Goaltending height, the Entry Draft, and NHL success

By HF Staff

Goaltenders have the most single-handed influence on the outcome of any
hockey game. Although they were once an afterthought for organizations in
the draft, more and more emphasis has been put on selecting and developing netminders who
might be capable of taking their team to the next level. Over the past five NHL Entry Drafts, seven goaltenders were chosen within the top 10 picks.

The current conventional wisdom says that a
taller goalie would logically be a better goalie, because he would cover more
net. The taller
a goaltender is, the more pucks should hit him without moving. This goes
hand in hand with the butterfly technique, which has a goaltender on his knees
more, and his body covering the top of the net.

Anecdotal
evidence seems to point to a trend
towards drafting taller goaltenders, but what does that trend look like, and
more importantly, does it translate to success on the ice?

Drafting patterns

As seen in the table below, over the past five NHL Entry Drafts, the average height of goaltenders chosen has risen
0.74 of an inch, from 72.58 inches in 2000 to 73.32 inches in 2004.
In such a short of period, this increase in goaltender height is not an
insignificant increase. In the
same period, the average height of skaters rose only .03 inches.

NHL Entry Draft YearAverage Goaltender Height (Inches)
200072.58
200172.53
200273.43
200373.00
200473.32

Taller goaltenders are also taken
earlier in the draft than smaller goaltenders. In the years 2000-2004, first round
goaltenders averaged 73.53 inches, while ninth round goaltenders averaged 71.83
inches. The entire distribution is shown below.

Round
(2000-2004)
Average
Goaltender Height (inches)
First73.53
Second73.64
Third73.14
Fourth72.67
Fifth73.29
Sixth73.22
Seventh72.88
Eighth72.77
Ninth71.83

Despite the evidence of taller goaltenders being
preferred, no NHL team representative that Hockey’s Future interviewed for this project admitted
to subscribing to the theory that bigger necessarily equals better. Columbus
Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean told Hockey’s Future that he thinks
success has more to do with talent than size.

I don’t think they have to be [big]. I had a pretty good one in John
Vanbiesbrouck in Florida and he wasn’t very big. [Pascal] Leclaire is 6’1.5,

[Martin] Brodeur isn’t big. I don’t think it matters, I think it’s talent. If
you got the big, talent guy, that’s great.”

It should be noted that all of Columbus prospects between the pipes are 6’1 or
larger. While MacLean might hold tightly to talent, he currently isn’t betting against
size.

The Atlanta Thrashers have selected goaltenders
ranging from 5’9 to 6’5 in their six drafts. Pasi Nurminen at 5’10 has been a
success,
but so has Kari Lehtonen at
6’3. In June the team drafted Dan Turple, 6’5, and also acquired Adam
Berkhoel
, 5’11.

Thrashers Head European Scout Bernd Freimüller was
a big proponent of drafting Nurminen already a year before he was actually taken, and
despite a torn-up knee. He talked about what he liked in Nurminen.

“He’s one of the most competitive hockey
players I have ever seen, never gives up on a shot. There were certainly
bigger talents out there, but he worked himself into an NHL goalie.”

Freimüller
also shared a goaltender’s description from an actual scouting report he had written
about a goaltender on the day he was contacted as an example of his thought
process, which included the phrase “he is quite an athlete and must not be ruled out due to his size.”
The inclusion of this phrase in the report clearly shows that small goaltenders
have to prove themselves against the conventional wisdom.

He admitted that taller goalies were probably being
drafted higher by quoting Thrashers GM Don Waddell, who once said
‘If you are tall, you have to
prove you can’t play. If you are small, you have to prove you can play.’ Freimüller
fully agrees with Waddell’s statement. Height, and strength, are important attributes for him, just not everything.

“About
the same [as for skaters], it’s important but not the be all, end all.”

Vice President of Hockey Operations and Head Scout for the Edmonton
Oilers Kevin Prendergast noted that the trend towards larger goaltenders has more to do with
them being available.

“It used to be in hockey that the goalie was the guy on the team that couldn’t skate so you stuck him in net.”

In the past two NHL Entry Drafts, Edmonton has selected a goaltender in the first two rounds (Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers in 2003 and Devan Dubnyk in 2004). Both netminders selected are over 6’3, but Prendergast insists the first thing Edmonton looks at is “can they stop the
puck?”

He’s also quick to point out that the Oilers other prospects in net, Glenn Fisher and Bjorn Bjurling are 5’11 and 6’0 respectively and the organization feels they are outstanding goaltenders in their own right.

When the Oilers drafted Dubnyk in the first round
last summer, some eyebrows were raised over the decision to go with the Kamloops Blazer instead of Marek Schwarz, who many thought was a stronger goaltender. Schwarz, 6’0, was eventually drafted by St. Louis.
Prendergast admits that the fact that Dubnyk is 6’5 did have something to do with the decision, telling Hockey’s Future that the Oilers felt Schwarz had trouble with high shots and Dubnyk’s size helped prevent him from having such a problem. Prendergast
admitted that “Schwarz may have been ahead of him (Dubnyk) in respect to the ability to play at the time of the draft, but we felt the upside with Devan was that
he could overcome that and be the better goalie in the long run.”

NHL Results

Prendergast said he believed that taller goaltenders
did have an advantage over smaller, quicker ones in today’s NHL.

“I think with the equipment and the way
these guys are technically sound, yes I do. They cover more of the net,
defensemen and forwards block more shots now than they ever did before and the
big goalie covers a bigger area than he did before so if something gets through,
for the most part it just has to hit him. With smaller goalies, they have
to try and find the puck a lot of times.”

But does the empirical evidence show that bigger goalies are
actually doing better in the NHL than smaller ones?

For the purpose of examining these trends,
goaltenders were broken into height categories. A small goaltender
was defined as a player up to and including the height of 5’11, a medium goaltender
was set at 6’0 to 6’2, and a tall goaltender is 6’3 and above.

All 94 goaltenders who played in the NHL during the
2003-04 season were put into these groups and their career winning percentage and career goals against average compared.
No floor was put on games played, since the test is deliberately of height, not
experience.

SizeCareer Winning %Career GAA
Small (5’11 and under)0.44 2.62
Medium (6’0 to 6’2)0.392.73
Large (6’2 and above)0.412.49


As can be seen from the table above, on average, the larger goaltenders have a slightly lower
career goals against average at 2.49. Meanwhile, there isn’t much change in the winning
percentage (career wins played divided by career games played), but if anything, that statistic favors the smaller sized goaltenders
at 44 percent. The statistics
do not demonstrate that larger goaltenders have an advantage in the NHL.

Interestingly,
small goaltenders played on average more career NHL games, 287, compared to 144
for medium goalies and 184 for large goaltenders.

The
goaltender
perspective


So what do the goalies coming up think about this trend? Chicago prospect Mike Brodeur,
who is 6’2 and played in Moose Jaw last year, told Hockey’s Future that he thinks teams are indeed drafting goalies more and more because of their
height, to the detriment of current talent.

“They’re still good goalies, but they’re not the best, I find. These kids that are 6’5, 6’6, they’re going to draft them because they’ve got the size, and they figure they can train them and get them to be a professional All-Star
goalie.”

Meanwhile, Carolina prospect Craig Kowalski,
who is generously listed at 5’10, acknowledges the trend but thinks it also
causes smaller goalies to “just have to work that much harder.” He said
it’s fine with him.

“Nobody is going
to give me anything, and I don’t want to accept anything easily. I earn
everything I get and if you can play, you can play and there will be a spot for
you somewhere.”

If someone thinks a smaller goaltender can’t make
it, the Northern Michigan alum’s advice is to
“turn
your shoulder and go win another game, that’s all I do.” The evidence
above suggests that they are in fact doing just that.

In sum, NHL team representatives argue that a big goalie with talent and quickness is an ideal prospect. However, while NHL teams are drafting bigger
netminders earlier in the draft and overall, so far, there
is not clear data that indicates that this translates to on ice success. It’s
possible there may be a bit of a lag effect as the NHL’s infatuation with size between the pipes
grows, but when comparing the players who saw time in the league last year, a larger goalie doesn’t
necessarily mean a better goalie.

Holly Gunning, Kevin Forbes, Guy Flaming and
Matt MacInnis contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s
Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff. Sources: NHL Official Guide and Record Book, 2004 NHL draft handouts.