Watching John Gibson set an American record while backstopping the United States to a gold medal at the IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championships, it was hard to believe the Pittsburgh native was once cut from his high school hockey team.
Then again, after watching the Anaheim Ducks’ draft pick go outside what some might consider the perfect technical box to make big, timely saves when needed, and after reading about how all over the place his game was when his Ontario Hockey League team, the Kitchener Rangers, discovered Gibson at 15, maybe that’s why he won.
Gibson earned tournament MVP, First Team All Star, and Top Goaltender honors while setting an U.S. record with a .955 save percentage after giving up just nine goals in seven games. The 19-year-old also posted a 1.36 goals-against average, beat the favored Canadians 5-1 in the semi-final and the defending champion Swedes 3-1 in the final. Even in his two losses – both 2-1 against Canada and Russia in the Round Robin – Gibson was praised as the biggest reason the Americans even kept it close.
Not bad for a kid cut from the Baldwin High School team.
“Got cut from a lot of teams in Pittsburgh, tried to use it as motivation,” Gibson told reporters after celebrating the gold medal win, “Prove people wrong.”
Gibson is proving a lot of things, including the strength of American goaltending, which also produced the last two Stanley Cup-winning tenders in Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas. InGoal will take a look at USA Hockey’s goalie coaching program as part of an in-depth feature on Gibson in the March edition of the magazine, but some are already arguing that the recent success may have something to do with not over-coaching at too young an age.
The late-blooming – at least in a technical sense – paths of both Thomas and Quick have been well documented by InGoal. And Gibson was “technically all over the place” when Kitchener scout Ed Roberts discovered him playing for a little known team at a tournament in Detroit at age 15, according to Metro News story that ran after he eliminated Canada.
After watching him a few more times, the Rangers picked him in the 11th round of the OHL Draft, but reading Roberts descriptions of Gibson in 2009 – “very, very raw” – it’s easy to wonder whether he would have still been playing on a travel team in a country like Canada at an age when top kids are typically well-coached and starting to look alike – too much, some argue.
Gibson refined his game under USA Hockey goaltending coach Joe Exeter while with the National Team Development Program and last year led the OHL with a .928 save percentage as a rookie. But for all the focus on how effectively Gibson blends his improving technique and tactics with a willingness to abandon it when needed and instinctually revert to the more innate saves that defined his game back at age 15, it’s still his poise that continues to separate him.
Identified as a key asset even before the Ducks chose him in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft, that calm nature evident throughout the World Juniors, never showing signs of being rattled on the biggest stage of his young career, and facing the world’s best young players. It’s a unique quality for a former scrambler, and it settled his USA teammates during rough patches, and ultimately let them all return from Russian with gold medals – and a new American goaltending hero.
Gibson Bonus Links
A lot of great analysis has been written about Gibson since the win, including a World Junior wrap up by Goalie Guild founder Justin Goldman for his new role as the director of goaltending scouting with McKeen’s Hockey.
And the superb “30 Thoughts” blog from Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman included three good ones (15-17) on Gibson, some of which added a grain of salt to the victory, lest the above praise come off as too much hyperbole. Given how many past World Junior goaltending heroes struggled in the pro game, it’s a worthwhile reminder and reality check.
Lastly, Gibson’s win inspired a compilation on the Trav4Oilers Youtube Channel, which has an impressive collection of goaltending videos. This Gibson edition shows off some of the half-butterfly, partial splits saves that separate him from the butterfly robots: