In the NHL, there’s no more important position than the netminder. So often, especially in the playoffs, games are won by whoever has the hot goalie that night. You see teams like the Montreal Canadiens this year riding the back of Carey Price to a Stanley Cup final appearance. It would make sense that goalies are taken quite high in the draft every year since it’s such an important position. This would make sense especially for a team like the Detroit Red Wings, whose top goalie prospects either aren’t panning out or, in the case of Keith Petruzzelli, might not sign with the team.
However, taking Jesper Wallstedt, the consensus top goalie in this draft, at pick number six would be a mistake. The reason isn’t that Wallstedt isn’t a good prospect. In fact, he’s one of the best goalie prospects the league has seen in a while and it’s understandable why people think he’s worthy of a top-10 pick. His play with Luleå HF of the SHL was great putting up 2.23 GAA and a .908 SV% in 22 games. However, there are plenty of reasons why a goalie hasn’t been taken in the top-10 since Carey Price in 2005.
Recent History of First Round Goalies
The 2005 draft class is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to netminders. Both Carey Price (fifth overall) and Tuukka Rask (21st overall) went on to win Vezina trophies. However, neither netminder has won a Stanley Cup as a starter. That’s, of course, not entirely on them as they have put up some spectacular performances in playoffs behind teams that just couldn’t find the back of the net. However, if you look at the goalies taken in the first round since then, it’s easy to see that they’re far from alone.
Since Marc-Andre Fleury went first overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, 20 goalies have been taken in the first round. Of those 20, only one goalie has been the starting goalie on a Stanley Cup-winning team. That goalie is Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th overall, 2012), the reigning Conn Smythe winning netminder for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In terms of individual success, Price, Rask, and Vasilevskiy are also the only three of these 20 first-round goalies to win a Vezina, and only Devan Dubnyk (14th overall, 2004) and Semyon Varlamov (23rd overall, 2006) have even been finalists.
As for goalies drafted specifically in the top-10, only three in the history of the NHL have ever won a Stanley Cup, and only two have won it with the team that drafted them. Not only that, they were on teams that had plenty of stars in front of them. Grant Fuhr was the eigth overall pick in 1981 for the Edmonton Oilers. He ended up winning Cups behind the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri. Tom Barrasso was the fifth overall pick in 1983. Five years later, he was traded to the Penguins where he got to play with Mario Lemieux and Jarmoir Jagr. Lastly was the aforementioned Fleury, who, after being drafted in 2003, was followed up by Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and Sidney Crosby in 2005.
That’s not to say that they had no responsibility in their teams winning their Stanley Cups. But when you look at all three of them, you can easily look at the generational talent in front of them as the main reason they were able to hoist the Cup. The Conn Smythe winner in every single one of the years they won the Cup was one of those aforementioned skaters, except for 1987 where losing netminder Ron Hextall won it in the Flyers loss to the Oilers. Dating back to the beginning of the NHL Draft, teams have been relying on mid-round and free agent goalies to lead them to success and nothing has changed in modern times.
The Success of Mid-Round Netminders
Obviously, team success has to do with more than just the goaltender. However, the teams who have the most overall success find a goalie in the mid-rounds who pans out while getting elite skaters in the first. The Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in the 2010s on the back of an undrafted goalie in Antti Niemi and second-round pick Corey Crawford. The Los Angeles Kings won two Stanley Cups with 2005 third-round pick, Jonathan Quick with one of them featuring 2006 first-rounder Jonathan Bernier as his backup.
The point is, teams can find elite goaltending in any round of the draft. Quick and Ben Bishop were both third-rounders in the same class as Carey Price and Tuukka Rask. Crawford was a second-rounder in the same draft that Fleury went number one. In 2004 where four goalies went in the first round including Dubnyk, Vezina winner and Stanley Cup finalist Pekka Rinne was taken round nine by the Nashville Predators. Both Jake Allen and Braden Holtby were mid-round picks in 2008 that saw Chet Pickard and Tom McCollum, who combined for three career NHL games, be taken round one.
Even the 2012 draft where Vasilevskiy was taken also saw Malcolm Subban go at pick 24 and Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck be taken in round five. Other great goalies such as Darcy Kuemper, Philipp Grubauer, John Gibson, and Jordan Binnington have all gone in mid-rounds too behind plenty of other goalies who barely even sniffed the NHL (Mark Visentin anyone?) It’s an option that has proven to work over the years and one that Detroit themselves have embraced in recent years with the likes of Filip Larsson and Jan Bednar, and it’s a direction Steve Yzerman should stay on.
The Elephant in the Room
There’s an obvious reason that Red Wings fans would love to see Steve Yzerman announce the name “Jesper Wallstedt” on Friday night. That reason is that Andrei Vasilevskiy, the one goalie drafted first round in the last 15 years to have success, was drafted by Steve Yzerman. Surely, if any GM can have success and pick a goalie who will end up being an anomaly like Vasilevskiy, it’s Stevie Y. That’s an understandable thought to have about a man who this fanbase has been putting all of their trust into.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that goalies taken in the first round just don’t end up being worth it. Since 2006, only four of the 14 goalies taken in the first round have become starters for an NHL team. One of those is Jack Campbell who, after a decade, finally became a full-time starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year. Another one of those is Jonathan Bernier, who failed at being a starter in Toronto in the early 2010s before finally breaking out in Detroit 13 years after he was drafted.
When it comes to Friday night’s draft and it’s the Red Wings come up to pick, there should be a skater being announced by Steve Yzerman. There are plenty of good options to choose from, and makes much more sense for this team going forward than to take a goalie in the top-10 for the first time since 2005.
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