Gillies, Hellebuyck lead interesting group of drafted NCAA goaltenders

By DJ Powers

Jon Gillies - Providence College

Photo: Providence College goaltender and Calgary Flames prospect Jon Gillies has played for Team USA at the last two U20 World Junior Championships (courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

This season started with 15 NHL-drafted goaltenders playing in the NCAA. Now it is down to 13. Reigning ECAC Rookie of the Year Jason Kasdorf (WPG) suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October after playing in just two games. Sophomore Collin Olson (CAR) left Ohio State in November to play in the USHL.

The six goaltenders included in this year’s list are all having excellent seasons with their respective teams and have made tremendous strides in their development. The three criteria used in determining this year’s list are overall developmental progress, season performance and NHL potential. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of March 12th.

1a. Jon Gillies
Sophomore, Providence College (Hockey East)
Drafted: Third round (75th overall) in 2012 by the Calgary Flames

This has been an interesting season for Jon Gillies. After a strong first half that included a solid World Junior Championship performance, Gillies has struggled a bit to win games in the second half. He has bounced back nicely more recently, however, winning his last four games. Despite his struggles, Gillies continues to be one of the NCAA’s elite goaltenders.

The South Portland, ME native has appeared in 29 games to date, posting a 16-7-5 record that includes three shutouts. His 2.22 goals-against average and .927 save percentage both currently rank in the top 20 nationally. Gillies reached another milestone back on November 16th versus Vermont when he set a new Friars record by posting his eighth career shutout.

Gillies uses his large frame (6’5”, 215 lbs.) exceedingly well in playing his position. Gillies’ superb athleticism has been more evident this season as he has shown some added quickness and flexibility. His noticeably stronger legs allow him to move smoother and faster going post-to-post.

Gillies has all the makings of an NHL-level goaltender who will be a superb addition to the Calgary Flames down the road. The looming question isn’t if he’ll make it to the NHL, but when.

1b. Connor Hellebuyck
Sophomore, University of Massachusetts-Lowell (Hockey East)
Drafted: Fifth round (130th overall) in 2012 by the Winnipeg Jets

After a slow start to begin the season, Connor Hellebuyck has regained his form from last season. Although his current numbers aren’t quite as spectacular as they were last year, they still rank among the best in the nation.

The Commerce, MI native sports a 13-7-2 record that includes four shutouts in 22 appearances to date. His .939 save percentage leads the nation, while his 1.84 goals-against average ranks fifth. Both lead all NHL-drafted netminders. In his 22 appearances, Hellebuyck has allowed three or more goals in just seven games. He was named the Hockey East Goaltender of the Month for December, going 4-1-0 in that month. With the rash of injuries that have decimated the River Hawks in recent weeks, Hellebuyck has been relied on even more and has certainly answered the call.

At 6’4” and 200 pounds, Hellebuyck is one of the biggest goaltenders in the NCAA. He uses his size advantageously and doesn’t expend a lot of energy in his movements. One notable area where Hellebuyck has really improved has been in his lateral movement. This is evident in his quicker push-offs when going post-to-post.

While the Winnipeg Jets have been impressed with Hellebuyck’s development at UMass-Lowell, they are even more excited about what he can bring to the organization in the future.

3. Adam Wilcox
Sophomore, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted: Sixth round (178th overall) in 2011 by the Tampa Bay Lightning

After a successful rookie campaign last year, Adam Wilcox has been even better this season as a sophomore, putting himself among the candidates for this year’s Hobey Baker Award.

The South St. Paul, MN native has appeared in 32 games for the Golden Gophers to date, posting a 22-4-6 record that includes three shutouts. Wilcox’s 22 wins and .781 winning percentage lead all NHL-drafted goaltenders. His 1.91 goals-against average and .934 save percentage both rank in the top 10 nationally. In January, Wilcox was named the MVP of the inaugural North Star College Cup after backstopping Minnesota to the tournament title.

Many attribute Wilcox’s success to the NHL prospect-laden team in front of him. But he has been called on to win or keep his team in games throughout the season and has resoundingly answered those challenges. His biggest test, however, will be in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Two areas where Wilcox’s development has shown great progress is in his quicker post-to-post movements and his more aggressive approach in challenging shooters.

In recent years, Minnesota has produced some outstanding goaltenders that excelled at the collegiate level, but all have failed to find that same success in the NHL. Wilcox could potentially buck that trend in the future with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

4. Sam Brittain
Senior, University of Denver (NCHC)
Drafted: Fourth round (92nd overall) in 2010 by the Florida Panthers

Pioneers fans call him “Great Brittain” and it’s a nickname that fits Sam Brittain perfectly this season. In his previous two years at Denver, Brittain struggled with injuries and inconsistency. Now, he is in the midst of the best season of his collegiate career and has the Pioneers squarely in the hunt for the NCHC title. He has also been one of the NCAA workhorses this season, logging among the most minutes nationally.

The Calgary, AB native sports a 15-12-6 record in 33 games to date. His 2011:23 minutes played leads all NHL-drafted netminders, while his four shutouts co-lead the group. Brittain’s .933 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average both rank in the top 15 nationally. Most recently, Brittain was named one of the ten finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award.

In addition to re-gaining his confidence, Brittain has also made great strides in others areas of his development. His positioning and stance have significantly improved, which can be seen in the way he challenges shooters. Brittain’s rebound control has also improved, particularly in limiting second and third opportunities. He is also playing a more focused game.

With his play this season and his collegiate career coming to a close, Brittain is certainly making his case to be signed by the Florida Panthers. Whether they do so remains to be seen, however.

5a. Zane Gothberg
Sophomore, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted: Sixth round (165th overall) in 2010 by the Boston Bruins

After splitting time with Clarke Saunders last season, Zane Gothberg has taken over the starting job this season and has been terrific. The Thief River Falls, MN native has been a key part of North Dakota’s success which has them in the middle of the hotly contested race for the NCHC title.

Gothberg has appeared in 25 games to date, posting a 15-7-3 record that includes two shutouts. Nationally, he ranks 10th with a 2.02 goals-against average and 23rd with a .924 save percentage. Gothberg recently returned to North Dakota’s lineup after missing a month with a lower body injury. When he returned, he simply picked up where he left off. On February 21st versus Minnesota-Duluth, Gothberg stopped all 33 shots he faced to pick up his first career shutout.

The confidence level that Gothberg is currently showing at North Dakota is the highest it’s been since arriving in Grand Forks in the fall of 2012. This season, he’s more focused and is paying greater attention to the details of playing his position. That has resulted in significant improvements in Gothberg’s overall consistency and in reading/reacting to plays around him.

Although Gothberg still has plenty of room to develop, the Boston Bruins have been impressed with his progress at North Dakota so far. As he to continues to grow and mature, the sky is the limit to just how far Gothberg can go with his playing career in the future.

5b. Martin Ouellette
Senior, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted: Seventh round (184th overall) in 2010 by the Columbus Blue Jackets

After a breakout season as junior, Martin Ouellette has certainly built on it this season as a senior and is having the best season of his collegiate career. His excellent season also has the Black Bears in a position to potentially make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament under first-year head coach Red Gendron.

The St. Hippolyte, QC native sports a 15-13-4 record that includes four shutouts in 32 appearances. Ouellette’s 15 wins are more than the totals he posted in his three pervious seasons combined. His .927 save percentage currently ranks 14th nationally, while his 2.22 goals-against average ranks 17th.

One notable area that has greatly contributed to Ouellette’s recent success, particularly this season, has been his consistency level. While Ouellette’s confidence has been high throughout much of his collegiate career, he now plays a more relaxed and focused game. All of this has led to marked improvements in his positioning, stance, rebound control and reading/reacting to the plays around him.

When the Blue Jackets selected Martin Ouellette at the 2010 NHL Draft, he was almost an afterthought. Now with the excellent season he is having and the great strides he has made in his development during his time at Maine, Ouellette is certainly making Columbus take a closer look at possibly signing him after the season.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF