You only have to look as far as the NHL playoffs to see how important a goalie is. Every time a team harmlessly bumps into an opposing netminder, it’s the NHL equivalent to World War 3.
A good goalie is invaluable to a team’s success. They are without a doubt one of the most important pieces to building a great team, and yet goaltending prospects at the NHL Draft seem to be a devalued commodity. Teams are willing to wait on goalkeepers because of how difficult it is to project the position, and due to the seeming parity in the talent pool. In the last four NHL Drafts, only two netminders – Andrei Vasilevskiy and Malcolm Subban – were selected in the first round. With a growing trend of teams selecting goalies in the later rounds, and these sixth and seventh round picks quietly turning into Pekka Rinnes, Scott Darlings, and Joni Ortios, one can’t help but wonder what lies just beyond the draft.
This week, the Hockey’s Future Top 5 takes a look at the best unaffiliated goalie prospects from around the world.
5. Denis Godla, HC Slovan Bratislava (KHL)/Piestany SHK 37 (SVK)
Undrafted 20-year-old Slovak goaltender Denis Godla became a tournament darling after his clutch World Junior performance in January. He kept Slovakia in every game, helped his team stun the Swedes to win the bronze medal and won the award for the WJC’s best goaltender, an award that includes past winners Carey Price, Tuuka Rask, Marc-Andre Fleury, Steve Mason, Kari Lehtonen, Petr Mrazek and John Gibson. Despite a so-so season in the KHL and the Slovak Extraliga against men and an undersized stature (he’s listed at just 5’11), the highly athletic Godla should garner some NHL attention this summer.
4. Emil Garipov, Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
The KHL hasn’t been a hotbed for NHL-caliber goaltenders, but instead typically showcases goalies out of options in North America. But as of late, a lot of great young goaltending prospects are coming up through the MHL and KHL. With Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rise to prominence, Russia is getting a closer look from goalie scouts. Emil Garipov is joining the charge when it comes to great young Russian goalies. The 23-year-old has dominated his starts in the past four seasons in the KHL. He was the KHL’s top goaltender in the 2013-14 season, having both the best goals-against average and save percentage – and this season, with a 1.78 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, he has looked just as good. Garipov has good size and a solid net presence, and with an expiring KHL contract, he could be North America bound.
3. Taran Kozun, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Hidden goaltending gems aren’t just available in Europe, however. Taran Kozun of the Seattle Thunderbirds has been sensational this season as an overage goalie in the WHL. The Nipawin, Saskatchewan native emerged as a star after being traded to Seattle midseason and singlehandedly took his team to the playoffs. He has a fantastic skillset highlighted by his incredible pad work, rebound control, and the fact that he moves side-to-side better than most goaltenders his age. Having just been named both the Thunderbirds team MVP and the WHL Goaltender of the Year, Kozun should get a long look this summer from a team looking to shore up some organizational goaltending weaknesses.
2. Matt O’Connor, Boston University (HEA)
Since early January, at least 14 NHL teams have been lining up for Boston University goaltender Matt O’Connor’s services. The undrafted 6’6” goalie uses his size well to cover the net, and while he is at times overly aggressive, O’Connor plays a very structurally sound game and has NHL-level skill. He has improved every season in the NCAA, and is noted for his ability to steal games. With teams making big pitches for O’Connor and the strong belief that he is capable of being an NHL starter, it isn’t a question of if he’ll be signed, but rather how many games he will play in the NHL next season.
1. Joel Lassinantti, Lulea (SHL)
At only 5’9”, the top goalie on this list, Joel Lassinantti, is by far the best goalie not playing in the NHL. If he was 6’3”, he’d be in the NHL with his own Vezina Trophy. In a world of giants playing net (the aforementioned Pekka Rinne and Scott Darling are both 6’6”), many smaller goaltending prospects have been excelling. Nashville’s Jusse Saros is a great example, as he’s slowly become one of the best prospects in hockey after dominating the Liiga.
The 22-year-old Lassinantti, has dominated his league in his own right. He has a 1.88 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 38 games this season in the SHL (and his stats were even better in the playoffs). To put that into perspective, the year 6’7” goalie Jacob Markstrom won the Honken Trophy for the Goalie of the Year in the SHL, he had a 2.01 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 43 games. While definitely undersized, Lassinantti compensates for his lack of height with explosive down-low play. He is one of the quickest goalies in the world (he could outshine most NHL goalies in the shootout), and plays one of the best positional games you’ll ever see (he has to, given his size). Whether this dominance translates to North America is a big question, but don’t be surprised if this short netminder dwarfs his competition and becomes a prospect worth mentioning.
MacKenzie Blackwood (2015 Draft), Ilya Samsonov (2015 Draft), Daniel Vladar (2015 Draft), George Sorensen (DEN)
Who’s the best free agent/undrafted goalie of all time? Are we missing anyone in our top 5? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.