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No more No. 1 netminders – at least not as far as the draft is concerned

Fleury went first overall. DiPietro, too. But these days, it’s rare for a goalie to be taken in the first round.

If you can believe it, there used to be a time when NHL teams drafted goalies with top-three picks. It’s true. Marc-Andre Fleury was the last netminder to claim such a distinction when the Pittsburgh Penguins nabbed him with the No. 1 overall selection in 2003. Three years prior, Rick DiPietro was the first player off the board when the New York Islanders opened up the draft in 2000.

But these days, you’re lucky to see a goalie taken in the first 31 selections – and you’re certainly not going to see one go in the top 10. So what happened? From the sounds of it, NHL teams were tired of getting burned. “DiPietro, Dan Blackburn, Jack Campbell, so many guys didn’t make it, and there are only two on a team, so you’ve wasted that pick,” said one NHL executive. “It’s not like missing on a forward, where you have 12 of them. We’d be scared to death to pick a goalie early now.”

The divergent paths of DiPietro and Fleury offer the crux of the problem. While DiPietro had a couple decent seasons for the Isles, the rest of his time was marred by injuries, inconsistency and an infamous 15-year contract that overshadowed his career. Meanwhile, Fleury won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins (1.5 as a starter), and he’s still going strong with the Vegas Golden Knights – who made the final last year with ‘Flower’ between the pipes.

Fleury’s opponent in the 2018 Cup championship was Braden Holtby, whom the Washington Capitals drafted with a very anonymous fourth-round pick in 2008. Not only does Holtby now have a championship ring, but he also has Vezina and Jennings Trophies to his name. Simply put, you don’t need to choose early when you can get a Pekka Rinne in the eighth round. Actually, the eighth round no longer exists – that’s how underrated Rinne was back in 2004. “For every Carey Price (fifth overall in 2005), there are 10 Al Montoyas (sixth overall in ’04),” said the exec. “And then there’s a ton of Holtbys out there who were taken late and became stars.”

So what do you at the draft table? You still need to get goalies into your pipeline, after all. “It depends on what your team thinks, as a culture,” said an NHL scout. “Some goalie guys don’t even feel comfortable taking a goaltender that early. Can you find depth at other positions later in the draft? Because if you can, then maybe you look for a home run with a goalie in the first.”

How many picks do you have, and when are they? These are other factors to consider. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, had two first-rounders in 2012, taking defenseman Slater Koekkoek 10th overall, then netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy with the 19th pick. Ironically, Vasilevskiy has already become an NHL star, while Koekkoek is still finding his way – now with Chicago, instead of Tampa.

In the past 10 NHL drafts, only six netminders have been selected in the first round, and Vasilevskiy is the only one who has proven himself to be a starter so far. The other first-rounder in 2012, Malcolm Subban, was taken by Boston and now backs up Fleury in Vegas, while Dallas pick Jake Oettinger (2017) is still in college with Boston University. Otherwise, you have stoppers such as Campbell, who struggled for years before finally getting some starts this season with lowly Los Angeles, or Tom McCollum, who made three appearances over two years with Detroit. Mark Visentin, who joined Campbell in the 2010 first round, retired this year at age 26, having played one career game in the NHL for Arizona.

In order to mitigate the crapshoot, teams are starting to put more resources into the goaltending position. Every team has some combination of an NHL goalie scout, a goalie development coach who scouts the AHL and a prospect goalie scout who covers junior, college and Europe. Sometimes two of those categories are covered off, sometimes all three are handled by one person – but it’s a growing industry. “You really have to have played the position,” said the NHL exec. “Amateur scouts, and I include myself, are throwing darts at the wall when it comes to goalies. It’s guesswork.”

This year, there is a legitimate first-round goalie prospect for the draft in U.S. NTDP netminder Spencer Knight, but will he still be considered the best of his class eight years from now? Perhaps, but maybe Ethan Haider of the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians turns into the Vezina Trophy candidate instead. And he may end up going in the third round or later. Heck, the Calgary Flames had their season saved by David Rittich – and he wasn’t drafted at all.

What is clear is that the idea of a goaltender going in the top 10 has gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Most of the darts are now being thrown on Day 2 of the draft, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.

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