Normal Goaltender Development, pt 2: Juniors vs NCAA vs professional

Hannu Toivonen in a preseason game in September 2010 - Justin K. Aller

How do goalies who make the NHL at some point get there? Does choosing juniors over the NCAA make a significant difference?

Rather than clog up this post with how I determined what went into what category-the dreary rules I made for myself when trying to make sense of this data-I've placed that in a post I'm calling my Glossary and Notes, for lack of a better term.

This is the second part of a series trying to discern what a "normal" development path is for drafted goaltenders. Part one examined what goaltender drafting has looked like between 2000 and 2010. In that post, I noted that only 35% of goaltenders drafted in this period had played even one NHL game as of the end of 2012-2013. This post will begin an examination of that 35% (104 goalies). What does their career path look like? What happens to the average drafted goalie who does at some point make the show?

Overall:

Those 104 goalies have played, on average, 90 NHL games, with a high of 511 games (Henrik Lundqvist) and a low of 1 (17 players). Their average draft position was 108, twenty-seven slots higher than the overall population. After being drafted, these goalies played an average of one year in juniors or just over half a year in the NCAA, two years in the lower minor leagues and just over 4 in the primary minor leagues. All of them have at least some time in a primary minor league like the AHL.

They played their first NHL game about 4 seasons after they were drafted, and they shuttled between the NHL and the AHL for just under two years with about a year and half playing less than 20 games in the NHL. They've got three and half years of NHL experience and just under one year as an NHL starter. It has been, on average, about 9 years since they were drafted. Normal goaltender development, then includes several years development between the time a player is drafted and the time they become an NHL goalie of any stripe. They all spend some time in a primary minor league like the AHL, SHL, or KHL at some point, regardless of how they spend the years up to that point, and the majority spend more than one season there.

It's important to note, however, that there wasn't a clear arc from one step to the next for most of these players. Henrik Lundqvist's career path, for instance, has been probably closest to what we would think of as the ideal: one year in juniors in Sweden, four years in the SHL, then forever as a starter in the NHL. No bumps or side trips, just step-by-step progression. We might expect a few years as a backup thrown in, but beyond that, Lundqvist has had a close to model career path.

Hannu Toivonen, however, is more typical story: one year going between juniors and the major league in Finland, two years in the AHL, followed by his first NHL game 4 years after he was drafted. He played one year in Boston (20 games), then was back down in the AHL, going back and forth between the AHL and the NHL for two years. A year in Finland, back to the AHL, this time never getting called up, then off to Sweden's secondary league, the Allsvenskan. In 2012-13 he played in both the ECHL and the "Liiga" (side note: I'm still having trouble calling the Finland's highest league just "Liiga." "He played in The League; you know, The League.")

It's a back and forth sort of thing, with a lot of goalies getting a first game in the NHL relatively early on in their career, after which they either go back down and stay there (or fall) or, if they're very lucky and very good, get back into the NHL in snippets until they finally stick. The majority don't stick. Fully half have both less than 4 years AND fewer than 30 games in the NHL. Two-thirds have played fewer than 100 games. For the 44 players with fewer than 15 total NHL games, it has been 8.65 years since they were drafted. Only 5 of those were drafted less than five years ago.

But lets break this down and see if any set of players showed different patterns than the group as a whole. I've looked separately at players who went into each of three initial career paths: to juniors, to the NCAA, and straight into professional play.

Juniors:

64 of the players played at least one season of juniors after being drafted. 33 of those (51.6%) were still active in the NHL (at least one game) in 2013. On the whole they are 8.67 years out from their draft. They have an average draft position of 97th overall, the highest of the three groups. They played on average 79 NHL games and 3 NHL seasons.

No.

Avg. no. of years

No in jrs

64

1.625

No active in 2013

33

No in secondry

44

3.23

No in primary

64

4.23

No w callup yrs

61

1.77

No w 50+ yrs

16

2.94

No w 20- yrs

57

1.71

Of those who went into juniors, most (68.8%) played at some point in a secondary minor league, although for some this was after they had played in a primary league and had their first NHL game. All spent at least one season in the AHL, SHL, or KHL at some point in their careers. Only 4 of the junior goalies have spent only one year in primary minors. Of those, two (Sami Aittokallio and Philipp Grubauer) were 2010 draftees playing their first NHL game in 2013 during their first AHL season. The other two are Carey Price and Steve Mason, both of whom spent two years in juniors.

All but 3 had at least one year in which they played in both the NHL and the AHL. One of those 3, Henrik Lundqvist went directly to the NHL after spending 4 years in the SHL. The other two, Peter Budaj and Mike Smith, simply "graduated" from one year to the next. The rest (95.3%) spent, on average, 1.77 years playing at least one game in both leagues. The vast majority (89%) spent nearly 2 years as a callup or backup.

As usual, being successful in the NHL was uncommon. Only 16 (25%) of the junior graduates have at least one year where they could be considered a clear starter in the NHL (50 or more games). They graduated to starter status five and a half years after their draft and nearly 3 years after they played their first NHL game.

So for players who go into juniors after their draft, the profile is very similar to the overall population. They spend slightly more time in amateur and secondary leagues, but their AHL profiles are about the same. They play their first NHL game about 4 years after their draft, and they generally play less than 10 games that first year. They spend two or so years as a backup or call-up.

If they're good and lucky, about 25% of them will become NHL starters at some point in their career, though they only infrequently stay in that position long. Only 10 of 64 have more than one year as a starter, and only 6 have at spent at least half their NHL career as a starter. Twenty have averaged more than 20 NHL games a year for more than 5 years (19 of those are still active). Three have averaged more than 50 games a year in their NHL careers (Lundqvist, Carey Price, and Cam Ward).

NCAA:

Players who go the NCAA route tend to have a slightly longer route to the NHL. Twenty-three goalies drafted from 2000-2010 went to the NCAA. About 43% of the NCAA players were active in 2013, and they're on average nearly 10 years out from their draft. Their average draft position was 138, with a range of 6th overall (Al Montoya) to 291st overall (Brian Elliot, the latest draft pick in the study.) The most recent NCAA draft pick with any NHL experience is Allan York, drafted in 2007.

No.

Avg no. of yrs

No in NCAA

23

2.74

No active

10

No in 2ndry

17

2.25

No in primary

23

4.61

No w callup yrs

23

1.95

No w 50+ yrs

4

2.75

No w 20- yrs

23

1.74

While they spend less time in the secondary minors, NCAA players spend more time in college than juniors players do in juniors. They play their first NHL game, on average, 5 years after their draft and they play less than 5 games that first season. They all spent some time in a primary minor league and they all have at least one year with less than 20 NHL games. They have 3 years experience in the NHL, nearly two of which are spent as a callup or backup. They've got an average of 57 NHL games.

Once they stick in the NHL, they have a similar career path to those juniors players who stick in the NHL: they have a similar amount of time with less than 20 games, and if they become a starter a similar portion of their career is spent that way (44% for NCAA players, 43% for juniors players). And they have similar length of service in the NHL (3.0 years for NCAA players, 3.2 for juniors players).

However, a smaller portion of the college players have become clear starters at any point, only 16%. It takes them longer to get to the NHL and they play fewer games per NHL season (as defined by this study) than juniors graduates (11 versus 14). They take longer to graduate to starter status, as well: 4 years after their first game and 7 years after their draft, as opposed to 3 and 5 years for juniors.

I hesitate to draw strong conclusions about this, as 23 players is a pretty small sample and outliers can have strong influence on the patterns. I wouldn't say, for instance, that college hockey doesn't prepare goalies well for the NHL, as the demand for the very best goaltenders will push them out of amateur hockey and into the pros, taking them out of the college pool for the most part. This is, after all, a self-selected pool of goaltenders to a large extent, and I don't have a good handle on how the factors that push someone to choose college over juniors might be related to the kind of career they have.

Other:

22 goalies went directly into professional leagues after their draft. Nine (41%) were active in 2012-2013. It has been an average of 10 years since their draft and they were drafted on average at position 114 (high of 1st overall-Rick DiPietro; low of 261st overall-Reinhard Divis)

No. of players

Avg no. of years

No in other

22

No active

9

No in 2ndry

15

4.07

No in primary

22

3.55

No w callup yrs

21

2.05

No w 50+ yrs

11

2.81

No w 20- yrs

20

1.85

This is an interesting group. These guys tend to play longer in a secondary league, less in a primary league, but more as starters. In fact, 50% of these players have gone on to have at least one season with 50 or more NHL games. Those who have become starters have spent 42% of their NHL careers in that position. They have also spent notably longer in the NHL than the other groups (4.6). Nearly 60% have more than 100 career NHL games. They've played an average of about 140 NHL games.

In essence, it seems that for these players, the extra time in a secondary league (generally a European league; they are almost all European) makes up for the time spent in amateur hockey by the other two groups. They are most likely more highly developed at the time of their draft (I didn't note age at draft, although it's certainly something that would be interesting to look at), obviating the need to have them go through time in juniors.

These goalies play their first NHL game about 2.7 years after their draft and those who do graduate to starter status do so less than 4 years after their first game and about 5 years after their draft. In both of these areas, the goalies who have go directly into pro hockey the season after their draft seem to make quicker progress than those who go into college hockey and about the same as those who go into junior hockey.

Their overall outcomes, in terms of games played, are better than any of the other two groups. But the same caveat about sampling that I discussed for NCAA players is true for this group. Twenty-two is simply a small sample, and outliers are going to have a stronger influence on the averages than it would with a larger sample. For instance, Tomas Popperle has played only 2 NHL games. Remove that from the sample and the group's average NHL games/player jumps from 140 to 146. I strongly advise not taking these as predictions of what a goaltender can be "expected" to do, but more as a rule of thumb about what the population as a whole tends to look like.

Nonetheless, as compared to the other two groups, this group plays more games within a similar development time, and only 18% of them have fewer than 10 NHL games, compared with 42% for juniors goalies, 43% for NCAA goalies, and 37% for the population as a whole. Being drafted at a later development stage appears to have some effect on overall outcomes.

Next time I will be examining the relationship between draft position and career path.

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