Habs have impressive goaltending depth

By Chris Boucher
The 2002 NHL Entry Draft is fast approaching. Most Canadiens’ fans hope the team avoids grabbing a goaltender with any of their top-end picks. This view is understandable considering the relatively strong group of goaltenders in the Habs’ system.

AHL veteran Mathieu Garon heads the group. Despite the disappointment of some poor outings with Montréal in late October and early November, as well as a first round sweep during the AHL playoffs, Garon continues to demonstrate his ability to dominate games. He won his first of five consecutive NHL starts during the above-mentioned span; a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. But the 24-year-old gave up 18 goals through the next 4 games, as Montréal lost four in a row. Ignored by the critics was the fact that the team also struggled offensively during this stretch. They combined for only 4 goals during the losing streak.

Back in the AHL Garon continued to put up impressive numbers. He opened the season with 4 straight wins, and started 26 straight games between December 9th and February 8th. He finished the season with a 21-15-2 record, which translates to a .553 winning percentage. His 2.73 GAA was an improvement over last year’s mark of 2.92, while his .918 save percentage was comparable to the .920 he put up in 00-01.

The Habs’ 2nd round pick in 1996 faced an average of 33 shots per game, which was the second most among Montréal goaltending prospects. Garon still needs to work on his upper-body angle when he’s down in the butterfly. Doing so would allow him to take better advantage of his 6’2″ frame. His leg speed and lateral movement is already NHL-calibre, but his focus and concentration remains inconsistent.

Vadim Tarasov signed last summer and immediately came over for his first season in North America. He played in 3 of Québec’s first 7 games before going down with a severe groin pull. A multiple winner of the top goaltender award in Russia, Tarasov stopped 49 of 52 shots prior to missing 3 months of the season with the above mentioned injury. He returned to start 10 more games as the season wound down, but remained on the bench as Québec was swept out of the AHL playoffs.

Tarasov finished the season with a 7-4-2 record (.583 winning percentage), a 3.15 GAA, and .902 save percentage. His overall play was better than his numbers indicate, as the 25-year-old was accustomed to playing more than he did this season. The lack of playing time meant he spent more time regaining his form, and less time improving it. The Habs’ 7th round pick in 1999 faced an average of 31 shots per game. The contract Tarasov signed last year was for one year only. He’s already signed a deal to play in Russia next season, but the contract can be superceded by an NHL deal. The Habs still need to work out their goaltending situation in order to determine where Tarasov fits next season. But the reality of the situation is that Tarasov has too much talent, and too much upside to let go of after only one season in North America.

Evan Lindsay remains in the Habs’ system. He’s bounced around numerous minor league teams since being drafted in the 4th round of the 1999 draft. He played this season with 3 different ECHL teams including the Mississippi Sea Wolves, the Florida Everblades, and the Macon Whoopee. He finished the year with a combined 3.36 GAA, and .904 save percentage. The 23-year-old faced an average of 36 shots per game, which gave him a substantial opportunity to improve his game. He remains at the bottom of the Habs’ goaltending depth chart, and could certainly use some stability in his development.

Olivier Michaud enjoyed a dream season. In the span of three months he signed an NHL contract, played his first NHL game, and performed in his first ever World Junior Championship; this from a goaltender who wasn’t even drafted during the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The 18-year-old had played 13 QMJHL games before the call came from Montréal to back-up Mathieu Garon. He ended up seeing his first professional action during an October 30th game against Edmonton. Michaud came into the game to start the third period, and stopped all 14 shots he faced in the contest.

The next important step in his development came as the calendar year wound down. He participated in the World Junior Championship with team Canada over the holidays. The Beloil native played in 2 tournament games; winning 1 while losing the other. He stopped 23 shots during a 6-1 win over Switzerland, and stopped 39 of 43 shots during a 4-1 loss to Finland. Michaud left the Czech Republic with more experience to go along with a 2.50 GAA, and .924 save percentage.

He finished the season with a 29-11-3 record, which translates to an impressive .674 winning percentage. His 29 wins were the fourth most in the league, while his 2.45 GAA was the league’s second-best mark. His .887 save percentage was the product of playing behind a strong team. During Michaud’s 46 games, Shawinigan only allowed an average of 23 shots per game; save percentages are often inflated by high shot counts.

With only two junior seasons under his belt, Michaud still has to work on fundamentals. His focus is strong, but still not consistent enough. He maintains an impressive intensity level throughout most games, but could still improve his foot speed, lateral movement, and butterfly timing. Like José Theodore, Michaud is a relatively small goalie. Due to this, the determining factor in Michaud’s development could become his upper body angle when he’s in the butterfly. Straightening the angle will increase the amount of net the young goalie covers, thereby making his angle-coverage even more effective.

Joni Puurula plays for HPK in the Finnish SM-Liga. The Montréal Canadiens drafted him in the 8th round (243rd overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. The native of Kokkola, Finland suffered from a virus through most of the 2001-02 season, appearing in his first SM-Liga regular season game on January 1st, 2002. He played 9 games from that point through to the end of the season; finishing with an 8-0-1 record, a 2.09 GAA, and .912 save percentage. He faced an average of 20 shots per game during the regular season.

Playing on a strong team with a veteran goalie in front of him, Puurula was expected to watch from the bench as starting goalie Mika Pietila carried the team through the playoffs. All that changed when Pietila went down with an injury. Puurula was thrust into his first SM-Liga playoff action, and looked like a seasoned veteran in the process. He played in all 8 of the team’s playoff games. He had a 4-3 record, an impressive 1.72 GAA, and .936 save percentage.

The 19-year old was named first star in the first playoff game he appeared in, and won the fair-play award in two other appearances. If we look at the 5’11”, 185-lbs goalie’s entire season we see another impressive achievement. Counting the preseason Puurula played in 16 career SM-Liga games before suffering his first defeat.

He’s a quick but small goalie with impressive leg strength. He likes to take away the low part of the net, and force shooters to make the perfect shot in order to beat him. His calm under pressure is one of his trademarks, while his young age gives him substantial time to improve his overall game; particularly his puck-handling which seems to be his current weak point.

As much as the NHL draft is about acquiring assets rather than filling needs, the situation remains that a bottleneck is developing in the Habs’ system as far as goaltending prospects are concerned. Most fans would much rather Montréal take a flyer on skating prospects during the draft, rather than add to the already tight logjam in goal.

Feel free to E-MAIL me with any questions or comments (in English or French). Just click on my name at the top of this page to contact me. I am a former goaltender with writing, scouting, and coaching experience.

**Click on the Canadiens’ logo at the top left of the page to see a listing of the Habs’ top prospects. Including biographical information and updated 2001-02 stats.