Many of my previous posts have been laden with skepticism when it comes to the Flames former first round pick Leland Irving. And it’s not only due to the fact that Irving’s outcomes as a pro are so underwhelming so far. it’s also because Calgary broke one of the cardinal rules of drafting in the NHL when they picked him – don’t draft goalies in the first round.
This is something I stumbled on back in 2008, when "building from the net out" was still a mantra in various corners. Drafting puckstoppers early was still relatively common as a result, but a glance at the league’s market for goalies and their uneven development (both in terms of rate and overall success) relative to other positions suggested to me that picking goaltenders in the first round (or before the 4th round, really) was a bad bet. My conclusion at the time was –
- Goalies are very important but have a low utility relative to skaters. There are only a precious few positions for goalies in an organization and they can’t differentiate themselves from competitors for the spots, outside of simply being better at stopping the puck.
- Having lots of goalies in a system is rather pointless since goaltending isn’t additive like scoring.
- A goalies development path is often difficult and long.
- Goalie supply far outweighs demand.
- Outside of the best in the biz, goalies have very little value as trade assets. Goalie prospects are worth even less by several orders of magnitude.
- It is very difficult to predict a goalie prospects future success. Current SV% leaders were liberally sprinkled through-out the draft.
Based on all this Im forced to conclude that drafting goalies is next to pointless. Trading even a first round pick for, say, a decent NHL goaltender whenever you need one (which isn’t that often) seems to make WAY more sense than drafting a goalie prospect with the same pick. The first option is proven at the NHL level and ready to contribute now. The prospect probably wont be ready for many years and may not be a viable NHL back-stopper anyhow. Meaning a GM in that position has to address the need immediately anyways (trade, sign, waiver wire) and chances are his first round goalie will turn out to be an un-tradable dud a few years down the road.
Unlike a lot of my earlier writing, this particular nugget of mine has held up over the years. Other folks have looked at the issue independently and come to a similar conclusion. Scott Reynolds, Jonathan Willis and Peter Siamandas have all subsequently written similar inquiries more recently and they all back-up the assertion that goaltenders are just about the worst gamble you can take with a top-30 pick.
And to the general credit of NHL teams, this lesson seems to have seeped into most front offices. Over the last three drafts, only two goalies have been picked in the first round – Jack Campbell at 12th overall (who was mostly awful when he moved to the OHL) and Mark Visentin at 27th overall (who has had a much better go of it than Jack).
For the Flames, Leland Irving was an object lesson of this principle (absent a sudden, unexpected rise to stardom a la Pekka Rinne, of course): Calgary is now six years removed from his draft year and most of Irving’s peers are now either veterans in the NHL or consigned to be AHLers or worse. Although the kid was likely picked to be Kipper’s heir apparent once Miikka neared the end of his career, the organization is still unsure whether Irving can even be a worthwhile backup at the NHL level (since he failed to outduel a free agent signing for the Heat’s starting job this season). Mediocre backups are always plentiful and inexpensive so the club has turned a first round pick and six years of development into…an easily attainable, cheaply signed commodity.
I’m not advocating the team toss Irving overboard in frustration – he may yet turn out to be one of those rare guys who figures things out in his mid-20’s and makes the leap. The point remains, the Flames know what they shouldn’t do heading into this June and every other June going forward – avoid the puckstoppers inside the first 100 picks or so.