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Rookie NHL Goalies are Years in the (Minors) Making

The three seasons spent in the AHL with Manitoba is now paying off for Cory Schneider with the Vancouver Canucks.

At a time when more and more teenagers are making an immediate and impressive impact in the National Hockey League, it’s interesting to note the best first-year goaltenders tend to be older and have American Hockey League resumes.

This year’s list of leading freshman with a track record in the AHL includes Michal Neuvirth in Washington, Corey Crawford in Chicago, Cory Schneider in Vancouver, and Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles. All but Crawford come to the NHL with minor-league hardware: Goalie of the Year honors for Schneider (2009) and Bernier (2010), and a Calder Cup playoff MVP award for Neuvirth in 2009.

Most importantly, all came to the NHL with several years of AHL experience. So too did fellow rookies Devan Dubnyk in Edmonton and Justin Peters in Carolina.

“At the time you may not realize it, you may be frustrated or anxious to make it to the next level but looking back I realize how much it did mean to me and how I matured,” said Schneider, who spent three seasons in the AHL before getting the Canucks backup job. “Adjusting to the pace of shots, being mentally tough, not getting shaken or rattled or upset after giving up goals – it’s all part of it and playing over 100 games in the American League helps ease those nerves.”

Rookie Goalies By the Numbers

It’s only two months in, but this year’s crop of rookie targets fits the statistical trends since the first post-lockout season. (2005-06 was a statistical aberration with a whopping 30 rookies making an appearance in goal, 19 playing double-digit games, and 13 getting enough games (25) to lose their status as NHL rookies.)
With 12 making appearances the first month (plus Karlsson, who at 27 isn’t considered a rookie by the NHL), we are on our way to the average of 22 rookie goalies getting in a game the last four seasons. Ditto the number to play double-digit games (just over seven) and play more than 25 games (four).

Not that the AHL is the only place to get that pro experience.

Among this year’s list of first-year stoppers, few have been more impressive than Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has won 12 games,the starting job in Philadelphia, and NHL Rookie of the Month honours for November after posting a .926 save percentage through the first two months of the season.

Bobrovsky spent two seasons posting good numbers behind a bad team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and the experience shows.

“The professionalism can be traced to having played at a high level in the KHL,” Flyers goaltending coach Jeff Reese said. “He’s a real mature 22-year-old.”

Similar sentiments are being expressed in Nashville and Calgary about the value of time in the Swedish Elite League after massive Swedes Anders Lindback won the Predators back-up job, and similarly huge countryman Henrik Karlsson did the same in Calgary. Karlsson, who at age 27 isn’t technically considered a rookie, spent four seasons in Sweden’s top-two pro leagues, while Lindback played two seasons in the top Elite League despite only being 22 years old now.

“There’s something to be said for guys that put their time in,” Schneider said. “You play so many games in the minors and its almost like it doesn’t phase you anymore. You are ready for anything and you’ve seen it all and you’ve played in worse conditions than up here, and you just have the right mindset.”

It’s a mindset that can take a while to develop completely, even with a good puck-stopping pedigree. Schneider, Neuvirth, Bernier, Dubnyk and Crawford were all drafted in the first two rounds and spent at least two seasons in the AHL before getting their first shot at full-time NHL jobs, a trend that last season included Jimmy Howard and Tuukka Rask. Neuvirth, who was the NHL rookie of the month for October, even spent some time in the ECHL just two seasons ago.

While forwards and the odd defenseman jump straight to the NHL as teenagers, the recent list in goal is limited to Carey Price in Montreal and Steve Mason in Columbus – and both experienced setbacks since sizzling first NHL seasons.

canucks goalie corey Schneider

Canucks rookie backup Cory Schneider is surprised by criticism of young goalies like Carey Price and Steve Mason.

“I’m always amazed when I see 18 year old goalies like a guy like Mason or Carey Price make it right out of junior,” Schneider said. “It’s incredible because I know when I was 18 I was a freshman in college and I was nowhere near ready for this. I find it funny when people criticize either one of those kids because they are still 20, 21, 22 years old. Most goalies don’t even make the league until they are 25, 26, so you look at the raw talent and think that they are going to be just fine. They are still young and have a lot of growing to do so for people to criticize them is ridiculous if you look at their ceiling.”

Unlike Price and Mason, Schneider got to experience his early setbacks in the relative anonymity of the minor leagues, before finally getting to show how high his ceiling might be this season. Not that there haven’t been adjustments. Even this season, Schneider has simplified his game, playing deeper in his crease rather than starting out aggressively and drifting back with the attack, an “outside-in” style that depends more in timing and rhythm than the more passive technique he is using successfully now. Bernier has also shortened up since coming out of junior, positioning himself with his toes inside the top of the blue ice when play is in the zone rather than his old “heels out” style.

Jonathan Bernier's time in the AHL is paying off with a job in the NHL now. (Photo by Scott Slingsby).

That adjustment lends itself to what Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford praised as a “very calming demeanor” and Bernier’s ability to “make the game look very easy,” something teammates have also noted. It’s a quieter approach echoed to a lesser extent by Neuvirth, allowing the play to come to them with shorter (and therefore quicker) movements inside the blue ice rather than chasing the puck frantically around the zone. And it’s an approach both honed in the minors.

“You just get better at everything,” added Bernier, who was the AHL goalie of the year after his second season in 2010. “I make better decisions now.”

For Bernier, Neuvirth and other AHL alumni, the adjustment to the NHL game is simpler after years in the AHL. In fact, a lot of goalies find it easier in the NHL, even if the shots and pace are faster, because there are less mistakes made in front of them, more control and less broken plays leading to scrambles.

The adjustment is far more significant for goalies coming over from Europe, where rinks are bigger, and the angles and style of play are different.

Most of them are now coming from Scandinavia and with pro experience in their native leagues. It started with older Finn Niklas Backstrom in 2006, but moved west to Sweden, the source of Lindback and Karlsson this year, Jonas Gustavsson last season, and a trend-setting Henrik Lundqvist coming out of the lockout.

If the Finnish emergence can be tracked to a decade-old decision to have goalie coaches from age 8, the Swedish revolution is a copycat, though the current crop didn’t get modern technical coaching until they were older. Hence the run on late bloomers like Lundqvist and Karlsson, who made his NHL debut this year at age 26, and just five seasons after his first “modern, technical” goalie coach.

Henrik Karlsson Calgary Flames Goalie

Flames backup Henrik Karlsson got his technical instruction late by most standards. (Image copyright Torie Peterson, All rights reserved)

“It was pretty late,” said Karlsson. “But that really changed my play. It put my game together much better, technique to use my size better. I always had talent but you need to also have the technique to be able to play. I was more up and down the years before I really started to work on my technique.”

Some believe that need to learn to make saves on their own has left the Swedes with better natural instincts than some of their over-coached North American peers. There is also a belief that the patience required to play the east-west, pass-first, shoot-never European game fits well in the post-lockout NHL.

“It helps with staying on your feet as long as you can,” said Reese, echoing Mitch Korn’s Nashville philosophy. “I’m a big believer in patience.”

Of course that can also lead to playing a bit too deep. While the AHL goalies have a solid background in proper depth management, Lindback, Karlsson and Bobrovsky have all been coaxed off their goal lines so far this season.

That Bobrovsky didn’t need any other significant changes is a bigger surprise given many young Russian goalies come over lacking technical refinement.

“It really surprised me,” Reese said. “We weren’t sure what to expect. We had real good reports and saw a little bit of tape but you never know what you’re going to get mentally. And technically he was very good when he got here.”

The fact he didn’t arrive straight out of junior probably has a lot to do with that. Ditto for the rest of this year’s rookie goalies in the NHL.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.