Normal Goaltender Development, Part 5: Age at Draft

Pekka Rinne is a late-round, overage draft success for the Nashville Predators. - Frederick Breedon

This is a follow up to my goaltender development series:  Part 1 (Intro and drafting), Part 2 (initial career paths), Part 3 (draft round), Part 4 (preliminary conclusions) and the glossary and notes. As I did that work, the question of age kept popping up, so I decided to go ahead and do an analysis of how age works in drafting and development of goaltenders. This post will consider only age at draft. I'll do age at entry into the NHL in a separate post.

Note: To make the data collection here feasible, I determined age at draft by subtracting year of birth from year of draft. This means that someone who was 17 and six months on their draft day is treated as an 18 year old; someone who was 18 and six months is treated as a 19 year-old; and so on. One example: Pekka Rinne was born on November 3, 1982, and was drafted on June 26, 2004. Technically he was 21 years and almost eight months when he was drafted, but he is treated as if he had already turned 22.

We've got a few related questions here:

  • Is it better to draft goalies later than at age 18?
  • Is there an ideal age to draft goalies?
  • Who gets drafted later?

18

19

20

21+

overall

no. drafted

143

91

40

18

292

Draft pos.

Rd 4.2, pos 118

Rd 5.0, 141.2

Rd 5.45, 159.48

Rd 6.3, 186.3

Rd 4.75, 135.1

Avg NHL gms

27.8

35.4

17.5

83.9

38.19

no. NHL plyrs

48

34

11

12

104

% NHL plyrs

33.6%

37.4%

27.5%

66.7%

35.4%

Draft pos of NHL plyrs

Rd 3.2, 86.8

Rd 3.6, 96.7

Rd 5.45, 161.5

Rd 6.1, 178.4

Rd 3.88, 107.76

Avg NHL gms, NHL plyrs

82.7

94.7

63.6

125.8

90.32

Almost 49% of drafted goaltenders have been 18, and the number of goalies drafted declines with age. While it seems on the face of it that goalies drafted when they're a year or two older will be more successful (57 of 149 go on to play at least one NHL game) this is largely due to the success of the overagers (21+). Let's take those players out of the mix for a moment. Nineteen and 20 year olds enter the NHL at the same rate and reach games-played benchmarks at the same rate as 18 year olds.

18 (143)

19-20 (131)

Enter NHL

33.6% (48)

34.4% (45)

Play 100+ games

9.7% (14)

9.2% (12)

Play 200+ games

5.6% (8)

6.1% (8)

Play 400+ games

1.4% (2)

1.5% (2)

In addition, there appears to be a disadvantage in terms of average games played, whether taken on the whole or in terms of Games Played vs Years since Draft (which I talked about in part three of the original series.) In both cases we see a slight uptick from eighteen to nineteen then a much greater drop in productivity for ages 20 and 21. Goaltenders drafted at 20 become NHL regulars at about the same rate as younger players, but on the whole tend to play fewer games than those drafted at 18 or 19.

Age_at_draft_vs_gp

In these terms, there's a very, very slight advantage to drafting 19 years olds than either 18 year olds or 20 year olds. But it's such a small advantage that it could easily be a sampling error. While there might possibly be a benefit to a club to wait to come to a conclusion on a prospective draftee, it's difficult at this point to say that this wait actually makes scouting much more reliable, but the evidence is intriguing.

Consider the following graph that compares the success rates of each draft round by age.

Entry_rates_by_age_and_round

First round players have a similar success rate regardless of age. After that, however, nineteen year olds do a bit better than eighteen year olds up to the seventh round. Twenty year olds are all over the map.

None of this is true, however, of overage draftees, whose success outstrips all the rest of those drafted. These are players who were not playing in North America at age 18, 19, or 20. They are exclusively Europeans (and one Japanese), and to some extent showcase what happens when players are left to mature before being drafted. Two thirds of them have made the NHL for at least one game, and 4 of 18 players have more than 200 games. In other words, the success rate for players drafted at age 21 or older is as great as the failure rate for players drafted earlier.

I stress that this is an extremely small sample, so it's very risky to draw firm conclusions about this group. When taken as a whole, though, the data concerning overage goalies points us in a direction that warrants thinking about. It is conceivable that by waiting to see the end result of the development stage between 18 and 20, teams were better able to identify and project goaltender talent. Thus only the players whose success was most predictable got drafted this late. The players who didn't make significant progress between age 18 and 22 simply didn't enter this population. If the goal of scouting and drafting is to identify and sign the goaltenders who will be best in the future, the data concerning overagers indicates that it might, indeed, be more efficient to wait on goalies.

This is an important question. There's been some criticism of the way that the NHL draft is structured as it pertains to goaltending. For instance, goalie coach Francois Allaire told InGoal Magazine,

"The rules aren't in their [young Canadian goaltenders'] favour, European and American goalies have a clear advantage over us. Canadian goalies have to go through junior hockey and be ready to get drafted at 18 or 19 years old. US goalies often go to university and can ready their game until they're 20-21, sometimes older, and then get drafted. They're full grown men by then and much more mature at their position.

"In Europe, they have it even better," Allaire continued. "A goalie can work his way through the system and end up making the first division pro level. He can play there for years get great experience and have one good season, even if he's 27-28-29 years old, and an NHL team can sign him as a free agent to a one-way contract and then they have one year to decide whether to keep him or not."

It's debatable whether Canadian goaltenders are at much of a disadvantage in drafting itself. It's probably more accurate to say that the Canadian advantage in drafting may be less overwhelming than it used to be, as far more goalies are drafted out of Canadian juniors than any other leagues (49% of all draftees between 2000 and 2013 compared to less than 6% out of the NCAA), and far more Canadians are drafted than players from other countries.

Drafted_gts_by_country

Nor are Canadians technically the youngest goalies drafted, although they are close.

Age_at_draft_by_country

The overall question still stands, however. Is 18, 19, or 20 too young to expect goaltenders to be ready for the draft? If it's true that (a) goaltenders take longer to develop than other players and (b) goaltending is so greatly influenced by randomness that our ability to project talent is worse than for any other position, then it follows that bringing goaltenders into the NHL system at a later age might be better for both goalies and teams alike. And the success of overage draftees could be pointing in that direction.

Unfortunately, this isn't a question that draft data can help us any further with. After the age of 20, North American goalies become free agents and it's much harder to track them from that point. There are no lists of undrafted free agents. Those who go on to play in the NHL become visible again only by process of elimination. Those who enter a league such as the ECHL or secondary European leagues and never rise any further are lost to us. It might be possible to construct a list of all goaltenders who have played in the AHL in a specific period and cross reference that against NHL draft lists, but you'd also have to cross-reference each player's specific contract history to find out at what point they signed with an NHL club.

Aside from being a logistical nightmare, data collection on free agents will tend to leave out that part of the sample most likely to drag success rates downward, leaving us with a distorted view of the reliability of scouting overage goaltenders.

In the end, I find that the firmest conclusion to draw from this data is that NHL clubs shouldn't be afraid to scout players in their early 20s from whatever region. There is some indication that the conclusions drawn about late bloomers may be more reliable than those drawn about teenagers, and that can make it worth investing a club's resources in scouting them.

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