Normal Goaltender Development Pt 4: Conclusions

Kari Lehtonen, a second round pick, became a starting goaltender five seasons after his draft and four after his first NHL game. - Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This is part 4 of a series on normal goaltender development in the NHL. Check out Part 1 (Intro and drafting), Part 2 (initial career paths), Part 3 (draft round), and the glossary and notes for more in-depth information.

This study started with a question important to Lightning fans: How fast is too fast to push Andreiy Vasilevskiy?

Comparing him to the right population is important. He's definitely better than the average 19-year-old goalie now and was better than the average 18-year-old goalie when he was drafted at number 10 in June of 2012. So a bit faster than averages is to be expected. Comparing him to other first rounders seems like a reasonable exercise, as does looking at how those who've become starting NHL goalies got to that point.

First rounders as a whole didn't vary all that much from the overall averages in terms of the speed of their progression. The average NHL goaltender played their first NHL game 3.98 seasons past their draft. The average first rounder: 3.68 seasons. As many first rounders played their first game 6 seasons after their draft as the first season after their draft.

In fact, individual variation is highly important when looking at most of these measures of career progression. This chart captures some sense of that variation.

Gp_vs_yr_of_1st_game

The vast majority of players are clustered at the lower end of the number of games played, regardless of how soon they play their first game. But look at the variation: the spread of the dots shows how far apart the high and low ends are. A larger proportion of players who get early starts in the NHL play more than 100 career games. But it's not a very strong trend and it's not all that indicative of long-term success. A lot of players who have more than 200 games didn't get early starts in the league.

Plus, it's fairly rare for this to happen and it's a practice that appears to be dying out. Only 6 players played in the NHL the first season after their draft. None of those games were played after the 2003-2004 season. First, that time lag means that these six players have had more time to play more games. But does it also mean teams are forgoing early introductions in favor of development time these days? It is something to consider.

And early start is also no guarantee of long-term success or indicator or draft position. Three of the goalies who played in the NHL their first season post-draft were first rounders: Marc-Andre Fleury (467 gms), Rick DiPietro (318 gms), and Dan Blackburn (63 gms). The other 3 were fifth and sixth rounders: Roman Cechmanek (212 gms, 6th rd), Jussi Markanen (128 gms, 5th rd), and Pasi Nurminen (125 gms, 6th rd). Of the six, only Fleury and DiPietro were still active in the 2012-2013 season, and DiPietro isn't currently on an NHL roster. Furthermore, only Fleury and DiPietro played in more than 5 NHL seasons.

So overall, there's no generally ideal speed or path for reaching the NHL. But what about starting goalies? Do the guys who are the most successful follow any consistent path towards that success?

In some ways, they do. Eventual starters play their first NHL game slightly sooner than the population as a whole, getting that first game about 3.25 seasons in, compared to the 3.68 (first rounders) and 3.98 (all NHL goalies) seasons noted above. Eventual starters also spend less time in primary minor leagues (3.45 seasons) than the population as a whole (4.24 seasons). Those who go into the secondary leagues spend less than half the time there that other NHL goalies do. However, they spend the same amount of time in juniors (about 1.6 seasons) or the NCAA (about 2.75 seasons).

More significant, however, is that among players who get their first NHL game within three seasons of their draft, 40% (20/49) become starters at some point in their career, a somewhat better success rate than the population as a whole (30%) and definitely higher than those who play their first game four seasons out or later (20%). Among players with three or fewer seasons in primary minors (42 players), seventeen become starters--again about 40%--compared with 23% of those who play there longer.

Of course, this doesn't indicate that getting players into the NHL within three years is the best way to turn a player into a starter. It is rather an indication that, at least to some extent, good goalies get noticed enough to get a shot earlier than the population as whole. But there are enough players who are on the other side of that equation that it's wise not to assume anything from what happens to any one goaltender. Most of those tapped early don't make it to starter status and a significant minority of those who do become starters don't get to the NHL early on.

For instance, while 17 starters spent three or fewer years in primary minors in their career, 14 have spent longer, even up to 9 years. Seventeen vs fourteen is not a big enough difference to say that shorter is clearly better for a goalie. Everyone's different, and among the players who didn't get their first NHL game within their first three seasons are names like Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Smith, and Cam Ward. Of the 11 starters who waited for their first game, 1 is no longer active. Of the 20 who didn't wait, seven are no longer active. Waiting is far from a death knell to a player's career.

What this does indicate, in fact, is that wherever a player is on this development spectrum, there are few guarantees of outcome. Patience can pay off for both franchises and players. While the odds do decrease the longer it takes to get to the NHL, there are a number of goalies who seem to bloom later in their careers, enough to make me leery of saying that three seasons is any kind of "rule of thumb" for the first NHL game for successful goalies.

In other words, being behind the average is not by itself cause for alarm. And beating the mean is not cause for an assumption of success.

So, where does that leave us with Vasilevski? He was drafted in 2012 and has played one year of junior hockey in the MHL (Russia). IF he sticks to the means for his population (first rounders who go into juniors)--and that's still a pretty big if at this point--AND he eventually becomes a starting goalie:

  • He'll play in both the KHL and the MHL at some point this season (season 2)
  • He'll play in the AHL next season and it is possible that he'll get a handful of NHL games in 2014-15. (season 3)
  • He'll continue to play in the AHL in 2015-16, but should be getting NHL games (season 4).
  • He'll play less than 20 games his first year in the NHL.
  • Hell get about 85 AHL games plus 50 NHL games before becoming an NHL starter.
  • He'll play in about two or three AHL seasons total before becoming an NHL starter and in most of those years he'll play NHL games as well.
  • He'll play two or three NHL seasons before becoming an NHL starter, which happens more than 5 years after his draft, or sometime in the 2016-17 or 2017-18 season. (season 5 or season 6).

So when does the Era of Vasya begin? Realistically, there are at least another 4 seasons until he could be called "the answer," IF everything goes the way it has gone for other goalies. However, we should see him get a few games in the NHL within another year or two. It could be sooner but it also could be later or not at all. And in the meantime, anything can happen. Patience is going to be key.

*****

Overall the data from this project supports the common contention that goalies take a long time to develop and don't really mature as NHL players until several years after their draft. A fair number of players have created very successful careers not making the NHL in any form for 4 or more years after their draft and not becoming NHL regulars for 5 or 6 years post-draft. While many of the more successful goalies do get recognized early in their careers, a good number of others benefit from waiting. There is no ideal speed towards the NHL, but generally speaking, six seasons post draft is the outer limit for a first appearance to lead to a successful NHL career.

Second, every goalie needs some time in a primary minor league like the AHL, the SHL, or the KHL--at least one season and more likely two or more. Four seasons is not out of the question. Of these leagues, the AHL is the most important. Time in the SHL or the KHL doesn't generally exempt players from playing in the American League, though on a few rare occasions it has. This underscores the importance of patiently developing the goalies a franchise drafts. It also indicates the importance of investing resources (time, money, and support personnel) in a franchise's AHL affiliate.

Finally, draft position doesn't matter as much as many assume it might. In fact, late round draftees may have more success than middle-rounders. There are busts in every round, although the first round has fewer of them than any other. There is also no direct relationship between where a player was drafted and when he makes his first appearance in the NHL or the development path he takes to get there, other than a tendency for late rounders to enter the secondary minor leagues rather than amateur hockey. The ability of a franchise to locate and evaluate relatively unknown goaltenders can be a real competitive advantage, when paired with the patience and vision to develop them.

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