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How do goaltenders develop without being consistently challenged in a game setting? That’s the question. And one Team Canada has yet to answer at the junior level.
Second-guessing Canada’s goaltending during the World Junior Championship has become a pastime of hockey fans. Every year it’s one of the main topics heading into the tournament. And the doubting never ends until the final buzzer.
I understand why. Team Canada is always stacked offensively. The perception is that only goaltending can prevent the team from winning Gold in every tournament.
There’s definitely some truth to that belief. Goaltenders have gone on magical runs and won tournaments almost single-handedly. But the reality is those types of performances are rare.
What teams really need at World Juniors – just like the NHL level – is consistent goaltending when the games matter.
But therein lies the problem. Most of the games leading up to elimination play don’t matter for Team Canada’s goaltending corps. And the problem is compounded considering, historically, many of Canada’s World Junior goalkeepers have only played on dominant teams from youth hockey on up.
On New Year’s Day, former professional hockey player Rob Gherson – who’s now a goalie coach in the greater Toronto area – posted an insightful string of tweets about goaltender development.
I was really impressed with Gherson’s logic. He’s been through the process himself. 20 years after we were both selected in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Gherson has clearly dedicated a great deal of time to his thesis.
His main focus is on goalie development in the greater Toronto area. And make no mistake,with the sheer number of players available for top teams, Toronto is a different animal than most parts of Canada. It’s hyper-competitive. Parents are crazy. And the profit motive is real for goalie coaches.
But from what fellow pro goaltenders have told me, the development problems Gherson describes in Toronto also happen all throughout Canada, especially in the bigger cities.
The lack of attention given to the goaltending position is magnified by events like the World Junior Championship. But at this point, like Gherson describes, it’s not actually about a lack of training. It’s about a lack of game feel and experience.
I coach goaltenders as well. And without a doubt, the hardest thing to teach is game sense. Some goalies have it. Others don’t. And the only way to get better at reading the play is to do just that: log games in the crease.
Today’s young goaltenders have all received specialized training since squirt hockey. Maybe even earlier. From a technical standpoint, it’s not even comparable to when I grew up. We hardly had any specialized coaching. What a 16-year old goaltender can do today exceeds what most NHL goaltenders were capable of just a decade ago.
But what good is all that technical training without having the chance to read the play in a true game setting? Like Gherson said, it’s exceedingly difficult to replicate. And the lack of parity exacerbates the problem.
That lack of game reps is what haunts Team Canada. Not games played, mind you, but meaningful games. A lot of Canada’s goalies get to World Juniors without having faced much adversity. Or having to win games single-handedly.
I’ve been on bad teams before, and it feels like an impossible mountain to climb. You try your best but it feels futile. And you wonder if anyone will ever notice. But when you finally steal a game? It’s an incredible feeling. It keeps you going. But it’s looked at by the hockey world as a fluke rather than the expectation.
One thing that Gherson pointed out floored me: the fact that some of these select hockey teams are only playing with one goaltender. That’s lunacy. Canada is effectively casting off quality goaltenders from a young age.
Back when I was a bantam, in my lone year of AAA hockey, two goalies was the norm. And our coach – former NHL goaltender Lindsay Middlebrook – refused to play favorites. My goalie partner and I rotated games evenly.
It didn’t matter who the opponent was, or what round of a tournament we were playing in. Both goalies played.
Despite only playing half the games, it didn’t hurt my career one bit. And I know it helped my goalie partner, who ended up dressing games at the NCAA D1 level.
The hard part about what’s going on in Toronto – and Canada for that matter – is that competition for the crease is being driven by the free market. Teams can recruit goaltenders. And it comes down to winning. The best teams want the best goalies. But guess what? Like Gherson said, the best goalies end up hardly getting any work throughout the regular season unless playing against one of the top teams.
And that’s where I see the biggest deficiency. Evaluating goalies. Because as it stands, winning goalies get the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of how much work they might face. Or how poor the competition may be, once a goalie is labeled a winner, it’s hard to shake that title. And so they go up through the ranks on winning teams.
But do those goalies actually improve? Not always. I’ve seen several goalies be labeled as can’t miss prospects turn into busts. And it comes down to this: the team in front of them was doing all the work. Despite insane numbers during their time playing NCAA hockey, their pro careers fizzled.
Gherson was spot on in what he said about goalies on bad teams. Basically, they don’t stand a chance. Because eventually, when enough goals go in, the narrative shifts to the goalie not being good enough.
That’s wrong. Because a lot of those goalies just need a chance on a competitive team. So much goaltending talent is falling through the cracks in Canada.
The problem is I have no idea how to fix it. Gherson made some great points about investing in goaltending development. How every organization needs a goalie guy to help steady the ship. But that takes money and commitment, two things that Canada has shown a lack of in regards to netminders.
Canada has produced plenty of NHL goaltenders that played in the World Junior Championship. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, those goalies were far from their peaks. They were learning on the job. Even a phenom like Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart had doubters during the tournament.
I love what Gherson had to say. And I think he’s right. But does Hockey Canada have the guts and dollars to revamp a broken system? History says no. And I tend to agree.