The 2016 OHL Championship Series got underway on Thursday night, with the London Knights beating the Niagara IceDogs 4-1 on home ice. The favoured Knights came out slow, outshot 10-5 in the first period. It was their goalie, Tyler Parsons, who kept them in it at first until the offence started clicking. Eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, Parsons has shone in the playoffs this year and made a serious case for a team in need of a goaltender to select him.
In the game on Thursday, Parsons allowed just one goal on 28 shots, a play he had no chance on as he was trapped by a London defenceman who’d fallen on top of him. His calm, squared saves – especially early on – stabilized his nervous team, even when they went down 1-0, and likely paved the way for the ensuing four-goal answer to Niagara’s first blood.
“They’ve got a heck of a goalie in there,” commented IceDogs coach Marty Williamson after the game.
That’s been Parsons throughout these playoffs, really. He was good in the regular season – not always great, but dependable behind a team that can score four goals every night. As such, his good stats (2.33 GAA and .921 SV%) were often attributed to the team in front of him.
Now, though, he’s a bona fide star among junior hockey goaltenders. Parsons leads all OHL netminders with a .926 playoff save percentage, which has been crucial in London’s playoff run on occasions when the offence has started slowly.
The buzz around Parsons began to grow in the OHL Western Conference Final between the Knights and Erie Otters, where he allowed just one goal in each of the last three games in a sweep of the league’s top seed. Coming into the championship series now, he’s faced with likely the toughest opposing counterpart yet in the playoffs in Niagara’s Alex Nedeljkovic.
Nedeljkovic, a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick and Team USA goalie at the World Juniors, has kept the IceDogs in a lot of games the past few weeks. A team that doesn’t score nearly as much as London, they’re more used to relying on the goalie’s hot hand.
Against a defensive team like Niagara, though, the Knights need to be solid in net more now than ever.
“It’s the OHL finals,” Parsons said after Game One, “So it comes to defence and goaltending.” In that game, it was London who had the better performance from their goalie, as Parsons seemed to deal with the pressure of the situation much better than Nedeljkovic.
At the start of this season, Parsons knew he needed a big year. He’d won the starting job in London during the 2015 playoffs, and with Michael Giugovaz no longer around the permanent role was his. He’s always been an extremely athletic goalie, adept at using his 6’2”, 185-pound frame to get in front of pucks, with a knack for reflex saves.
It wasn’t until later in the year, though, that he showed serious improvement in the technical aspects of the game. He’s still no Mike Smith at puckhandling (although he has scored a goal this year), but Parsons’ rebound control has gone from iffy to exceptionally calculated as it was against Niagara. His glove hand has become one of his secret weapons, and his positioning is now vastly better than it was eight months ago.
Goalie instructor Rob Liddell, who has worked with Parsons for years in Michigan, once told the London Free Press that he’s similar in style – not necessarily skill level – to L.A.’s Jonathan Quick.
The effect Parsons has on his team is tangible, as it is with any reliable goalie. The confidence he exudes spreads to the players in front of him quickly, particularly after one of his now-trademark square, no-rebound saves.
“He’s our rock back there,” agreed Knights forward Owen MacDonald. “He makes the saves that he needs to make, and whenever we do make a mistake he bails us out every time.”
Parsons himself also knows how much momentum he can generate. “Especially early, or late in the game when we’re holding a lead,” he pointed out, “They’re always relying on me to make a big save like that. I think it definitely gives them some confidence, and they give me confidence when they go score a goal.”
Typically, the Knights do go score a goal after Parsons has saved them from a slow start.
With the NHL Draft coming up in June, Parsons admits he can’t help but let it cross his mind. “It’s getting closer and closer, and I’m trying not to think about it,” he said. “What happens is what happens.”
As it stands, he’s often ranked around the mid-sixties on scouting lists, but in the later rounds of the draft – especially with goalies – that order means very little. It’s far from a sure thing that he’ll even be picked by anybody. This playoff run, though, has certainly put him prominently on the map in the eyes of scouts.
The NHL’s Central Scouting put Parsons third among North American goaltenders in their final rankings, behind Evan Fitzpatrick of the Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL) and Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips (WHL). That’s up from his sixth place midterm rank, so at the time of release he was already on the way up.
Parsons has definitely had some interest from NHL organizations this season. “At the beginning of the year I talked to a lot of teams,” he said. He doesn’t get the same attention as a player ranked in the top ten like his teammate Matthew Tkachuk, but he expects to get busier as June approaches. “I think it all settles down,” he added. “Once it gets closer to the draft maybe some teams will come and talk. You never know.”
As for the IceDogs, they have to find a way to solve Parsons, and soon. If they can’t compete with London offensively, they will be out of this OHL championship relatively quickly. Marty Williamson believes the best strategy for dealing with a hot goalie is to get pucks on net from as many angles as possible.
“Take what they’re giving you,” said Williamson on Thursday. “If it’s point shots we’ll take them. If it’s getting the puck inside, it’s whatever… We had some chances, [Parsons] made some good saves, but we’ll continue to generate offence.”
If Parsons continues to outplay Nedeljkovic, and leads London to win the Robertson Cup, his draft stock has to go up. He’ll be at the core of a team that may well go into the Memorial Cup as a favourite, with scouts from every NHL team watching.
Both for his team and his future, the pressure is on Tyler Parsons again to perform on Saturday night in Game Two. If recent history is any indicator, though, he can handle it.