Drafting Goaltenders is a Poor Gamble



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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.

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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.

Lesson Learned

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.

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  • Colin.S

    Irving is going to have to have a miracle this offseason if he even wants to be playing hockey by this time next season. Other than his Boston outing he did more than fine in a back up role to Kipper and the Boston game can hardly be blamed entirely on him. But after returning to the AHL he looked entirely like the goalie that many of us are worried that he truly is, a goalie barely able to even be a starter in the AHL instead of an NHL calibre goalie.

    I got no faith in Ortio either, that may be a wasted late pick, and I’m still curious as to why we picked Broissot over Lieuwen as well?

  • Colin.S

    Good article Kent

    One thing I have noticed is the league copies itself when success is found, seemingly for free, when a franchise goalie is picked late in the draft or even free agency.

    When Nabokov emerged, everybody and their dog were trying to draft Russian goalies. When Kiprusoff emerged, Finland was raped and pillaged to varying degrees of success. When king Henrik started to dominate, other teams (ahem Toronto, Calgary) were burned trying to find a diamond in the rough in Sweden. Goalie after goalie was drafted in the early rounds from Quebec thanks to Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy (also to varying degrees of success).

    The truth about goaltending (coming from a long time goalie and goalie coach) is that its a crap shoot. There appears to be higher success in drafting great athletes and attitudes who are raw than picking the “total package” in junior (see Pekka Rinne, Miikka Kiprusoff, and god willing Laurent Brossoit).

    On a lighter note, a goalie I use to coach, Kieran Millan, signed his ELC with the Avalanche a couple of weeks ago. He was drafted as a 19 year old after a year in college (shameless plug not used as an argument but rather to make me feel important).

    Goaltending is not as important as it is made out to be. Teams overpay for average goaltending. You are better finding a capable replacement level guy, using salary savings on offense. Detroit figured this out 15 years ago.

  • jeremywilhelm

    Bit of a false narrative there KW. Irving didn’t fail to outduel Taylor. He was brought up to calgary for a couple months after a pretty solid season in the AHL where he play a more than 90% of the Heats games. While he was gone, Taylor established himself as a solid AHL option for Ward. When Irvin finally returned to the Heat, Taylor was playing out of his mind.

    The unfortunate/fortunate occurence of Taylor struggling happened almost exactly at the same time as Irvings wife having their first baby.

    I can see how this may have thrown people. Troy Ward ran his team on merit, Taylor deserved the starts he earned while Irving was gone to Cgy, and it would have been hypocritical of Ward to play Irving ahead of Taylor just because he was sent back down. When Taylor dis struggle late in the second series, Irving hadn’t played in quite a while and was also dealing with his wife and new baby.

    Is it an excuse? Yep. But an understandable one.
    To say Irving lost the starting job to Taylor is disingenuous to the truth of what had happened.

    • I was aware of the circumstances and while I empathize, I remain skeptical that they were completely to blame for Irving becoming Taylor’s backup down the stretch and into the playoffs. It’s not like this hasn’t happened to Irving before or he was a career .920 goalie before hitting a rough patch due to call-ups or family issues.

      Like I said, I thin the Flames might as well keep him around and see if he can take another step or two forward.

  • RexLibris

    @Colin.S : “I’m still curious as to why we picked Broissot over Lieuwen as well?”

    because Lieuwen sucks. He was passed over in his first year of eligibility for a reason. I don’t know how you can possibly be dissappointed with the Brossoit pick anyway, because there have been nothing but positive signs since he was drafted. And it was a 6th rounder to boot.

    • Colin.S

      If Lieuwen sucks, so does Broissoit. Lieuwen was the best goalie for the 2011 playoffs in the WHL, 3rd best again in the 2011/2012 season(Broissot was 2nd) however Broissot was playing on an extremely stacked Oil Kings team, while Lieuwen was back stopping a very mediocre Kootney Ice team. The Ice only had one player in the top 40 point getters, the Oil Kings can boast multiple players.

      The Oil Kings can also boast some of the best defensive prospects in the WHL on their team, such as Pysyk and Reinhart. Joey Leach may very well have been one of the best defensemen on the Ice and the general consensus around here is that he may never make the NHL.

      I’ll be curious to see how Broissot does next year as well as Liuewen. Personally I liked Lieuwen, especially seeing him during Kootney’s Run last year. I’ve heard good things about Broissot, but also a lot of negatives. Like Kents article is saying, drafting a goalie is pretty well a crap shoot, there a myriad of reasons that a goalie looks great in junior, translating that to the NHL is another thing.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Good article. I’ve thought this for several years now, even after Fleury & Price were drafted. Just seems to risky for a position that can be so mental – Mason in Columbus is a prime example.

    Speaking of Columbus, they have been mentioned as a possible trade target for Calgary with Kiprusoff. Personally I’m not sure Columbus would fork out for a veteran net-minder when they are in a rebuild mode, but say they did, to make the $$ work would we be at all interested in bringing Mason back the other way? (assuming the rest of the package for Kipper was enticing)

    The guys on the Fan were talking about this a few weeks back – I think it was Walker that was all over the idea. You look at how many goalies bounce back with a change of scenery (Smith, Elliot) and I can’t help but wonder if it would be worth the gamble. Sure he looks bad now, but if you can swallow the contract, maybe you find a gem. Look at what he has accomplished in the past.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    agreed, goalies are a low return investment. jack campbell, the central focus of a huge deal involving the windsor spits and soo greyhounds was downright awful for much of this season. its seems jack peaked for 2 weeks at the worlds and rode that performance to a first round selection.goalies are similiar to feild goal kickers.

  • jeremywilhelm

    Irving was in calgary until what? The last 5-6 games of the Heats season? When he got back to Abbotsford Taylor was playing out of his mind for the last 6 games. Hard to not lose the starting position when he wasnt on the team for 2 or so months.

  • Sobueno

    Hey Kent, I’ve heard a few mentions of a ‘weighted’ save percentage based mainly on the difficulty of shots faced. Do you think this is a viable metric? I’m also wondering if it would be worthwhile to calculate save percentages based solely on scoring chances, with the idea of garnering some kind of information on the “key” saves a goalie makes in a game. What do you think?

    • RexLibris

      regarding the difficulty of shots faced: assigning a difficulty rating to a shot strikes me as highly arbitrary – is a weak shot from in close more or less difficult then a hard shot from the perimeter? thus, I don’t see the metric you speak of being useful in any non-subjective way.

      the scoring chance sv% definitely could work, but you’d probably need at least 30-40 games – maybe even more, taking into account the frequency of scoring chances in a game – to get viable results. for most goalies, that’s basically 2/3rds of a season’s worth of games.

      • Sobueno

        I wasn’t too sure about how to go about assigning difficulty to shots, so I’d tend to agree with your assessment that it sounds quite arbitrary. But couldn’t some standard definitions be created based on position of the shooter on the ice, his proximity to the defense, line of sight to the net, etc.? Then you could potentially create a scale of difficulty (eg. 1 to 10), or even simplify it to a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in terms of each shot as difficult and somehow convert the overall save percentage to a weighted percentage based on the amount of shots deemed “difficult”. Sorry, just thinking out loud, maybe I should just do some research and see how it supposedly actually calculated haha.

        I figured that for the scoring chance save percentage you would likely need a large number of games to generate a sufficient amount of data. The question then becomes, does it give us any useful information about the goalie’s performance? Or is it just a goalie’s overall luck when the defense breaks down?

        • RexLibris

          while it seems like an intriguing thought, I’m inclined to think that a stat based on something like that will reflect poorly on teams with higher fenwick/corsi %ages and better defensive systems simply due to the weighting of the shots.

          think about it this way: would you rather have a goalie that stops 91% of shots directed towards him, weighted to 93% then a goalie that stops 93% of shots directed towards him weighted to 91%? the answer is obviously the second one, since he stops more pucks regardless of how difficult they are to stop. in that context, I don’t see much point – you want a guy who will stop more pucks overall.

          I’m of the mindset that over the course of a season, the true talent level of a goalie will be revealed regardless of the difficulty of the shots – unless the team is just absolutely dominant (97 red wings) or absolutely horrible (02 blue jackets), but even that may be up for discussion.

          ah, and you hit the nail on the head with your first question regarding sc sv%.

          plenty of goals are scored from outside the scoring chance area – how do we factor those in? should we? etc. in the end we may find the results irrelevant when compared to the overall performance (read: evsv%) of the goalie.

          while my gut tells me the luck of goaltenders is probably pretty consistent tendy to tendy over a long enough period of time, I’m not totally sure that’s the case.

          like I said though, it would be an interesting experiment. also, I don’t mean to be dismissive of your thoughts with this answer, so apologies if it comes across that way.

          • Sobueno

            Thanks for your thoughts Justin, and I didn’t think your response was dismissive so no worries.

            I think the main ‘goal’ (ok bad pun) in attempting to create some kind of weighted save percentage is to try and gauge the real talent of a goalie independent from the play of their team. If a “true” weighted stat were available then the value would be in seeing that the goalie weighted up to 93% is actually a better tender than the one weighted to 91%. If they were theoretically placed on identical teams, the expectation would be that the up-weighted goalie would have a higher sv% at the end of the year than his counterpart.

            Thus if a GM had to pick between the two from a FA list then they’d expect the up-weighted goalie to perform better. So in that case, maybe I would prefer the 93% tender, even if they had stopped less shots the previous year.

            I’m pretty sure you’re right though that the better possession/defensive teams would likely get weighted down significantly. Seems like there would be all sorts of hurdles and confounders to consider, and in the end it may not really give us much additional information anyway lol.

    • Colin.S

      I don’t put much stock in age differences after draft year for goalies. As well it’s about 1+1/2 rather than 2 years. Yeah they have more experience, but it’s more a either you get it/have it rather then with F/D. F/D if they are older then they are bigger/stronger then the younger 17/18 years and look better compared to them. Not so much with goalies.

      As well in Junior there is such discrepancies with team strengths that its hard to just say A is better than B.

  • RexLibris

    I have liked the Oilers strategy, at times, of using later round picks on goaltenders. I wasn’t especially happy with the Perhonen selection with the first pick in the third round, but apparently they are taking butterfly goaltending to an extreme.

    That being said, the two strongest goaltending prospects for the Oilers (Bunz and Roy, sounds like a bad law firm) were both taken in the fifth round of their respective draft years.

    Given the already arcane nature of goaltending development, using a pick with that small a statistical chance of NHL employment seems about right.

    I think drafting goalies is all retrospective. If a team finds one (eg: Rinne) they look like genuises. If not, it is just another failed goalie prospect.