A 10-year-old boy named Sudarshan Maharaj often sat in front of his television, eyes trained on the world’s greatest goalie. It was the mid-1970s at the Philadelphia Flyers’ peak, making Bernie Parent the subject of this obsessive study session. Maharaj, born in Trinidad, had moved to Toronto with his family when he was six and quickly found himself drawn to the art of goaltending. Somewhere in his house sat a tattered instructional manual authored by Parent’s idol, Jacques Plante. Both goaltenders excelled because of their unmatched ability to play the angles, and the science of the position had young Maharaj hooked.
He says he treated goaltending like geometry. Maharaj grew up to become a smallish stand-up stopper himself, and the butterfly style had not yet been popularized, so he relied on mid-game calculations, anticipating exactly where to place his body relative to shooters. Because he left a lot of net available, he had to get his angles perfect. Doing so got him pretty far as a player in competitive hockey: to the University of Wisconsin, York University and the Swedish pro ranks for six years. He was entirely self-taught from observing Parent and Plante.
Maharaj’s inquisitive brain eventually led him to a job as a school teacher in Toronto. He learned a lot about how to connect with students, especially those who had difficulty expressing their emotions, even troubled kids and gang members. He soon realized his work as a teacher made him specially suited to shepherd a unique breed of athlete: the hockey goaltender, a member of a team who is at the same time on an island and often emotionally detached from his peers.
He started consulting with aspiring netminders as a side gig, and he was a natural. It began with local goalie Steve Valiquette. It earned Maharaj attention at the NHL level, starting with the New York Islanders and eventually earning him his current position as Anaheim Ducks goaltending coach.
Maharaj’s name, upbringing and skin color contradicted the established idea of what a goaltending expert should be, but that didn’t stop him. He says he occasionally met with an almost unconscious resistance from his puck-stopping subjects, likely because he didn’t fit the mold of ex-NHLer-turned-goalie-guru, but he always knew he brought something to the job no one else did. “Goaltenders are a microcosm of any group,” he said. “I say it all the time: I don’t coach goalies. I coach people. It’s extremely important to get to know the person you’re coaching, and that in turn will help you coach the goalie.”
They call him ‘Sudsie’ for short in the NHL today. His unconventional background and toolbox of psychological skills have made him a success for multiple decades – and created the perfect candidate to crack the thick armor of a guarded young man named John Gibson.
Maharaj, 54, knew he had a special pupil when Gibson graduated to the Norfolk Admirals, then the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, in 2013. By that point, many hockey insiders had an idea of how good Gibson was. He was a standout in major junior with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. He’d backstopped Team USA to a gold medal in an MVP-winning performance at the World Junior Championship a few months earlier. In The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2014, a scouting panel of NHL executives rated Gibson the No. 2 prospect in the world at any position. Before he’d played an NHL game, he earned an invite to represent the U.S. at the 2013 World Championship alongside established pros – and posted a .951 save percentage en route to a bronze medal. Everything about Gibson screamed phenom in the making.
It was one thing to hear about him and watch him from afar, however. When Maharaj saw Gibson up close, he realized he had a student with a potentially limitless ceiling. “When you look at him in his stance and when you look at him when he’s in his butterfly, his shoulders are in the exact same spot,” Maharaj said. “His ability to cover the net up and down was amazing. He makes these really difficult situations and difficult saves look very, very simple. That was the thing that caught me off guard. I honestly believe it’s one of the reasons why it’s taken so long for him to get noticed for his quality of play.”
Another reason why Gibson, now 25, is only starting to earn the attention he deserves: fans know him as an outstanding Anaheim Ducks goaltender, but that’s about it. Gibson’s public personality is more closed off than his five-hole. That’s only because he takes his time deciding to let people in, Maharaj says. As Gibson explains today, even his wife, Alexa, he knew since grade school growing up in Pittsburgh 10 minutes away from each other. You really have to slow-play Gibson to breach his circle of trust. “If somebody just comes across him here and there, you’re not really going to see the guy, and I can respect that,” said Ducks backup goalie and Gibson’s battery mate Ryan Miller. “It’s a lot like the way I’ve tried to handle myself. It takes a lot of energy to be a starting goaltender, and being fully engaged with so many people around the team or outside the team, it can be a lot.”
Gibson is shy, but it’s more than that. Perhaps he warms to people so slowly as a defense mechanism. He’s hardened by the repeated sting of failure, which, despite entering the league with top-prospect status, he’s felt many times during his ascension to top-drawer NHL starter.
The first thing was understanding that John needs to trust you to open up. It really was the process of just building that trust and him understanding that I wanted the best for him.
– Sudarshan Maharaj
Gibson boarded the goalie career tract very early, but that didn’t mean he was an instant superstar. He dabbled in baseball as a speedy, table-setting, top-of-the-order first baseman. His raw athleticism would come in handy later. He actually played the first hockey game of his life as a defenseman. He couldn’t stop himself from instinctively protecting the net and blocking pucks, however, trying to do the goalie’s job for him. It was thus a logical transition to the net for Gibson. He worshipped Ed Belfour’s eagle mask design and loved watching Marc-Andre Fleury and the local Penguins. And yet, if Gibson weren’t so mentally tough, he might’ve squirrelled his pads away in his attic to collect dust as a teenager. That’s what most goalies would do if they couldn’t even make their high-school team, right? Dream crushed, career over, bring on the beer leagues. But the setback didn’t deter Gibson. “I wouldn’t say that it was a turning point,” he said. “I had a couple of things not go my way, so I had motivation in other ways. But I think that was just something that would add to the motivation to try and go out there and prove people wrong and try to do my best.”
As he points out, he also played AA, not even AAA, for most of his youth hockey career before he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2009-10. Even once he’d established himself as an elite prospect, he fell to the second round of the 2011 NHL draft despite being projected as a first-rounder. He was reportedly furious.
Even Gibson’s scintillating debut in the 2014 playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings got doused with frigid water. It started out magically after a Frederik Andersen injury inspired then-Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau to call on his blue-chipper rather than veteran backup Jonas Hiller. “I remember we had a meeting or whatever, and then after the meeting they pulled me aside and said that I was playing,” Gibson said. “It was surreal. I thought maybe he was kidding, but I mean… it was honestly a lot. I just tried to go out there and play, and the team played well in front of me and helped me out. It was definitely something that I won’t forget.”
No kidding. Gibson, then 20, became the youngest goalie in NHL history to record a shutout in his post-season debut. The Ducks stuck with him, and he found himself leading a surging team to a 3-2 series lead. That’s when wily Kings coach Darryl Sutter dropped this hammer in a media scrum: “He’s the best goalie I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe we got one by him tonight. A lot of pressure on him now. A lot of pressure.”
Looking back on that eventful week in May 2014 today, Gibson says he chose to ignore the comment at the time and focus on the things he could control. Even if he did, it didn’t show once the Kings forced Game 7. Gibson collapsed under the bright lights, allowing four goals on 18 shots and getting pulled after 22 minutes. The Kings went on to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.
That type of meltdown would’ve stained the career of a goalie with a weaker mind. And in the seasons to follow came another slight on his reputation. He was John Gibson, Perpetual Injury Risk. A major groin injury cost him 21 games in 2014-15. Multiple lower-body injuries shelved him in the following seasons, too, as he couldn’t seem to escape freak accidents and collisions with opponents or even teammates.
The hockey gods have seemingly tried to knock Gibson off his career ladder so many times it’s no wonder he’s developed a public reputation as an introvert. Still, that suited him well to work with Maharaj. “The first thing was understanding that John needs to trust you to open up,” Maharaj said. “It really was the process of just building that trust and him understanding that I wanted the best for him. There was no agenda or no, ‘This is my way or the highway’ thing. I was willing to work with him and accept some of the things he did that amalgamated with some of the things I wanted and build his game together as opposed to force something onto him.”
Gibson was already an extremely talented netminder the day he arrived in the NHL. In a breakout 2015-16, he posted a 2.07 goals-against average and .920 save percentage across 40 appearances, finishing seventh in Vezina Trophy voting. But Maharaj felt Gibson, a gifted and powerful specimen at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, was still relying too much on his natural ability, attempting too many “athlete” saves, stretching, reaching and diving.
Today, the Gibson we see is a calm, economical, efficient netminder. Is it a coincidence he’s also much healthier, having shattered his personal best with 60 starts in 2017-18? Maybe, but Maharaj also thinks his goaltender is also just better built to handle the rigors of the position today, having shown up in tremendous physical condition to start this season. “You look at some guys, and you definitely need some luck on your side,” Gibson said. “There are going to be times where something fluky happens, and maybe you get an injury. There’s stuff you can’t control, but going into the season I just wanted to put myself in the best shape and prepare myself the best I possibly could in the summer to try and hopefully avoid something.”
The new, healthier Gibson, more controlled in his net, has rocketed into a new stratosphere: the elite tier of NHL goalies. “When he’s playing his best hockey, he’s very relaxed,” Miller said. “Sometimes it looks very casual, but he’s very focused on the puck, and he’s really fast, so there’s a bit of that unpredictable element to his game that some of the throwback goaltenders had. Martin Brodeur had it in a way, the ability to battle but also enough of the technical skills to keep him inside the play of the modern game.”
Gibson’s mainstream statistics obviously pop. Over the past four seasons, the first month of 2018-19 included, 74 goaltenders have played at least 25 games, and Gibson’s .925 SP ranks second only to Antti Raanta’s .926. The NHL tracks SP as far back as 1955-56, and since then, among goalies to appear in at least 150 games, Gibson has the highest career SP of all-time at .924. Even if you include all 417 goalies with just 20 or more games, he’s first. Yet even those jaw-to-the-floor numbers don’t quite illustrate how good Gibson has been, particularly in the past two seasons as his body and mind reach their peak potential.
Miller, seemingly always ahead of his goalie brethren in his thoughts on the game, fashion and charity work, has Anaheim’s advanced goaltending stats pretty much memorized. You don’t have to explain shot quality or high-danger chances. He brings up the topic first when discussing Gibson’s impact over the past couple seasons, explaining that the Ducks studied the numbers as a group during the 2017-18 season’s exit meetings.
Despite the Ducks’ reputation for having a stellar defense corps, led by Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler and Josh Manson, not to mention some strong two-way forwards, the stats suggest they have thrown their poor goalies to the firing squads of late. Per corsica.hockey, since the start of 2017-18, 57 goaltenders have played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5. Among them, Gibson ranks sixth in shots faced per 60 minutes. He also faces the lowest percentage of low-danger shots of any goalie in that group at just less than 40 percent. That means Gibson has faced more combined medium- and high-danger chances than any goalie since the start of last season. There are no easy saves to make. Teams penetrate and blitz him with legitimate scoring chances 60 percent of the time.
So Gibson has arguably the league’s most difficult workload in terms of shot quality – and that hasn’t stopped him from posting tremendous numbers. Since the start of 2017-18, he ranks seventh in medium-danger SP, 13th in high-danger SP and 12th in 5-on-5 SP. Miller has actually been just as good – but with a backup goaltender’s sample size. In that 57-goalie group, Gibson has the eighth-most minutes played. Among goalies with at least 100 minutes played on the penalty kill since the start of last season, Gibson is your NHL leader in SP.
Got a headache yet? To simplify things: not only does Gibson stop as many pucks as any goalie in the league these days, he does so despite facing the most difficult collection of scoring chances in the league. If that doesn’t make him the best goaltender on the planet right now, what does?
My goal is to be the best in the league, but my focus is on what I can control.
– John Gibson
Perhaps one more nugget will convince you. A popular new fancy stat is “goals saved above average,” which is the number of goals a netminder prevents compared to what the league-average goalie would allow facing the same number of shots. In the 57-goalie sample, Gibson ranks second in GSAA, right between Sergei Bobrovsky and Pekka Rinne, also known as the past two Vezina Trophy winners. “John’s greatest strength is his ability to see the ice, his ability to anticipate,” Maharaj said. “Earlier in the year when we had gone through our PK set-up, he knew there was a one-timer on the opposite side of the ice. Sure enough in the game, they drove the cross-ice for a one-timer that was an incredibly difficult scenario, and he beat it across the ice on his feet and was almost waiting for the guy. His ability to see the ice, to read the ice is just fantastic. You couple that with his God-given athletic ability, and you have an outstanding goaltender.”
The general hockey population may not consider Gibson a star yet, but his team does. The Ducks didn’t hesitate signing him to an eight-year extension at a $6.4-million cap hit this summer. It was announced the same day he and Alexa got married. “The night where we got everything figured out it was the rehearsal dinner, so we kept it pretty small, with just close family and friends,” Gibson said. “It was nice to tell everybody that night and get that out of the way, so the next day we could just focus on everything, the wedding and just have a big celebration. It was definitely a cool experience.”
Now Gibson can really settle in as a long-term Duck. He’s getting to know his teammates better. He thinks of himself as a practical joker and says he’ll constantly change up his pranks and victims to keep everyone guessing. Maharaj says Gibson is secretly a very funny guy. He’s developed a degree of chemistry with Miller, too, though Miller still tries not to create a master-and-apprentice relationship even though he has a lot of advice to offer at 38. “If he wants to unload something or if he wants to talk about something, I just let that happen,” Miller said. “I don’t try to initiate anything, because I just remember as a young goaltender you need the space to do your own thing, and you don’t want to have a bunch of thoughts in your head, especially if it’s someone else’s perspective on the game. It doesn’t always align perfectly.”
So are Gibson and these Ducks ready to play deep into May and June as his prime years arrive? It’s difficult to forecast Anaheim’s short-term future. The team’s core forward group, led by franchise legends Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, continues to age out of its prime years, with Perry and Ryan Kesler at war with major injuries. The young defense corps isn’t going anywhere. Lindholm, Manson, Fowler and Brandon Montour possess considerable talent even if the under-the-hood stats suggest they let more pucks reach Gibson than they should. Left winger Rickard Rakell is one of the league’s best young scorers, and the Ducks have an intriguing group of rookie forwards, including Sam Steel and Max Comtois. Chances are Gibson will get a chance to shine in a deep playoff run one of these years. He may never become the publicly affable star Brodeur was or a fiery quote machine like Patrick Roy, but Gibson will have no choice but to accept more attention if he continues to play like a superstar.
Maharaj used to watch the best goalie in the world on TV. Now he coaches the best goalie in the world. The Vezina Trophy will find him soon enough. “It’s cool hearing all that stuff, but I just go out there and play,” Gibson said. “My goal is to be the best in the league, but my focus is on what I can control. I just go out there every game and be the best that I can and be reliable, and the team knows that when I’m in there, I’m going to give it everything I have each and every night.”