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The First Word: Goaltenders defy all draft logic

Sergei Bobrovsky and Jordan Binnington have shown us that drafting goalies can be a total free-for-all in the NHL – more than any other position in the league.

The one thing more challenging than picking the Stanley Cup finalists – we’re looking at you, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay – is projecting which draft-eligible goalies are going to turn into stars or even NHL regulars. It’s a risky proposition that has scouts, and by connection Draft Preview through the years, wrong a lot more often than right.

Take a look at the goalies who made it through the first round of this year’s very strange NHL playoffs. We see a lot of late-round draft gems, which is a theme in our NHL team stories in Draft Preview. Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky was a late birthday available in the 2007 draft. He played just eight games that season for Metallurg in Russia, wasn’t on any scout’s radar and went undrafted. The NHL didn’t notice him until he was 21 and Philadelphia signed him as a free agent. Now he’s a star.

Martin Jones was another undrafted free agent who was almost 24 when he played his first NHL game. Petr Mrazek was a fifth-round selection, Philipp Grubauer went in the fourth, Ben Bishop and Jordan Binnington the third.

The exception is first-rounder Tuukka Rask. Robin Lehner was a second-rounder.

Hey, isn’t goaltending the most important position in hockey? So why are the vast majority of NHL difference-maskers slipping past the first and second rounds of NHL drafts? “They’re the toughest species to draft,” said one scout. “There are so many different variables they have to go through. They’re very unpredictable. And they’re tough to gauge at 18. Some of them might only play 20 to 25 games their draft year because they’re not yet the starter at that age. And maybe only one or two of those games is special.”

The latest to join this cast of late-round goaltending gems is Binnington of the St. Louis Blues. He wasn’t among the top 100 prospects in Draft Preview 2011 and was the sixth goalie selected that year after Magnus Hellberg, John Gibson, Christopher Gibson, Samu Perhonen and David Honzik, most of those names now easily forgettable. Redo the 2011 draft today and Binnington goes in the first round. But his trajectory to get to that elite status was all over the board the past eight years. Only three times in seven Future Watch issues did Binnington make St. Louis’ top-10 list of prospects – eighth twice and ninth once. His development was so uneven that he was loaned to the Bruins’ AHL affiliate last year when the Blues had a logjam sharing an affiliate with the Golden Knights.

Yet this season, the light finally went on, and Binnington is now exceptional in the spotlight.

Another scout said development for goalies is based more on repetition than scouring the planet and finding them at 18. “They have to have playing time in front of them, hundreds of games from the time they start junior to the point they’re almost ready,” he said. “The golden path is Carey Price or Marc-Andre Fleury, but they’re phenoms. The rest go on all different paths. So much of that is based on repetition.”

So why take a goalie in the first or second round if there’s so much uncertainty? Why not wait for the late rounds to get those hidden gems? That is what’s happening already. “Because every team who drafts a goalie in the first round thinks they’re taking Carey Price. If that’s what you think, you can’t pass.”

With all that in mind, what’s the best way to scout these 17- and 18-year-old goalies? “At games, we put a mask on so we can’t see. And we listen to the crowd instead.”

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