Picking goaltenders from the junior ranks can be a challenge. The OHL tends to be a league where the dominant netminders are 18 years of age and up, which means that prospecting draft-eligible goalies is an exercise in alchemy combining relationship building, practice viewing, trust, and speculation.
Sometimes that alchemy turns to gold (Steve Mason/Columbus) while other times that chemical reaction blows up in one's face (Jason Missiaen/Montreal). But early results for these five players suggest that their teams have stumbled upon a recipe for success.
It’s been a busy 2013 so far for Anthony Stolarz. After starting the 2012-13 campaign with the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, he chose to leave the collegiate ranks in January to sign with London. He had not seen a lot of action at Nebraska-Omaha, posting a 2-5 record with a 2.56 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
He came to London and displaced overager Kevin Bailie (who was amongst the league’s leaders in several goaltending categories at the time) and wrested the nominal starter’s role from Jake Patterson, a fellow 18-year-old who was 16-1-1-1 with a 2.20 goals-against average at the time of Stolarz' signing.
Stolarz finished the year with a 13-3-1-1 record in 20 OHL games, earning the bulk of the starting minutes in the second half. He also finished with an NHL contract in his pocket.
The 6’6” netminder finished the year with a 2.29 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage, en route to backstopping the Knights to the regular-season OHL crown. He came to the Canadian Hockey League in an effort to jump-start his progression to the NHL. With another year of eligibility (and with London submitting a Memorial Cup hosting bid), Stolarz appears to have made the right decision.
Seventh-round NHL draft picks are often tied into hopes and dreams. Teams don’t always know what they’re getting with these flyers — but, at the very least, the Maple Leafs know that they drafted a workhorse with their 2011 seventh rounder.
Sparks finished the year appearing in a league-high 60 games for the Storm, playing a league-high 3,440 minutes. He tied for the OHL lead with 36 wins and his seven shutouts tied him for the league lead with Jordan Binnington.
His durability is unquestioned; Sparks played in 59 games last season. And he doesn’t just play, he plays well, posting a 2.65 goals-against average and .917 save percentage en route to compiling a 36-17-0-4 record.
The Illinois native served as a backup to John Gibson with the U.S.’s gold medal-winning WJC squad. And he recently signed an entry level contract with the Leafs.
3. John Gibson, Kitchener Rangers
NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks (2nd round, 39th overall, 2011)
It’s been a year of dizzying highs and challenging lows for Sparks’ WJC battery mate. He was the driving force behind Team USA’s gold medal-winning performance at the World Junior Championship. But since returning from that tournament, he’s only played in less than a handful of games with the Rangers.
A hip/groin injury has kept him out of action, but he’s now been cleared to play in the playoffs and has reclaimed the starter’s role from here on out.
Despite the limited action, he gained the attention of the OHL’s coaching fraternity. Gibson was named the league’s best puck-handling goalie and the best in the shootout (after finishing second last season) in the Western Conference coaches' poll.
He finished with a 17-9-0-1 record in only 27 games this season, compiling a 2.41 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
2. Jordan Binnington, Owen Sound Attack
NHL Rights: St. Louis Blues (3rd round, 88th overall, 2011)
Binnington took firm grip of the Attack’s starting netminder position and rode it to the top of the OHL’s goaltender ratings. His 2.17 goals-against average was second only to Malcolm Subban’s and his .932 save percentage was amongst the elite of the league. He also tied for the league lead in shutouts with seven.
Compiling a 32-12-2-1 record in 50 games, Binnington also saw some action as Team Canada’s back-up in this year’s World Junior Championship. He’s proven his ability to shine when the lights are brightest. Competing at the 2011 Memorial Cup, Binnington took home the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the tournament’s top netminder.
Binnington entered this season as the clear-cut, unquestioned number one after spending the previous season in a more equitable duo with Scott Stajcer. And much like this 2010-11 campaign where he played 46 games, he rose to the challenge and seemed to play better with the extra workload.
1. Malcolm Subban, Belleville Bulls
NHL Rights: Boston Bruins (1st round, 24th overall, 2012)
Subban had plenty to prove this season, after missing a significant number of games in 2011-12 with a groin injury. This season, he not only finished the season atop the OHL’s statistical leader boards, he also played his way to the top of Team Canada’s goaltending depth chart for the World Junior Championship.
There was no letdown following his first-round draft selection this year, as his 2012-13 campaign saw him clearly separate himself from the pack in the OHL. His 2.14 goals-against average and .934 save percentage were the best in the league. He finished the season with a 29-11-4-0 record in 46 games, five of which were shutouts.
He also took home league recognition as the Eastern Conference’s top puck-handling goalie and best shootout goaltender. But his greatest success this season may have come off the ice.
Subban showed the mental fortitude needed to be successful between the pipes. The young goaltender, unfairly, shouldered much of the blame for a perceived poor showing by Team Canada. Instead of withdrawing into his shell, Subban returned from the tournament and led his squad to the top of the OHL’s Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage up through the OHL semi-finals.