A “Goal”den Group of Prospects

By Brandon LeBourveau

The New York Rangers have one of the deepest group of talented goaltending prospects, rivaling only a few teams, including the Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks. The Rangers have put a lot of time and effort into developing potential NHL goalies. Although the current goaltending for the Rangers in the NHL is questionable, with Mike Richter rehabbing a second torn ACL and no current back, their are not many doubts about the prospects playing all over the world between the pipes for the Rangers.

When the Rangers selected goaltender Dan Blackburn from the Kootenay Ice of the WHL 10th Overall this past draft, it left many Rangers’ fans shaking their heads. “Why another goaltender?” was a common phrase that was being used. But, in today’s NHL, you can never have enough goaltending. Goaltending wins championships, and if you don’t have an excellent goalie between the pipes, don’t expect your team to go far. The selection of Blackburn reminded me of the situation with the New Jersey Devils two years ago. With Martin Brodeur in his prime and the fact the team just drafted goaltender JF Damphousse in the 1st Round of the 1997 Entry Draft, the Devils selected goaltender Ari Ahonen from Finland in the 1st round of the 1999 Draft. This move puzzled many fans as well.

Now a little more than two years later, the selection is looking like a great one for the Devils. Martin Brodeur’s play has clearly been slipping over the last year and a half, and Ahonen is arguably one of the top goaltending prospects in the world. A lot of teams are starting to draft goaltenders high in the draft. Roberto Luongo went 4th overall in ’97, Brian Finley went 6th in ’99, Rick DiPietro went 1st and Brent Krahn went 9th in ’00 and this year Pascal Leclaire went 8th and Dan Blackburn went 10th. Could this situation with the Rangers turn into one like the Devils with Ahonen? Could Dan Blackburn be one of the top young goaltenders in two years? Many, including me, believe so.

With that, I will start analyzing each goaltending prospect in the NYR organization. Included in this analysis are the goalies’ age, height, weight, how they were acquired, their stats from the last few years and a summary of what they have done in the past and what to expect from them in the future.

Dan Blackburn, 18 yrs old, 6’1 185 lbs, Drafted 10th Overall in ’01

Year     Team           League   GP    W   L   T    GAA   PCT
2000-01  Kootenay       WHL      50   33  14   2   2.77  .907
 Kootenay*      WHL      11    7   4   0   1.95  .939
1999-00  Kootenay       WHL      51   34   8   7   2.52  .912
 Kootenay*      WHL      21   16   5   0   2.03  .935
1998-99  Bow Valley     AJHL     38    -   -   -   4.51  .888

Dan Blackburn was selected this year by the Rangers with the 10th overall pick in the 2001 Draft. Ranked as the 2nd best goaltender leading up to the draft by Central Scouting, the Rangers had Blackburn rated as the best goaltender, ahead of Pascal Leclaire, who was selected two spots higher at 8th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a 16 year old with the Kootenay Ice in 1999-00, Blackburn compiled a 34-8-7 record in 51 games with a 2.52 GAA and a .912 SPCT to lead the Kootenay Ice to the Memorial Cup. Although the team did not win the Memorial Cup Championship, Blackburn was named the WHL’s Playoff MVP with a 16-5-0 record in 21 games in the playoffs, along with a 2.03 GAA and a .935 SPCT. Blackburn was named the Rookie of the Year for the WHL, as well as the entire CHL, which includes the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. This past season, in 2000-01, Blackburn continued to impress everyone. In 50 games, he had a 33-14-2 record, a 2.77 GAA and a .907 SPCT. Blackburn was awarded with an invite to the 2001 WHL Eastern Conference All-star team, as well as a spot on Team Cherry during the 2001 CHL Top Prospects game. In the playoffs, Blackburn led the Ice to a first round sweep of the Moose Jaw Warriors, only allowing 6 goals in the 4 games, including a shut out. But, the Ice ran into trouble in the 2nd round against the Swift Current Broncos. Although Blackburn did a good job keeping the puck out of the net against the high-scoring Broncos, the Ice fell in 7 games. Blackburn allowed 18 goals in the 7 games, an average of about 2.57 goals against a game.

With two impressive junior seasons under his belt, many believe Blackburn is ready to be the backup for the New York Rangers this season as an 18 year old. Dan’s childhood idol growing up was Patrick Roy, but he plays more like Curtis Joseph. Blackburn is not a butterfly goaltender or a stand-up goaltender, but rather plays a style in-between. He relies on his excellent concentration and patience, as well as his quick reflexes. He is extremely focused during games, and has the mental toughness needed to be a top flight goaltender in the NHL. He plays his angles well and consistently comes out of his crease to challenge shooters. His rebound control is also pretty good, as he does a good job deflecting the puck away from the goal and into the corners. One of the best things about Blackburn is that scouts believe he is a big game goaltender, although he couldn’t lead Kootenay to a Game 7 win over the Swift Current Broncos in this year’s playoffs. He has shown in the past to step it up a notch during the big games and he is extremely hard to beat when he’s on top of his game. One knock on Dan is his puckhandling abilities. His skills with the puck are about average, and with the NHL turning into a more wide-open, offensive game, Blackburn will need to learn how to use his stick more often to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Glen Sather says Blackburn has a chance to make the Rangers this season, and if Dan comes into camp and steals the show, he’ll be in the NHL this season.

With all due respect to Blackburn, he will likely be sent back to Kootenay for another season, which could be a plus since Blackburn has a chance to be the starting goaltender for team Canada in the 2002 World Junior Championships, which take place this year in the Czech Republic. With last year’s goaltenders Maxime Ouellet and Alexander Auld no longer eligible, Blackburn has some competition in the likes of Brent Krahn and Pascal Leclaire, but his chances are really good to make the team if he’s sent back to juniors. He is currently at the 10 day evaluation camp for team Canada. It started on August 1st and runs to August 10th. Anyway, it is extremely rare for a goaltender to be in the NHL at 18 years old, and the Rangers would not want to rush a goaltender who isn’t ready. But if there is any young goalie out there who could make the NHL at 18, hands down it would be Blackburn.

Johan Holmqvist, 23 yrs old, 6’1 200 lbs, Drafted 175th Overall in ’97

Year     Team         League    GP   W   L   T   GAA    PCT
2000-01  Hartford     AHL       43  19  14   4   2.89  .906
         Hartford*    AHL        5   2   3   0   2.48  .923
         Rangers      NHL        2   0   2   0   5.08  .859
1999-00  Brynäs       SEL       41   -   -   - 2.60  .898
 Brynäs*      SEL       11   -   -   -  2.68  .903
         Brynäs       EHL        3   -   -   - 4.03  .821
1998-99  Brynäs       SEL       41   -   -   -   2.79  .896
         Brynäs*      SEL       14   -   -   -   2.39  .919

Johan Holmqvist was another great find by Rangers’ European scout Christer Rockstrom, as the team drafted Holmqvist in the 7th Round of the 1997 Entry Draft. After enjoying three succesful seasons in Sweden with Brynäs of the Swedish Elite League after being drafted, Holmqvist made the jump over to North America this past season and had an impressive, yet inconsistent, year. In 43 games with the Wolf Pack of the AHL, Holmqvist recorded 19 wins, 14 losses, 4 ties, a 2.89 GAA and a .906 Save percentage, plus two shutouts. In the playoffs with the Wolf Pack, he went 2-3-0, and unfortunately the defending Calder Cup champions suffered a first round playoff exit. Holmqvist also got two see two games of NHL action, in which he started both. He lost 4-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and 6-5 to the Ottawa Senators. A stand-up goaltender, Holmqvist relies on quick reflexes and a great glove hand. He is a very focused goalie between the pipes, and rarely let’s in soft goals. He plays his angles well, challenging the shooters to roof one top shelf. A steady goaltender, Holmqvist was known as a big game goaltender in Sweden, and he showed some flashes last season with the Wolf Pack. Expected to be the backup this season to Mike Richter with the Rangers, Holmqvist will have some competition in camp with Dan Blackburn, Vitali Yeremyev, Jason Labarbera and other goaltenders who are all fighting for the backup spot on the team. If Holmqvist doesn’t win the job, he’ll play the season with the Wolf Pack.

Henrik Lundqvist, 19 yrs old, 5’11 174 lbs, Drafted 205th Overall in ’00

Year     Team         League      GP  W  L  T   GAA    PCT
2000-01  Frölunda     Sweden       4  -  -  -   3.46  .882
         Frölunda     J20         19  -  -  -   2.64  .908
         Frölunda     J20SM        2  -  -  -   2.50  .927
         Frölunda     J20SM-Kval   3  -  -  -   1.62  .928
         Molndal      Sweden Jr    7  -  -  -   4.22  .868
         Sweden       WJC          7  -  -  -   1.86  .927
1999-00  Frölunda Jr  Sweden Jr   35  -  -  -   2.73  .901
         Sweden       WJC-18       4  -  -  -   2.25  .939

Henrik Lundqvist, drafted in the 7th Round of the 2000 Draft, is another great late round find by Rangers’ European scout Christer Rockstrom as well as the entire staff. The Rangers have done a good job in past years selecting goaltenders in the later rounds from Europe, such as Vitali Yeremeyev and Johan Holmqvist. Now we can add Lundqvist to that group. Regarded by some people in Europe as the best young goalie to ever come out of Sweden, Lundqvist led a weak Swedish team to a 4th place finish at the 2001 World Junior Championships in Moscow, Russia this past year. That was probably the high point of Henrik’s season though, as he bounced around between a couple of leagues and at times struggled with the older competition. In 4 games with Frölunda of the Swedish Elite League, Lundqvist was less than spectacular, as he gave up 3.46 goals a game and had a Save percentage of .882. Frölunda’s management saw that the burden was too heavy for the then 18 year old, so Lundqvist saw ice time with Molndal in a junior league before finally settling in with Frölunda’s team in the J20 Superelit, a junior league in Sweden. In 19 games, he posted a 2.64 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

Although talks of him becoming the best goalie from Sweden are a heavy burden for an 18 year old, Lundqvist plays a solid game between the pipes. He relies on lightning quick reflexes as well as a great glove hand which has been known to rob a lot of shooters in the past. Henrik has good vision and excellent hockey sense. He effectively is able to read the play and rarely gets caught out of position. Has a good read of what the shooter is going to do and whether or not his defenseman are going to step up and try and stop the shooter, or keep him to the outside to take a bad shot from the angle. He still needs to improve in some areas of his game, and the Rangers are going to let him develop in Sweden. He will come over to North America when he feels he is ready. I have not seen an official word of where Lundqvist will play this season, but at 19 years old, he will likely be back in the J20 Superelit for Frölunda. Also, a starters spot on Team Sweden in the 2002 World Junior Championshiops this year in the Czech Republic is a distinct possibility. Definitely a goaltender to keep an eye on in the future.

Johan Asplund, 20 yrs old, 6’1 180 lbs, Drafted 79th Overall in ’99

Year    Team         League    GP   W  L  T    GAA    PCT
2000-01 Brynäs       SEL       29   -  -  -    2.69  .903
        Brynas*      SEL        3   -  -  -    3.72  .836
1999-00 Brynäs       SEL       10   -  -  -    2.89  .903
        Brynäs       EHL        3   -  -  -    3.60  .891
        Mora         SHA        3   -  -  -    2.00  .917
        Sweden       WJC        3   -  -  -    2.36  .920
1998-99 Brynäs       SEL       12   -  -  -    2.97  .892
        Sweden       WJC        2   -  -  -    4.53  .857

Johan Asplund is another Swedish goaltender drafted by the Rangers, but Asplund was the highest drafted of the three they currently have in Asplund, Holmqvist and Lundqvist. Asplund was teammates with Holmqvist on Brynäs for a few years before Holmqvist left for North America. When Asplund was drafted, a lot of scouts said that Asplund was better than Holmqvist was at 18. Asplund struggled at times this season however, but finished the regular season with decent numbers, posting a 2.69 GAA and a .903 Save percentage in 29 games. Asplund played in the Swedish Elite League, so sometimes he was facing opponents who were more than 10 years older than he was. Johan struggled in the playoffs though, as his team was knocked out in 3 games, and Asplund was one of a group of players who did not turn in a good effort. He had a goals against average of 3.72 in the 3 playoff games, and a save percentage of .836.

Asplund will need to rebound this season with a good year to get rid of some of the critics. While some believe Asplund was a steal and has the potential to be a top goaltender, others believe he will never make it in the NHL, as he plays too deep in his net and shooters will have an easy time scoring on him. It’s way too early to write off Asplund yet, although he needs to improve in a few areas of his game, mostly his consistency. Some games he’s unbeatable, while other games it seems like every shot that’s sent his way some how finds a way in the net. Johan will stay in Sweden for a few more seasons, and hopefully he will be able to turn around the ship and send his career into the right direction.

Jason Labarbera, 21 yrs old, 6’3 210 lbs, Drafted 66th Overall in ’98

Year    Team          League   GP   W   L   T   GAA    PCT
2000-01 Charlotte     ECHL     35  18  10   7   3.20  .910
        Charlotte*    ECHL      2   -   -   -   2.09  .945
        Hartford      AHL       4   1   1   0   4.61  .871
        New York      NHL       1   0   0   0   0.00  1.000
1999-00 Spokane       WHL      21  12   6   2   2.62  .900
        Portland      WHL      34   8  24   2   3.68  .903
1998-99 Portland      WHL      51  18  23   9   3.41  .891
1997-98 Portland      WHL      23  18   4   0   3.31  .891
1996-97 Portland      WHL       9   5   1   1   2.44    -
        Tri-City      WHL       2   1   0   0   3.81    -

Jason Labarbera, a 3rd round pick in 1998, is determined to win the backup job to Mike Richter at training camp this season. After winning the backup spot to Kirk McLean last year, Labarbera appeared in one NHL game when he relieved McLean in an 8-6 loss to the Penguins. Jason made 10 saves on 10 shots while playing a steady game. After Richter came back from his injury, Labarbera was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL since Vitali Yeremeyev and Johan Holmqvist were in Hartford. Labarbera’s numbers were decent, although the Checkers were one of the worst teams in ECHL. Labarbera has been on weak teams throughout his life, and when he was with Portland of the WHL it was no exception. Portland was one of the worst teams in the league for a few straight years, and Jason’s numbers suffered because of it, although he was still able to keep his save percentage pretty close to .900. When he was traded to the Spokane Chiefs at the deadline during 1999-00, Jason put up very good numbers, not only because his play picked up but because the Chiefs happened to be a contending team. Labarbera went 12-6-2 in 21 games with the Chiefs to close out the season, which included a 2.62 GAA and a .900 save percentage.

The Rangers were dissapointed in Labarbera last season. His conditioning and work-ethic was horrible, and he was out of shape for most of the season. The team told him to train hard this summer in preparation for camp, and he’s done just that. He has lost 10 pounds since the end of the season and is training hard while awaiting for September to roll around. Labarbera has a bit of an advantage as he proved last season he could win the backup spot, and he might just do it again this season, although you should certainly expect his competition this year to be better than last year, as Dan Blackburn is coming to camp with the mindset of making the team, as well as Johan Holmqvist being 1 year older and more adapted to the North American game than he was the year before. It will be interesting to see how things go. Jason will most likely either be in the NHL, or the AHL this season, depending upon what goes down at camp.

Vitali Yeremeyev, 25 yrs old, 6’1 175 lbs, Drafted 209th Overall in ’94

Season   Team          League    GP    W   L   T  GAA    PCT
2000-01  Charlotte     ECHL       5    3   2   0  4.23  .898
         Hartford      AHL       36   16  15   2  2.97  .903
         Rangers       NHL        4    0   4   0  4.53  .846
1999-00  Dynamo Moscow Russia    26    -   -   -  1.23    -
1998-99  CSKA Moscow   Russia-2  19    -   -   -  1.80    -
         Kazakhstan    Olympics   7    -   -   -  5.76    -
1997-98  Yaroslavl     Russia    17    -   -   -  1.16    -
1996-97  CSKA Moscow   Russia    14    -   -   -  3.31    -
1995-96  CSKA Moscow   CIS       25    -   -   -  1.66    -
1994-95  CSKA Moscow   CIS       49    -   -   -  2.13    -
1993-94  Kamenogorsk   CIS       19    -   -   -  2.24    -

Vitali Yeremeyev came over to North America last season as a virtual unknown among Rangers fans. A 9th round pick in 1994, Yeremeyev enjoyed a few outstanding seasons in Russia before signing with the Rangers and coming over to North America last season. He started the year in the ECHL with the Charlotte Checkers, registering a 4.23 GAA and a .898 save percentage in 5 games, while have a 3-2-0 record. Yeremeyev was promoted to the AHL when JF Labbe was traded to Columbus. Yeremeyev played outstanding in the AHL, earning a spot on the Planet USA team in the AHL All-Star Game. Yeremeyev played the 3rd period in the game and only allowed 1 goal, but that goal proved to be the winner for the Canadian squad. Impressed by Yeremeyev’s performance in the minors, the Rangers brought up Yeremeyev to the NHL when Richter went down with his second straight year with a torn ACL. Yeremeyev struggled in the NHL, playing in 4 games and losing all 4 of them. At the end of the season, Yeremeyev’s contract was up and he was flirting with the idea of returning to Russia. When he couldn’t come to an agreement with Moscow Dynamo, his former club in Russia, he accepted a multi-year contract from the Rangers to remain with the team. Yeremeyev heads into this season with one thing on his mind: Making the NHL. It will be interesting to see if Vitali can handle the NHL this season, after not showing much in 4 games last year. If he falters in camp, he’ll likely be back in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Scott Meyer, 25 years old, 6’0 185, Signed as a Free Agent

Year      Team             League   GP   W   L   T   GAA     PCT
2000-01   St. Cloud State   WCHA    36  25   8   1   2.23   .926
1999-00   St. Cloud State   WCHA    32  20   8   3   2.37   .920
1998-99   St. Cloud State   WCHA     9   2   5   1   2.98     -
1997-98   St. Cloud State   WCHA     2   -   -   -   3.21   .879
1996-97   St. Cloud State   WCHA     1   -   -   -   2.07  1.000

Scott Meyer was signed as an undrafted free agent after a solid career at St. Cloud State. This past year, his senior season, he posted a 25-8-1 record with a 2.23 goals against average a .926 save percentage. An older prospect at 25 years old, Meyer might have an advantage over some of the younger goaltenders in camp this year. He is a darkhorse to possibly win the backup job. If he is sent to the minors, he most likely be with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL, as the AHL will likely be occupied by two of the following: Vitali Yeremeyev, Johan Holmqvist and Jason Labarbera.

Brandon Snee, 21 yrs old, 6’1 195 lbs, Drafted 143rd overall in ’00

Season   Team       League   GP   W   L  T   GAA    PCT
2000-01  Union      ECAC     33  12  17  4   3.11  .899
1999-00  Union      ECAC     31   8  22  1   3.82  .893

A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native, the Rangers selected Brandon Snee in the 5th Round of the 2000 Draft. A surprise pick to many, Snee went 8-22-1 on a bad Union team in 1999-00 and was the 30th ranked North American goaltender by Central Scouting leading up to the 2000 Draft. Snee has the ability to be one of the top goaltenders in college hockey, but Union is not known for producing hockey players, so when it is recruiting time, the school is not one known for bringing in the good players. Because of the weak team, Snee’s numbers have suffered the last two years, although the Rangers saw talent in the kid and used a 5th rounder to select him. Snee still has two years of college eligibility left, and he will finish up school before looking to make the jump to the pros.

Bryce Wandler, 22 yrs old, 6’0 180 lbs, Signed as a Free Agent

Year    Team           League GP   W   L   T   GAA    PCT
2000-01 New Haven      UHL    26  10  13   -   2.98  .907
        New Haven*     UHL     2   0   1   0   5.04  .806
        Hartford       AHL     1   0   0   0   2.04  .800
        Charlotte      ECHL    4   2   2   0   4.50  .865
1999-00 Swift Current  WHL    56  37  15   2   2.06  .919
        Swift Current* WHL    10   5   5   0   2.91  .914
1998-00 Swift Current  WHL    51  23  20   4   2.56  .905
1997-98 Edmonton       WHL    47  12  27   4   4.17  .884

The Rangers signed Bryce Wandler as an undrafted free agent after he had an excellent season in the WHL with the Swift Current Broncos in 1999-00. The Rangers took a chance on Wandler, figuring if he turned out to be anything it would be a huge bonus. So far, Wandler has struggled in the minors. In 26 games in the United Hockey League this year with New Haven, Wandler posted a 10-13-? record with a 2.98 GAA and a .907 Save percentage. In 2 games in the playoffs, he went 0-1-0 with a 5.04 GAA and a .806 save percentage. The UHL is not screaming in talent, and is one of the lowest minor leagues around, so if a young goaltender can not dominate at that level, he might not go far in pro hockey. In 4 games with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL, Wandler went 2-2-0 with a 4.50 GAA and an .865 save percentage. Wandler will likely either be back with New Haven this year, or he’ll move up to the ECHL with the Charlotte Checkers. He appears to be a career minor league goalie with little to no NHL potential. We’ll see how he does this year, but after going undrafted a few years in a row and struggling this year in the minors, there was a reason teams passed up on him.

Well, that’s the end of this part, and this series. I hope you all enjoyed it and found it interesting. Hopefully some of you also learned some new information. I have no current plans for an upcoming article, but I will likely make a new one of some kind sometime in a week or two. Feel free to e-mail me your questions or comments, or simply just post them below.