How To Fix Canada’s Goalie Development Woes
Looking at the list of goaltenders that are considered ‘elite’ or ‘top tier’ – both at the prospect level and the pro level – it appears that Canadian goaltending isn’t as dominant as it once was.
Maybe that’s because the NHL has opened its doors to a higher number of foreign skaters in recent years. More likely, it’s because other countries are surpassing Canadian goaltending development from the beginning.
The reason why? It’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s there.
Arizona Coyotes goaltending coach Jon Elkin pointed out that it comes down to two things; a departure from routine and a higher emphasis on a player’s athleticism over technical structure at an earlier age.
“Foundation is important for everybody,” suggested Elkin, “but you can be taught that. Athleticism needs to be developed early on.
That’s why you see the guys like my student Mackenzie Blackwood; he didn’t become a goaltender until later, he was a forward first. Those guys get a more solid athletic foundation and that’s important.”
He thinks that the Canadian goaltending system has become both too technically based and too grinding. Players in the United States and Europe often participate in other sports and physical activities in the off-season, and it keeps them both well-rounded athletically and from burning out with the same routine day after day. In Canada, even the off-season can be tough on young goaltenders, with nothing but goaltending camps and summer leagues and extra on-ice training. To Elkin, that’s where Canada is starting to fall behind.
InGoal even published a feature on Braden Holtby last year when he revealed that he wasn’t allowed to become a full-time goaltender until he was 12 years old, further proving Elkin’s point.
Of course, some American goaltenders themselves have an interesting and unique perspective – including Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.
Hellebuyck played high school hockey before heading to the NAHL, where he spent one season prior to his NCAA play. The rest, so they say, is history; the young Michigan-based goaltender spent two seasons with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell before he went pro, and now he’s one of the most exciting young goaltenders to come out of the United States.
He thinks a lot of credit deserves to be given to the path many American goaltenders take to the pros.
“The NAHL has so many teams that the talent is more diluted,” suggested Hellebuyck. “Leagues like that can help a goaltender because you aren’t on a team full of stars; you’re learning to develop behind maybe a struggling defensive system that can’t always handle the good scoring on another club. In the CHL, you’re still facing great shots, but you aren’t getting as much variety in the kinds of shots you may face and the kinds of teams you may be playing behind. That makes the jump to the AHL more foreign than for a guy who’s maybe spent some time in the NAHL or USHL, maybe some time in high school, then some time in the NCAA before he hits the pros.”
Whether it’s the types of systems a goaltender works with or the kinds of shots they’re facing, though, both Elkin and Hellebuyck thought that teams who drafted from the NCAA and the European leagues gave themselves a beneficial cushion that other teams may not be afforded.
“If you have a goaltender in the NCAA, it gives you that extra couple of years before you have to find a spot for them in the system,” suggested Elkin. “It’s the same as drafting a goaltender who wants to spend some time in a European league.”
Of course, Canadian goaltenders can still play NCAA. They hurt themselves in this regard, though, with the continued stand-off between the CHL and the NCAA – as major junior hockey players aren’t eligible for NCAA play once they hit that age.
Can this be fixed?
Elkin said it’s already starting to trend towards a fix in the Canadian goaltending development systems. The United States was able to catch up in goaltending because of the technology age, with more opportunities for aspiring coaches to access the materials they need to become great. That, said Elkin, is going to be what saves Canadian goaltending as well.
“You have Centre Ice, so you can now see games for every team, and you have access to so much information both on the web and on the TV. The goaltending community is already so inter-locked, but this gives developing coaches more information to work with successfully.”
It’s certainly going to help that the successful American programs are garnering more attention. Players like Hellebuyck are no longer the exception to the rule when it comes to United States development; Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider, John Gibson, Thatcher Demko, and Scott Darling are all prime examples of American-born goaltenders that have become household names. As these players are exposed to the spotlight, their path to the pros will be considered more and more acceptable – even recommended. American goaltending will become a part of the conversation as a worldwide example for how successful netminders are trained, and that should help Canadian goaltending simply by proxy.
The biggest thing they’ll need to change, though? Elkin thinks it’s how they develop in the first place.
“You can always work with a goaltender on their technique,” he suggested. “Athleticism is much harder to improve, though, without a solid foundation.
Canadian goaltending fell behind when they failed to address that.”