One of the critical steps in the transition of an expansion franchise into a playoff contender is the development of home-grown netminders. Over the first four regular seasons in the capital of Ohio, the Blue Jackets had not graduated a product of their own system into anything more than a cameo appearance in the Columbus net. In fact, another veteran, 29-year-old Martin Prusek was brought in during the offseason to challenge Marc Denis for the top spot between the pipes.
Now in year five, top 10 pick Pascal Leclaire becomes the first of the home-grown netminders to graduate to the big club. But who will join him in the Columbus net in years to come? Below is a look at Leclaire, Czech Extraliga wunderkind Tomas Popperle, Newfoundlander Daniel Lacosta, and 2005 fifth round selection Andrew Penner.
First Round, Eighth Overall Pick 2001, 6’2, 190 lbs
The first goaltender selected in the 2001 NHL entry draft, 18-year-old Leclaire was considered to be the prototypical Quebecois franchise netminder: excellent fundamentals and hockey awareness, built around quick reflexes and a keen competitive edge. Now entering his fourth professional season in the Blue Jacket system, the potential that scouts have raved about since his days with Halifax of the QMJHL is materializing. So much so that the team this week waived Prusek to make room for the netminder at the NHL level.
A butterfly goaltender, Leclaire uses his size to his advantage, challenging shooters and aggressively controlling the defensive zone. It is these traits that have so impressed scouts and coaches, in spite of a league-average track record that appears worse than it is given the remarkable play he has demonstrated in critical situations, especially in international competition. It may very well be that the root cause of Leclaire’s inconsistency has been the nagging injuries that seem to be attendant on developing players of similar stature, such as fellow Quebec native Jean-Sebastien Giguere (whose early career resembles Leclaire’s). When healthy, Leclaire has the appearance and demeanor of a star.
Cast as a potential franchise goaltender at the age of 18, Leclaire began his professional career with Syracuse of the AHL in the fall of 2002 as one of the prized jewels in the Columbus system. His first two seasons in Syracuse were strikingly similar to the previous four he spent as an amateur — sporadic glimpses of brilliant goalkeeping, surrounded by long stretches of inconsistent play. For instance, Leclaire looked the part of a No. 1 goaltender against Manitoba on March 6, 2004, turning away 50 shots in a 1-0 win over Alexander Auld. That performance was preceded, however, by a disappointing 6-0 loss to Rochester. It was this general inconsistency that placed Leclaire in the bottom third amongst AHL netminders over his first two campaigns, finishing below the league average in goals against and save percentage each season.
In some respects, Leclaire was at a crossroads entering the 2004-05 campaign. Named the primary starter in the Syracuse net prior to the start of the season, the opportunity was there for him to re-assert his status as the top young goalie in the Blue Jacket system. Opening the season with a 3-0 shutout victory over St. John’s, Leclaire turned in the most consistent month of his professional career, regularly playing above the level of the team in front of him. Leclaire entered December as one of the top goalies in the AHL, sporting a career-high 2.34 goals against and .926 save percentage, despite only winning five of 14 starts. Just as he seemed about to turn the corner, catastrophe hit in the form of a high-groin injury that kept him off the ice for the remainder of the season.
There was an opportunity for the 22-year-old to challenge for the backup spot to Denis against Prusek this fall. The two wrestled for the job over the first two months of the season, Leclaire having been shuttled between Columbus and Syracuse to appear in a total of 15 games since a 3-2 defeat to the Washington Capitals on the opening night of the 2005-06 season. Leclaire won the battle.
The waiving of Prusek is a sure sign of confidence in Leclaire, and though he could still see some time in Syracuse, there is enough evidence to suggest that this may indeed be the franchise standard bearer the Jackets thought they had found in 2001.
Third Round, 93rd Overall Pick 2004, 6’1, 185 lbs.
Selected by the Blue Jackets with the third-round draft pick obtained in the March 2004 trade that sent Geoff Sanderson to the Vancouver Canucks, Daniel LaCosta is a tall, gangly workhorse who is still in the Ontario Hockey League.
Over his first four seasons in the OHL, which began between the pipes for Owen Sound before a 2004 trade to the Barrie Colts, LaCosta was seen as a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, part-time positional netminder. The lanky teen played league-average hockey over that span, failing to make a significant splash in the OHL and appearing to need a lot of work on the mental aspects of the game. LaCosta did lead the Colts in wins in 2004-05, but split time throughout the season and playoffs with Francois Thuot. An unspectacular post-season effort (1-2, with 11 goals allowed in five appearances) only furthered the impression that LaCosta had a long road ahead to seriously contend for a position in Syracuse, let alone Columbus.
Enter the 2005-06 season, and with it the starting job in Barrie. LaCosta was handed the top spot in net with the Colts in what could best be described as a make-or-break year for the prospect. If the early returns are any indication, 2005-06 may be the former. Over the first two months of the season, LaCosta has turned in a stellar performance in backstopping Barrie to the top spot in the Central Division, sporting a 15-6-1-2 record and the league’s best GAA (2.33) and save percentage (0.924). While it is still too soon to tell if his current performance is indicative of a major leap forward in development, LaCosta’s stock does appear to be on the upswing, which should come as welcome news in Columbus.
Fifth Round, 131st Overall Pick 2005, 6’1, 187 lbs.
When the Blue Jackets inked right wing David Vyborny to a free agent contract in the summer of 2000, they may have gained more than the solid two-way forward. Over the 2004-05 season, Vyborny returned to play for the Czech Extraliga team that spawned him, Sparta Praha, and watched as a 20-year old rookie stepped into the starting job in net and turned in a dazzling performance. Vyborny’s NHL team selected the young netminder, Tomas Popperle, in the fifth round of the 2005 draft.
With that as an intriguing back story, Popperle is an unknown quantity in the Jackets system: a European goalie with a very limited professional resume but an outstanding pedigree in the Sparta system. After several seasons in the junior ranks, Popperle came out of virtually nowhere in 2004-05 to backstop seasoned NHL vets Vyborny, Petr Nedved, and Jan Hlavac for Sparta Praha. Starting the season with Berounsti of the Czech-1 League, Popperle was promoted to assume the starting role for Sparta Praha midway through the campaign. He went on to post a stellar 15-9-1 record, leading the circuit with a 1.58 goals against average and a 0.949 save percentage. While the raw numbers posted by Popperle in 2004-05 were eye-opening, the Jackets were more impressed by the tools displayed by the young Czech. Relying on a solid, fundamentals style of play, the rookie appeared to mature as the season progressed.
Following Popperle’s selection in the 2005 entry draft, Columbus gave him a three-year deal and an invitation to the Blue Jackets’ training camp. He made his Jacket debut in a pre-season contest against Chicago on September 25, 2005, working two periods of 20-save, two goals-against hockey. While Popperle looked solid in the loss, he was sent back over to Europe for more seasoning on October 3.
At this point in his fledgling career, it is premature to forecast the impact Popperle may have in the Blue Jacket system. With the marked improvement of fellow prospect LaCosta, the necessity of rushing Popperle through the system has decreased, and a full season against international competition can only be viewed as a positive in the mental and emotional development of the youngster.
Free Agent Signee, Sept. 17, 2001, 6’3, 212 lbs.
Another over-sized goaltender in the Blue Jacket system, 22-year-old Andrew Penner has climbed up the organizational ladder into the primary backup spot in Syracuse. A league-average goaltender at every stop along the way (which includes North Bay and Guelph of the OHL, and Dayton of the ECHL), Penner now finds himself with a legitimate shot at an NHL career.
That prognosis was not evident after Penner’s first three seasons for North Bay. Appearing in a part-time capacity between 1999 and 2002, Penner posted disappointing numbers across the board: a paltry 17 wins in 72 appearances, coupled with a GAA and save percentage consistently in the lower fifth of the league. Following his transfer to Guelph, however, Penner’s career track took a turn for the better. Over the next two seasons, the Scarborough native’s game improved markedly, reflected in both the win column and the stat sheet. The 2002-03 season, Penner’s last in the OHL, saw the goalie post the best line of his career: a 20-win season and a top-15 finish in the major statistical categories.
The improvement seen at the tail end of Penner’s OHL career did not manifest itself during his two-year stint with Dayton of the ECHL. Penner again regressed towards the bottom of the league, winning only 21 games out of his 65 appearances. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise for the Jackets when Penner turned in a solid 2004-05 campaign as the backup to Leclaire and Karl Goehring in Syracuse. On the season, Penner posted a 2.70 GAA and a .917 save percentage in a solid rookie campaign in the AHL, the highlight of which was his 30-save shutout of Hershey on December 19, 2004. The solid play continued into the first two months of the 2005-06 season.
A late bloomer, it is not difficult to imagine Penner getting a chance to compete for the starting job in Syracuse next season. In fact, given the right set of circumstances, Penner could eventually land a part-time role in Columbus behind Leclaire.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.