AHL Development Analysis Part III: Goaltenders

By Bill Meltzer

The age old hockey adage that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards and goaltenders take longer than defensemen is absolutely true. Unlike forwards and defensemen, you will be hard pressed to find NHL goaltenders (whether stars, “average” starters, or backups) who were NHL ready without at least a half season’s worth of minor league seasoning.

This holds true for goaltenders taken in any round of the NHL draft, including first round picks. It’s true whether they came from junior hockey, U.S. college hockey or European hockey. Moreover, even if the goaltender required lengthy stays in the minor leagues (such as 1999-2000 Vezina winner Olaf Kölzig’s 174 games worth of ECHL and AHL experience), it by no means precludes the player eventually staking down a starting job in the NHL or even becoming a star. Goalies simply take longer to mature because they play the most demanding position in the sport.

In looking at 52 current and recently retired NHL goaltenders, I only found one goaltender who jumped straight to the NHL and never played a single minor league game. That would be Sean Burke, who did so with great ballyhoo after playing for Team Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

For all intents and purposes, three other wunderkind goalies (Patrick Roy,Tom Barrasso, and Jocelyn Thibault) also bypassed the minors. Roy only played a single AHL game, Thibault played 4, and Barrasso 5. Flyers starter Roman Cechmanek started 3 games for the Philadelphia Phantoms before being called up and supplanting Brian Boucher as starter in 2000-2001. However, Cechmanek was already 29 years old and had a wealth of Czech and international hockey experience.

More typical of future star goalies like Martin Brodeur, Curtis Joseph, Dominik Hasek, John Vanbiesbrouck and Nikolai Khabibulin are minor league stays of about half to a full season’s worth of time as a minor league starter, either consecutively or broken up over a couple seasons of shuttling between the minors and the NHL (this does not include Khabibulin later stint in the IHL while an unsigned restricted free agent with Phoenix). Ditto “average” starters such as Felix Potvin, Chris Osgood and Roman Turek (who did not come over from the Czech league until he was 26). Moreover, the same holds true for borderline starters/backups, such as Ken Wregget, Garth Snow and Mikhail Shtalenkov (North American debut at age 27).

Goaltenders such as Ed Belfour, Mike Richter, Jose Theodore, Tommy Salo, Marc Denis, Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, Guy Hebert, Jeff Hackett, Jean-Sabastien Giguere, and Martin Biron all spent the equivalent of a full season-plus (ranging between slightly over a full season to almost two full season’s worth of starter’s time, consecutively or staggered) in the minor leagues.

Even among goaltenders with lengthy minor league experience, there is still a possibility of eventually becoming an NHL starter. Examples include Kölzig, Byron Dafoe (200 ECHL, AHL, IHL games played), Patrick Lalime (201 ECHL and IHL games, although 97 came after he unwisely held out after his surprise rookie with the Penguins), Johan Hedberg ( who played 3 3/4 minor league seasons, plus a season back home in Leksand, before finally making the NHL), and Manny Fernandez (239 minor games).

As you might expect, there are plenty of seasoned NHL backup goaltenders who spent well two seasons or more in the minor leagues. The list is lengthy but typical examples are Corey Schwab, Glenn Healy, Craig Billington and Rick Tabarcci. Some, such as Chris Terreri played a season-plus.

The conclusion: there is not reason for panic if a drafted goaltender, whether high rounder or unheralded, does not immediately tear up the minor leagues and stake an NHL job, there is absolutely no reason for concern. More than any other position, goalies become NHL ready at their own pace and most are better off refining their games in the minor leagues before moving on to arguably the toughest job in pro sports after NFL starting quarterback– NHL starting goalie.