Where have all the Canadian Goaltenders gone?


Earlier this week I took a look at Hockey Canada and questioned if it was panic time after not winning a medal at the World Junior Championships.  While the facts suggest that there is not much to panic about, and that it is merely a matter of a one-year loss to some pretty good teams in the USA and Russia, there is one disturbing trend that is emerging…

Canada is simply not producing goaltending prospects like it once did.

In fact, since Carey Price in the 2005 NHL Entry draft we are hard pressed to find another great young Canadian goalie prospect who developped into an NHL star.  I do like Braden Holtby, as he certainly has the potential to be a very good goalie for the Capitals, but the reality is that he is still a prospect today, and as with all prospects he’s not a sure thing yet, even with a good month-long run in last year’s playoffs.

So what has gone wrong?  Why is Canada able to produce young forwards and defencemen on a regular basis, but is falling behind the Americans, Russians, Finns, and Swedes in producing goalies?  And more importantly what can Hockey Canada do to fix the problem?

credit: John Bristowe via photopin cc
credit: John Bristowe via photopin cc

First let’s look at the Golden Age of Canadian goalies – the 1990s.  During those years Quebec was an absolute goalie factory – Martin Brodeur, Felix Potvin, Jose Theodore, Martin Biron, Jocelyn Thibault, Roberto Luongo, Stephane Fiset, Marc Denis, Sebastian Giguere, and on and on it went.  The number of NHL goaltender prospects coming out of the province of Quebec was off the charts.  Plus you had Patrick Roy as the elder of the Quebec goalies statesman, and guys like Grant Fuhr, Bill Ranford, Curtis Joseph, Eddie Belfour, and others from the rest of Canada as NHL starters.

However in recent years, the pipeline has been turned off.  The province (and the country as a whole) is not producing nearly the same number of young quality goaltending prospects.  There have been many theories for this, but if you’ll indulge me for a moment I’d like to add one more to the litany of reasons why.

I think we need to look at what was happening with hockey in Quebec when all those goaltenders were produced.  The 80s and 90s were the golden age of offence in the QMJHL.  Teams played a run-and-gun style and things like the neutral zone trap, left wing lock or other defensive systems, were nowhere to be found.  Hockey in the QMJHL in those years was all about outgunning your opponent, about winning games 7-6 and 8-7.   Offensive stats were through the roof and offensive players in the league regularly outscored those in the OHL and WHL.  So with all the scoring how did this league produce all these great goaltenders?

These goalies were forged in the fire of those offensive systems.  They faced more quality shots, and quality scoring chances… more 2 on 1’s, 3 on 1’s, breakaways, and other quality opportunities than other goaltenders had.  As a result they were forced to make saves on tough opportunities to survive,  forced to develop their reflexes and their technique to prosper in the league.  The goals against average and save percentages of these goalies may not have matched other junior age counterparts, but their skills surpassed them, and developed at a quicker rate.

This didn’t just happen at the QMJHL level.  Ultimately the QMJHL was a model for what was happening in the rest of Quebec and in the minor league systems at the time.  Goalies at the elite levels of minor hockey were facing the high end offensive stars of the day in run and gun style hockey from a young age.  This led to them facing those quality shots and chances every single game, all over the province.  As a result their high end goaltending talent was already developing long before they joined the QMJHL.

In the last decade or so things have changed.  The QMJHL is no longer the run-and-gun offensive league in the CHL.  Defensive, system-based hockey has taken over, just as it has in every other junior league in Canada.  This has lead to success at the Major Junior level as after a long drought QMJHL teams have become true contenders for the Memorial Cup on a year in and year out basis.  Teams like Shawinigan, Saint John, Quebec, and others have taken home the CHL’s ultimate prize.  But it has come at an expense.  The quality defensive play that these teams and their opponents in Quebec have shown, has led to less quality chances against their goaltenders, and less of an opportunity for them to develop into stars for the World Junior Team and at the NHL level.

This effect, the development of “system hockey” and “trap hockey” at the junior and minor hockey levels of this country have been seen from coast to coast in Canada.  Its not something that is unique to Quebec, but it is more pronounced there (as the level of wide open offence was greatest in Quebec in the 1980’s and 90’s so the change there was greatest).  As such the number of quality goaltenders produced has fallen all across the country, but most noticeably in Quebec.  I believe that the two are related.  It is due to the proliferation of trap hockey that reduces the number of quality chances, that clogs the middle and allows a lot of long range shots and easy saves for goalies, while taking away the best opportunities.  And it’s not just at the NHL level, or the major junior level; coaches at the minor levels of hockey copy what works.  And so, system hockey is what our young elite players are being taught at every level.  This leads to less quality scoring chances and less opportunities for young goalies to develop their skill.

So what do we do?  How do we overcome this issue?  It will be difficult because for many the goal of winning is a big one, and it’s a proven fact that given equal talent, defensive hockey wins championships.  A strong system works in hockey, and disciplined team play achieves the goals that many coaches have.  Forcing them to change in order to better develop one position is an uphill battle that is probably not likely to happen.

credit: pattininews via photopin cc
credit: pattininews via photopin cc

Of course the big question is why have American and European goalies been able to avoid this problem, despite their teams playing the same defensive systems.  The answer to this seems to be that these teams have a far greater ratio of practices, and scrimmages, to actual organized games vs their Canadian counterparts. Through practice and scrimmage, kids seem to play a more wide open and high level skill style of game – scoring goals is fun and that’s what these players try to do in these situations.  This leads to young goalies in those countries getting the type of high quality workload that Canadians are missing right now.  The ratio of practices to games has long been an area that many have pushed Hockey Canada to change for a number of years with little success.  So asking for this to happen is again an uphill battle with the powers that be.

So what is a young Canadian goalie with potential to do?  Where can he develop the skills necessary to develop into the best he can be?  Here is an outside the box style suggestion – why not play roller hockey in the summer.  Hear me out – roller hockey is a very wide open game, played 4 on 4 with the rink divided into 2 zones instead of three, and filled with quality scoring chances at both ends of the rink.  Anyone who has watched roller hockey can see the run and gun style that leads to a ton of odd man rushes, good shots, great saves, and goals.  High level in-line hockey is an extremely fast paced game with end to end action.  This would be one area that a young goalie can once again go from the frying pan straight into the fire, so to speak.  And it’s this trial by fire that is necessary for a young netminder to develop those reflexes and techniques.  In order to improve, you need to face a high volume of quality scoring chances.  So for the young goalies out there, give it a shot… strap on the in-line skates in the offseason, and it could just help you develop into a better goalie on the ice.

…. and thats the Last Word.

Feel free to follow me on twitter @lastwordBkerr and be sure to join Max Vasilyev and I on Wednesday Nights at 10:00pm when we host the hockey radio show, “Puckheads”, on the Last Word Radio Network.  You can listen in live or to our past podcasts by clicking here, or by searching for us on iTunes.