned going forward. I’ll also examine how the major feeder leagues have fared providing the NHL with quality goaltenders and break down where the NHL is currently mining for the netminders of tomorrow.
So, what do I consider a “successful” draft pick to be? Everyone has an opinion of course but my criterion is not merely defined by a player who manages to play one NHL game. The criteria for a successful goalie are the same used in the NHL draft study I did this past summer: 80 NHL games played, 40 for 2005+ draft picks. Why 80 games? Goalies get credit towards earning an NHL pension so long as they dress for a game, therefore it’s the relative equivalent to the 160 games needed by skaters to qualify for an NHL pension, regardless if they played in the United States or Canada.
Because most of the 130+ goalies drafted since 2005 are still in the AHL, Europe, Canadian Junior, US minor or college leagues, etc or currently breaking into the NHL, they’ve been left out of the success rate calculations. Goalies that have played enough to qualify will be included in the organisational reports while all goalies drafted between 2005-2010 will be examined for changes in post-lockout drafting strategy after the number of rounds were reduced to 7.
The effects of fewer rounds
Much of the confusion of when goalies should be drafted is based on personal perception, comparing the rounds where NHL calibre goaltenders have been drafted in the past and believing it should be pretty much the same today. Not so. The first step is to examine the impact of fewer rounds on draft strategy over time. To isolate the impact I divided this study into three groups: 11+ rounds from 1985-1994, 9 rounds from 1995-2004 and the post lockout era of 7 rounds which began in 2005:
Percentage of goalies drafted by round
Two things stand out. First, while goalies get selected every round, the run on drafting them has typically occurred in the second half of the draft as many teams wait, not unlike those who draft kickers in fantasy football. How long teams can wait has been reduced so the run on goalies, regardless of anything else has generally shifted over time from rounds 9 and 10 to rounds 5-6.
Second, the trend has been shifting from drafting goalies in the second half of the draft to the first half. The current trend post-lockout, 60% into a decade since suggests that while teams are slightly less willing to use a 1st round pick than the decade before, it's still almost double what it was from 1985-1994. Same for the 2nd round.
Fewer rounds, fewer goalies drafted
Relative to the number of teams in the NHL during each era, the average number of goalies being drafted per team each year has been in steady, if slight decline. The average has decreased from 1.09 during the 1985-1994 period to 1.00 spanning 1995-2004 to .85 goalies drafted per team since the lockout. The fewer draft rounds means that today, some teams won't draft a goalie at all in a given year, something that might help explain the bump in undrafted goalies currently on NHL rosters and in their farm systems.
Better to draft a goalie early or late?
Now that we've examined quantity, let's look at where quality has been found over time to get a true sense of how NHL teams have adjusted their draft strategy to fewer draft rounds:
Success rate per round
What immediately jumps out is that teams were more than twice as likely (45.7% vs. 22.5%) to draft a quality goalie in the 1st four rounds from 1985-1994 with 37% fewer picks than the 1995-2004 era. Why? Because teams typically waited longer to draft goalies meaning there was more quality available for teams willing to use a higher pick to acquire them. The surge seen in the 9th round from 1985-1994 will be explained later when European goaltenders are studied. Overall however, the success rate fell from 22.4% on average to just 16.7 prior to the lockout.
Quality by round over time
What rounds have typically produced both quantity and quality goaltending over the years? By breaking down the draft years by round, a clear pattern emerges that demonstrates how teams are drafting successful goalies earlier than ever before. In short, the deeper into the draft you go, the further back in time you go to find quality netminders:
|1||2000||NY Islanders||Rick DiPietro*||295|
|1||1997||NY Islanders||Roberto Luongo*||636|
|1||1994||Los Angeles||Jamie Storr||219|
|1||1994||NY Rangers||Dan Cloutier||351|
|1||1990||New Jersey||Martin Brodeur*||1096|
|2||1987||Los Angeles||Mark Fitzpatrick||329|
|2||1987||NY Islanders||Jeff Hackett||500|
|2||1985||New Jersey||Sean Burke||820|
|2||1985||NY Rangers||Mike Richter||666|
|3||2005||Los Angeles||Jonathan Quick*||141|
|3||1999||Calgary||Craig Anderson* - Unsigned||195|
|3||1998||NY Rangers||Jason Labarbera*||130|
|3||1991||NY Islanders||Jamie McLennan||254|
|3||1990||New Jersey||Mike Dunham||394|
|4||1995||San Jose||Vesa Toskala||266|
|4||1991||NY Islanders||Milan Hnilicka||121|
|5||1995||San Jose||Miikka Kiprusoff*||485|
|5||1995||New Jersey||Chris Mason*||268|
|5||1993||NY Islanders||Tommy Salo||526|
|7||2002||Tampa Bay||Fredrik Norrena||100|
|7||2001||Los Angeles||Cristobal Huet||272|
|7||2000||NY Rangers||Henrik Lundqvist*||364|
|7||1997||NY Rangers||Johan Holmqvist||98|
|7||1985||St. Louis||Pat Jablonski||128|
|8||1997||New Jersey||Scott Clemmensen*||98|
|8||1991||NY Rangers||Corey Hirsch||108|
|8||1987||St. Louis||Guy Hebert||491|
|9||1994||San Jose||Evgeni Nabokov||563|
|10||1990||New Jersey||Corey Schwab||147|
Given that teams now typically draft less than one goalie per year and that the odds of selecting a quality netminder after the 3rd round has fallen to just 12.2% it's easy to understand why so many teams go several years, sometimes even a decade or longer before finding a quality goaltender. It also shows that the majority of teams still waiting until rounds 4, 5 and 6 need to re-think their draft strategy.
When should NHL teams target a goalie?
There's no question it's risky to spend a 1st round pick on a goalie. Using stats from my study of the NHL draft this past summer, the average success rate of a 1st round pick, regardless of position is 65% vs. 37% for goalies drafted in the decade before the lockout. Unless a team has a major organizational need or it's a relatively weak draft year for skaters, drafting goaltenders in the 1st round is a risky endeavour, even more so with a lottery pick.
The sweet spot now appears to be the 2nd round. The success rate for skaters drafted in the 2nd round drops to 27% vs. 25.9% for goalies drafted between 1995-2004. Given that teams typically select just one netminder, the 2nd round appears to be the best spot where the risk is comparable to all other positions.
Feeding the NHL draft - Who's providing the prospects?
This study wouldn't be complete without a hard look at the leagues primarily responsible for providing the NHL with its goaltending prospects. I've broken down Europe, the OHL, WHL, QMJHL and assorted North American leagues and examined how each has done, over time producing NHL draft picks:
1985-1994: Who's providing the prospects
Of the 29 European goalies drafted between 1985-1994, a third of them were drafted in the 9th round, half of those making the NHL. Even though Europeans only totalled 11.8% of all goaltenders drafted, they produced 31% of all successful NHL netminders, trailing only the WHL and QMJHL's contribution. No wonder Europe drew significant attention after 1994. The various other North American leagues were primarily only mined in the later rounds and even though their failure rate was a league-worst 88% they still managed to produce 13 goaltenders, more than any other league.
1995-2004: Who's providing the prospects
Duplication, the ultimate compliment. Once NHL teams realized others were having success in Europe drafting goalies, the flood gates opened. During the era of 1995-2004, NHL teams drafted more Europeans than any other league, increasing the number 2.5 times from 29 to 73. Despite a very poor showing in the first 4 rounds, Europe still produced more NHL goaltenders than any other league. Of the 25 European netminders drafted over the first 4 rounds, 10 were from Finland with just 2 making it; Kari Lehtonen and Vesa Toskala which suggests Finland was being over-drafted in the Euro gold rush.
2005-2010: Who's providing the prospects
Post-lockout, Europe still provides 25% of all goalies drafted by the NHL. The QMJHL has seen its percentage of NHL calibre goaltenders decline from 38.7% to 19.6% while the WHL has seen its number of quality goalies drop to 10.6%. The WHL decline is position specific however as the league overall is still very strong producing both quality and quantity at other positions.
The QMJHL decline however is reflective of a league-wide problem as there's been a significant drop in quality and quantity across the board compared to the previous decade. Most surprisingly, of the 41 goaltenders drafted from the QMJHL after the 3rd round since 1985, only one succeeded in the NHL, Patrick Lalime who was drafted in the 6th round back in 1993... 17 years ago.
Who's producing Europe's best?
A number of factors are in play but there's no question the lack of a IIHF player transfer agreement has had an impact on which countries NHL teams are going to, or more importantly, avoiding. Since the lockout, Sweden and Finland now produce a combined 64.7% of all goaltenders drafted from Europe. That's up from 49.9% in 1995-2004 and 44.8% from 1985-1994. They are also the two countries currently with the best relations with the NHL:
My study on the NHL's exodus from Europe explains the decline in continental Europe in detail though casual observers and league presidents would like everyone to believe it's just due to enrollment and financial issues, issues that are global concerns for the sport. The reality is that NHL teams, with just 7 draft picks are no longer willing to use them on players who aren't committed to playing in North America. Once a new PTA is in place, there will be more NHL teams willing to take a chance.
NHL Team reports - Past vs. present
To fully understand which teams have been more committed to drafting goaltenders, it's also important to look at how each are positioned today. Which teams have adjusted their drafting strategy for the post-lockout era of a 7 round draft? Are they still drafting late when all the evidence suggests the low frequency of drafting netminders combined with the low success rate of recent years in those late rounds means they'll likely go a decade or more before they luck into a quality player?
Below is a breakdown on the draft history of each NHL team. How many goalies they've selected over 26 draft years and a list of their goalies, in bold, who've managed to have some measure of success, in descending order from the year they were drafted. Also included is a current list of drafted netminders, in italics that were drafted by each organization who may still have a chance to succeed. Prospects that have been traded away are indicated:
|ANAHEIM - 15/18||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|Mattias Modig (Traded to PIT)||2007||4||121||0|
|ATLANTA - 11/12||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|BOSTON - 22/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|BUFFALO - 24/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|CALGARY - 20/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|Craig Anderson* Unsigned||1999||3||77||195|
|CAROLINA - 22/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|CHICAGO - 22/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|COLORADO - 36/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|COLUMBUS - 8/11||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|DALLAS - 26/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|DETROIT - 25/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|EDMONTON - 27/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|FLORIDA - 17/18||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|LOS ANGELES - 31/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|MINNESOTA - 9/11||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|MONTREAL - 21/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|NASHVILLE - 15/13||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|NEW JERSEY - 24/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|NY ISLANDERS - 27/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|NY RANGERS - 23/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|OTTAWA - 15/19||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|PHILADELPHIA - 33/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|PHOENIX - 28/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|PITTSBURGH - 27/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|Chad Johnson (Traded to NYR)||2006||5||125||5|
|SAN JOSE - 22/20||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|Timo Pielmeier (Traded to ANA)||2007||3||83||0|
|ST. LOUIS - 24/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|TAMPA BAY - 19/19||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|TORONTO - 19/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|Justin Pogge (Traded to CAR)||2004||3||90||7|
|VANCOUVER - 25/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
|WASHINGTON - 23/26||Year||Rd||#||GP|
For the most part, it's not for lack of trying that many teams struggle badly to draft an NHL calibre goaltender. That said, the teams least committed to drafting goalies at all are 1. Toronto 2. Calgary and 3. Ottawa, not just for the low number of draft picks used on netminders over the years but the weak pool of prospects in their systems today, a fact that suggests trades and free agents are a core belief in their organizational philosophy.
The worst drafting teams overall are 1. Vancouver 2. Edmonton 3. St. Louis 4. Calgary and 5. Tampa Bay, which by default means they must resort to trades and free agents. As shocked as I am to see so many Canadian teams struggle to find or in the case of some, not even try to find goaltenders, the Vancouver Canucks are easily the worst.
Since 1985, the Canucks haven't produced a single drafted goalie who went on to play 80 NHL games. To find the last one who did, you'd have to go back almost 30 years to Wendell Young, drafted in 1981 who managed to play 187 NHL games though just 30 with Vancouver.
If not for Jussi Markkanen's 128 games played, the Edmonton Oilers would also need to go back to 1981 for the last time a drafted goaltender played just 80 games. Fellow by the name of Grant Fuhr. The St. Louis Blues haven't produced a goalie since 1987 when they drafted Guy Hebert while Calgary hasn't produced anything since Trevor Kidd was selected in 1990. Tampa Bay drafted Fredrik Norrena in 2002 who's 100 NHL games played is the best goaltender the Lightning has ever produced in the 19 years they've been drafting prospects.
The Carey Price argument
Media pundits tend to believe NHL teams should draft goalies based on immediate needs and clearly, some NHL teams share that belief. Unfortunately that doesn't apply to goaltenders who typically take upwards of 5 years to become starting netminders in the NHL.
When the Montreal Canadiens were bashed in the media for drafting Carey Price, it wasn't because Gilbert Brule was the first alternative pick mentioned, it was because of their depth in goal at the time: Jose Theodore, Cristobal Huet and Yann Danis. Today, just as Carey Price has established himself only Thoedore remains in the NHL, a backup with the Minnesota Wild.
Some may argue when you have a money goalie like Marty Brodeur has been over the years, you don't need to waste high draft picks on other goalies. What many don't realize is that twice since drafting Brodeur in 1990, the New Jersey Devils used 1st round picks on a netminder.
Smart teams who have a history of drafting quality goaltenders know it takes years and requires great patience to scout, project, draft and develop NHL calibre netminders. And as this study shows, it takes years of drafting goalies until that quality emerges and that waiting until the late rounds to draft them is no longer a recipe for success.