Turn on your television on any given night and retire to the barcalounger and you’re bound to see a 21-year-old Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews do something so incredible that it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Is that a 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen we see leading the whole freakin’ league in scoring? And what about that 21-year-old Thomas Chabot kid in Ottawa? Ain’t he something special?
Everything we’ve heard and everything we’ve seen keeps pounding at the notion that the NHL is now a young man’s league. Like the late Whitney Houston, the NHL believes that children are the future. And it’s right. What were once thought to be “generational talents” are now being churned out every couple of years. And if you go to your local youth hockey arena and watch the kids, chances are you’re going to see some young boys and girls who can do some very special things on the ice.
But take a dive into the most important position in the game and you find that the goaltending fraternity has clearly not received the memo. While the rest of the league is having trouble developing a duster in the month of November, the goaltenders are at the point where they’re applying Grecian Formula and getting two minutes for looking so good.
It seems that once teams find a reliable goaltender, and it often takes a while, they hang onto him and ride him well into his 30s. That’s certainly the case these days, which leaves us wondering from where their replacements are going to come.
Consider this: the 31 No. 1 goalies in the NHL have an average age of 31.3. Last year, the average age of an NHL player was 27.1. Twenty-two of these starting goalies (or co-No. 1s) have already blown out 30 candles on their birthday cakes, and just two – Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning – are younger than 25. Pekka Rinne, who became the oldest first-time Vezina Trophy winner since the league began awarding it to the best goalie as chosen by the NHL’s GMs in 1982, just signed a two-year extension with the Nashville Predators that will take him past his 38th birthday, despite the fact the Preds have a top-notch 23-year-old backup in Juuse Saros patiently waiting his turn.
In The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch edition in 2018, we had only eight goaltenders in our top 100 NHL-affiliated prospects. Only 12 teams had a future goaltender among its top five prospects, and six teams – the Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Nashville and the San Jose Sharks – did not have a single stopper among their top 10.
When THN prospect savant Ryan Kennedy produced the top 100 players aged 21-and-under in the world, which included non-drafted players, just four goalies appeared on the list, and only one – Carter Hart of the Philadelphia Flyers – ranked in the top 25. Only one goalie, Jake Oettinger by the Dallas Stars, has been selected in the first round of the past three NHL drafts.
We realize that some of this is due to the fact goaltenders are notorious for taking longer to develop than skaters, and they often only do it with their second or third organizations. And there are probably some young men out there toiling in the minors who have yet to blossom. But with the greying of the goaltending position and the prospect of a good number of them aging out in the next few years, you have to wonder where teams are going to find their replacements.
By the end of this season, five No. 1 goalies will have eclipsed their 35th birthdays, and within five years, 11 of them will be at least 38. It’s been clearly established that it takes about five years for a goaltender to develop from the day he’s drafted, so either some of the backups in the NHL are going to have to step up or the league might be looking at a dearth of quality goaltending – which, when combined with the talent that is on the way, might not be a bad thing for hockey fans who prefer offense.
Ask any amateur scout how easy it is to find good goalies these days and he or she will tell you a tale of woe. Part of that is because Canada, which was once a place where you shook a tree and good goalies would fall out, has lagged in producing elite netminders.
One scout had a theory that it might be because from the time kids are seven until they’re 14 or 15, they’re sharing the goaltending duties and it doesn’t allow them to develop quickly enough. In fact, the Canadian Hockey League, tired of seeing the best European netminders go to the USHL, opened its doors once again to European goalies this season.
And these things tend to ebb and flow. Finland was once the country producing all the talent, and now Russia – with top prospects Ilya Samsonov, Igor Shestyorkin, Ilya Sorokin and Daniil Tarasov – seems to be providing the pipeline.
The top players on a good number of teams would have trouble getting into a bar where the drinking age is 21. But the goalies? They’d have a 31-seat table all to themselves. And it doesn’t look as though they’re going to be giving up their comfortable spots anytime soon.
This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.