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Every year, there’s always one unheralded goaltender that steals the hearts of hockey fans around the globe.
Switzerland’s Benjamin Conz in 2010. Slovakia’s Denis Godla in 2015. Sebastian Wraneschitz in 2020. Those three come to mind as some of the tournament’s most incredible goaltending standouts in recent memory. All brought smaller teams to the forefront, with the first two even battling for medals in fights they wouldn’t have had a chance in otherwise.
But none of them was drafted. Conz and Godla have gone on to have solid careers in Europe, but neither has made a big impact on the international stage in the years since. Wraneschitz is now in the USHL but only has three games to his credit this season, and he was terrible in a short WHL stint. Sometimes, these goalies just ride the adrenaline train until there’s nothing left, and that’s it. The mental side of things is so important in goaltending, and when you feel unstoppable, you play like it too.
So, enter Slovakia’s Adam Gajan. His tournament’s over now after losing 4-3 to Canada on Monday in the quarterfinal, but Slovakia wouldn’t have even had a shot had it not been for his play. Gajan made 53 saves before ultimately allowing a highlight-reel goal from Connor Bedard, but you can’t blame Gajan for it. It was simply a goal to remember.
It’s been a whirlwind past week for Gajan. Last year, he just wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. Gajan spent most of the season in the Slovak U-20 league, where he had an average season. But he played nearly every game and outplayed his backup by quite a bit. All he needed was a proper platform to show he’s capable of playing at a higher level one day. And he got that. Gajan was picked up by the Chippewa Steel of the NAHL, a solid league but not one that typically has a ton of high-end talent.
Just before heading to Canada for the WJC, Gajan played two games with the Green Bay Gamblers, recording a shutout and winning both starts. In December, he and the University of Minnesota-Duluth came to a verbal agreement for the 2023-24 NCAA season.
Still, Gajan had some work to do. He wasn’t on Slovakia’s radar heading into the tournament and eventually became a late add. Heck, Cajan was the third goalie for the first game. Despite his great play, he was still flying low and had something to prove.
I had a pair of scouts tell me before the tournament to keep an eye on Gajan, and for good reason. He had all the makings of someone scouts look for – size, skill and mental fortitude. Scouts can’t use the size argument. He’s 6-foot-4, which is more than good enough for the NHL. He’s got good reflexes, good form and can mentally handle the pressure of playing a big game on a big stage against a stronger opponent. Gajan wasn’t drafted last year because scouts barely knew who he was, simple as that.
It’s different this time.
According to Elite Prospects’ hand-tracked data, Adam Gajan’s 4.63 goals saved above average was 4.63 – more than two full points over Finland’s Jani Lampinen. For those not in the loop, that means Gajan’s play was above and beyond the norm and was a big reason Slovakia won a few games in the first place.
Gajan’s tournament – all four games – is a very small sample size in the grand scheme of things. But some solid work in the United States, aided by a couple of huge games in Halifax and Moncton, has really shed light on what he’s capable of. He’s had to deal with Connor Bedard, Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerrud, Shane Wright, Joakim Kemell, Jani Nyman, among others and showed what he could do. Slovakia had no business taking Canada to overtime, but if it weren’t for a multitude of saves – 29 more than Canada’s Thomas Milic, to be exact – Slovakia would have been added to the pile of teams that got slaughtered in the quarterfinal like Germany and Switzerland.
“Gajan’s workload wasn’t easy,” a scout said. “He handled it well. There’s real potential there.”
Scout’s praise for Gajan’s work over the last two months, in particular, has skyrocketed. Many believe he won’t get passed over a second time. Goaltending is a complete crapshoot, so flashes of brilliance don’t go unnoticed.
“The way he battles, the way he keeps fighting to save every shot no matter what, it’s good to see,” a scout said. “We need to see more of that all year long, but I think every team is keeping a close eye now if they weren’t before.”
We watch the World Junior Championship to see the “Best of the Next” go at it. The incredible performance by Bedard will never be forgotten. The upsets early on will be hard to match. Many fanbases are starting to follow their prospects closely for the first time and loving every second of it. It’s a special tournament.
And then you got the guys looking for a second chance at proving they deserve a look with a big club at some point. Sometimes, those are the ones worth following the most. They’ve got an extra reason to go all out and show what they can do at the biggest stage of their lives.
Carolina’s Pyotr Kochetkov is a perfect example of that: he had a miserable draft season in the MHL, switched teams, went to the WHL and ultimately beat Yaroslav Askarov for the starting gig. And look where he is now.
That happens sometimes, and maybe it’ll happen to Gajan. It’s still early, but that’s the beauty of this tournament.
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