A rapidly developing situation that could affect goalies worldwide, the subject has received more media attention within the hockey community than usual, and for good reason. Some people like it, while many others consider it a “knee-jerk” reaction to an issue that goes much deeper than sheer numbers and games played, and others really don’t like the idea of “sheltering” Canadian goalies.
Within the goaltending community, there has been no shortage of passionate opinions on the subject. From reader responses and guest articles right here at InGoal Magazine, to a full “School of Block” radio segment dedicated to the topic on The Pipeline Show in Edmonton (listen here), it’s a multi-layered topic that could have a major impact on the way goalies could be developed in Canada and the United States.
So when the Chicago Blackhawks announced they had signed Finnish superstar Antti Raanta to a new one-year entry-level contract Monday, one got the sense it might further stoke the flames of the great CHL “goalie ban” debate.
Raanta was a dominant force this season in the SM-liiga, the top pro league in his native Finland, winning just about every award in sight. He led Ässät Pori to a Championship in style, posting a 21-10-11 record, a league-best 1.85 goals-against average, and a .943 save percentage during the regular season. In the playoffs, he posted a 1.33 goals against and .955 save percentage in 16 games, capping what was a true breakout campaign for the 24-year-old. Not only did Raanta win a championship in just his third full season in the Finnish Elite League, but he also earned the regular season MVP, the playoff MVP, and the Goaltender of the Year awards.
With nothing left to prove after two excellent seasons in the SM-liiga, Raanta will now prepare for his toughest challenge yet: transitioning to the smaller ice of the NHL and trying to land next season’s backup job to Corey Crawford – and all without ever playing a game in North America. It won’t be an easy task, but Raanta has a strong support system assisting in this (tricky and often unpredictable) process.
Blackhawks goalie coach Stephane Waite has recent experience transforming a raw Finnish goalie into an elite NHL netminder when Antti Niemi first arrived on the scene from the Lahti Pelicans in 2008. Niemi was 25 years old at the time.
Another aspect supporting Raanta’s possible direct path to the NHL is a shallow depth chart.
Ray Emery is set to become an unrestricted free agent next month, and while he certainly deserves another NHL deal, it’s unclear if his future is in Chicago or if he’ll test the waters and try to sign elsewhere. Carter Hutton will also be an UFA this summer, and so will the gargantuan known as Henrik Karlsson, who came over as a later-blooming 27-year-old from Sweden three years ago.
Neither seem to have a future within the organization unless the Blackhawks feel they need an established veteran to play in Rockford. If so, there’s no shortage of veteran NHL backups that would love to sign a cheap one or two-year contract to back up Crawford.
Although Raanta is not a household name in North America, he most recently played in seven games for Team Finland in the 2013 World Championships. He performed admirably, posting a 2.09 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in the tournament, but fell to Team USA in the Bronze Medal game. I had a chance to break down some video of Raanta thanks to NBC Sports airing Team USA’s games, and even though it was a pretty small sample size, I can tell you that he clearly has the tools to be a legit NHL goaltender.
Listed at 6-foot, he has the prototypical quick feet and active hands, fluid reactions and great balance, and the ability to shift and contort his body to make dynamic saves in tight. He seals the ice very well on low shots and has the flexibility to adjust his upper body in order to see around traffic. He’s nimble, aggressive, competitive, and very responsive.
After dissecting the notes and video, it was easy to see the crux of his transition to the smaller ice is all about control. He’ll have to focus on the “less is more” approach by displaying patience on his skates and the ability to not get caught unnecessarily lunging or reaching for pucks. As the talent and the speed of games increases, he’ll have to work that much harder to stay in control and not over-react.
He’ll also have to focus on managing his depth in the crease. Where is that sweet spot for a guy like Raanta? Is it with his heels just inside the blue paint, or just outside the lip of the crease? Can he get away playing low to the ice like he does now, or will he need to slightly narrow his stance and gather his butterfly?
Only time will tell, and only experience and games played will allow him to make the adjustments necessary to further strengthen his technical foundation.
That being said, the big question is not if he’s capable of being an NHL goalie, but where he should play, and how many times. Is it better for him to play a heavy workload in the AHL, or does he have the talent to make a seamless transition to the NHL and give Crawford a dose of healthy competition?
These are questions Waite and assistant goalie coach Andrew Allen are already contemplating, and rest assured they will make the decision that sets Raanta up for long-term success.
Now what links Raanta’s arrival to the CHL goalie ban is the way in which goalies are developed at a younger age.
In Finland, many goalies not only train within the same club or program for a number of years, but they also work with high-level goalie coaches, sometimes even the same one that works for the pro and elite-level teams. Because of this, Finnish goalies are developed within a systematic and structured long-term model that is consistent, comprehensive, controlled, and communal (sharing drills and literature, refined techniques, etc).
So these young goalies learn a curriculum and then work within that same curriculum until they are ready to play at the professional level. Such is the case with Raanta, who is a product of Lukko’s junior program. He entered the fray way back in 2003, when he first started to compete on their U-16 team in the Jr. C SM-sarja league. He would continue to develop in Lukko for another eight years, until he posted a 2.37 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 20 regular season games for their SM-liiga team.
In North America, grassroots “in-house” programs are not necessarily set up that way.
Volunteer goalie coaches have the passion and dedication to teach, but lack experience or a true understanding of what to teach, how to teach it, and when to teach it. They have very few guidelines to work with, very few resources to aid their practice time, and simply not enough eyes to see every goalie they work with. The differences in development go on and on and on, but if you do some online research, you’ll see how far down the rabbit hole goes.
Ultimately, I won’t be surprised if Raanta secures the backup role to Crawford next season. He may have never played a game on the smaller ice, but his development path has been fortified and reinforced by the many years he spent working within the same system in Lukko (and most recently in Assat). Since the raw skills are there, it’s just a matter of him being adaptable this summer – doing whatever he possibly can to prepare himself for a strong training camp. Because even if Chicago does opt to sign another NHL veteran to bolster their depth behind Crawford, with Raanta under contract for only one season they need to see if he has what it takes to be a long-term starter in the league, much like the Anaheim Ducks did with another European transfer, Viktor Fasth, this season. And the only way to make an informed decision on whether to retain him or cut him loose is to play him in as many games as possible.
InGoal Magazine is ecstatic to welcome Justin Goldman as a regular contributor, both online and to the magazine. Justin is currently the Director of Goalie Scouting for McKeen’s Hockey and the founder of The Goalie Guild. He covered the Colorado Avalanche for six years for Mile High Sports Radio and was the goalie coach of the DU Junior Pioneers for three years before relocating to Minneapolis last summer. Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter @TheGoalieGuild and reach out to him anytime.