American goalies staking claim among NHL’s best

Marc-Andre Fleury and other Canadian goalies aren't intimidating foes like they used to.

Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

NHL analyst Keith Jones went on record last October saying he thinks the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, the US Olympic team’s No. 1 goalie, is the best in the world.

When the St. Louis Blues had a chance to finish with the NHL’s best regular-season record, they upgraded their goaltending position at the trading deadline by acquiring another American, Ryan Miller.

And among those in the Stanley Cup playoffs who have played at least 100 minutes going into Wednesday’s games, a third American, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, ranks fourth in goals-against average at 2.02 per game. (Miller sits one spot ahead of him at 1.88.)

Let’s not forget that Tampa Bay, the first team eliminated from the playoffs, as they were swept by Montreal on Tuesday, played without its No. 1, Denver native Ben Bishop, who ranked fourth in the NHL during the regular season in wins, but did not play in the playoffs because of a dislocated elbow. Incidentally, the Lightning’s goalies rank 15th of 16 teams in the playoffs in GAA at 3.72.

STANLEY CUP CHASE

Not that long ago, Canadian goalies dominated the playoff field just as they dominated the ranks of skaters. But, with goalies, it is not so anymore. Look at the 16 teams in playoffs and one will find a much more pluralistic crowd, with Americans near the top, and, increasingly, it seems, the elite Canadian goalie a more scarce commodity than he once was.

As recently as 10 years ago, Canadian goalies owned the No. 1 job for nine of the 16 playoff teams. Montreal’s Jose Theodore was two years removed from earning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Toronto’s Ed Belfour had won a Cup in Dallas in ’99. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, one of the game’s all-time greats, helped the Devils raise the Cup the year before. Chris Osgood, who would eventually backstop Detroit to a Cup in 2008, was in net for St. Louis and Curtis Joseph, who ranks fourth in league history with 454 victories, helped Detroit advanced to the second round that season.

This year, there are as many American No. 1s as there are Canadian. Representing Canada are Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago’s Corey Crawford, Philadelphia’s combination of Steve Mason and Ray Emery and Montreal’s Carey Price. (We’re not counting Minnesota rookie Darcy Kuemper, who has started one game so far, with Ilya Bryzgalov starting the first two.) While Quick and the Kings have had their struggles so far, so have the Flyers and Penguins. The Penguins rank 12th in team GAA and Fleury, with an .899 save percentage, could be the weak link on a championship-caliber team. The Flyers are 14th in team GAA at 3.33 and have a paltry .891 save percentage as they trail the New York Rangers, 2-1 in their series.

In all, among No. 1 goalies there are three Finns, three Russians (including Bryzgalov), a Swede (not including Tampa Bay backup Anders Lindback, who was pressed in for Bishop) and a Dane, Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen.

In Canada, this situation has produced much angst, more so when the IIHF World Junior (under-20) Championships rolled around in late December but also, to an extent, before the Olympics. Once the dominion of Canada – our neighbors to the North won five straight World Junior titles from 2005 to 2009 – the country has not claimed a championship at the tournament that enthralls it so since ’09.

In June, the Canadian Hockey League, feeder of much talent to the NHL through its three major junior leagues, banned European goalies from its draft, effectively cutting them out of the league. Some in the Canadian media have deemed it a "crisis," although it appears a little sarcasm might be involved in the use of that term. Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox has noted that there were no Canadian finalists last year for the Vezina Trophy (given to the NHL’s top goalie) and that a Canadian has not been the first goalie selected at the NHL Draft in five years.

For years, youth hockey programs in Finland, a country of 5.4 million people that produces an outsized number of world-class goalies, have gained renown for teaching the position from a young age. Sweden has followed.

So has the United States. Mitch Korn, who has served as the Nashville Predators goalie coach for every year of their existence and once was Dominik Hasek’s goalie coach with the Buffalo Sabres, said the curriculum matters. At the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., Kevin Reiter, a former Korn pupil, plays a role in this. Reiter’s bio says he serves as "coordinator of the revolutionary Warren Strelow National Goaltending Mentor Program, which is designed to recruit, develop and produce elite netminders in the United States."

As of August, Hockey Canada, the equivalent of USA Hockey, added four NHL goalie coaches to oversee the building of Canada’s first national goaltending development and goalie coach certification program. In other words, they lag years behind.

"That has an impact," Korn said of providing such curricula. "It’s all about having a common language. It’s about providing educational materials that they haven’t done it."

Korn said the Strelow program, named for the former NHL goalie coach who also served in the same capacity for the 1980 US Olympic team, "brings together a lot of different goalie guys from around the country to share information, educate, develop some printed material and to develop goalies."

Having the common language and curriculum is important at a time when the position is rapidly evolving. Korn said the position is played differently now than it was even three years ago at the NHL level. He used the example of Quick, Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov, the favorite to win the 2014 Vezina, and Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky, last year’s Vezina winner.

"It was more about blocking and positioning" – Korn joked that blocking meant goalies would get in position, rely on big bodies and outsized equipment, close their eyes and hope the puck hit them – "and now you look at the Jon Quicks, Bobrovsky, Varlamov, specifically, I’ll pick those three, even Carey Price to an extent, their games are built with power, quickness, and really, really solid fundamentals and they’re tight," he said. "When they push, they pull, you couldn’t see three inches between the goalie pads even. They’re so powerful laterally. The ability to go east-west is unbelievable now."

Finding pucks in traffic, recognizing — it’s unbelievable the processing that’s going on with top guys now. Things are so much faster. The ability to process, recognize patterns, find pucks in traffic. It’s at an all-time new level. It’s incredible.

Mitch Korn

Korn said goalies can no longer sit on their angles and hope to block shots anymore, as they did just a few years ago.

"It’s hard to play that way," he said. "You can’t block. Guys shoot too hard. Guys can snipe."

He also said the position is growing increasingly sophisticated.

"Finding pucks in traffic, recognizing — it’s unbelievable the processing that’s going on with top guys now," he said. "Things are so much faster. The ability to process, recognize patterns, find pucks in traffic. It’s at an all-time new level. It’s incredible."

It’s the kind of thing that needs to be taught and, as with most things, the earlier the better. It’s happening in the United States and that’s why another wave of American goalies is coming.

Earlier this season, Anaheim called up 20-year-old Pittsburgh native John Gibson and he went 3-0 with a .954 save percentage and 1.33 GAA. He could be the Ducks’ goalie of the future. And Jack Campbell, selected 11th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft by Dallas, was named the best goalie of 2011 World Junior tournament. At 22, Campbell is taking a slower route to the NHL.

So as the years pass, don’t be surprised if you see more and more Americans in goal on the top playoff teams.​