Goaltending Youth Movement Has Swept College Hockey This Season
by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer
Finding the right goaltender is a difficult process, especially with so many talented starters jumping to the next level or graduating each year. The constant shifts in the college hockey landscape can do a number on roster depth, and for some teams, it can send you back to square one.
In the goaltending department, that trend seems to have hit a peak this year. Whether it was a departing veteran who minded the net the past few years, or others on the squad who couldn’t emerge from the crowd, coaches across college hockey found themselves with holes in net entering the season.
As a result, as of today, 19 freshmen goaltenders have the most minutes played on their team. Out of just 60 teams. Six of those netminders are in a tandem, but still the favored option. With nearly one-third of Division I teams riding a youngster, it’s certainly a talking point among those in the college hockey world.
Part I: Getting a Shot
There are many reasons for this happenstance, but whether it's a lasting trend or one-shot deal is another story. Coaches across the country have their own theories.
While Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has junior Collin Delia in net, his team is familiar with green goaltenders — Hockey East has six freshmen starters, the most for a conference in the country.
Dennehy believes the anomaly isn’t indicative of anything negative, but just the ebbs and flows of roster movement in the game.
“I think it’s cyclical,” Dennehy said. “When a team needs a goalie, it’s hard to judge when there’s an opportunity, which is why I’d never let my child be a goalie. There’s just not enough opportunities. To me, a lot of teams needed goalies this year.”
The overall lack of opportunity for netminders is something that may play into how cutthroat the position has been. Many of the lowerclassmen playing in net were stuck in stiff competitions for their team’s starting spot, while others still haven’t completely solidified their positions.
Western Michigan’s goalie Ben Blacker is a great example of how competitive each starting spot can be. Broncos’ Coach Andy Murray and his coaching staff commit a significant amount of resources to ensuring that the best option possible gets time.
“All I want is goalies that stop the puck and stop more than they let in,” Murray said. “We kept analytics. We film every practice. We video every practice. We keep shot counts and save percentages in every practice. We know how many goals our players are letting in, in relation to the number of shots they have. We make sure that we balance out the drill types so we know what the situations they’re being put in. We try to do it objectively.”
One factor in the increased reliance on freshmen is simply that the freshmen coming in are already reliable.
“Most of these goalies have goaltending coaches, even before they get into college,” Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “Staffs now are looking for someone who can work with their goalies, or who was a goalie.
“I think that’s really helped the transition of goalies — the work they get before they even get to college.”
Pearson’s coaching staff benefits from taking experienced freshmen and providing them with knowledge from one of the best. Currently, freshman Angus Redmond is shining bright in the WCHA; he has a .922 save percentage, good enough for sixth among freshmen and 13th in the country.
Redmond’s success at this level is, in part, due to his goalie coach in Houghton. Joe Shawhan has a long resume of developing top goaltending talent, including current NHLers Ryan Miller and Jared Coreau.
The influx of freshmen getting a shot doesn’t need to be a good or bad thing. It’s just what’s happening in college hockey these days, according to Pearson, and it seems many in the game agree.
“It’s just like any freshman,” Pearson said. “You come in and you earn your spot. That’s what Angus had to do here. He had to wait, but he had to earn his spot in practice. Once he did that, he was given the opportunity to see what he could do in games. I would (say that) most schools are like that now. The odd one might recruit a goalie to step in and play right away, but I think most of us, we want our guys to earn their spot.”
Part II: Stats Don’t Lie
Many of the young goaltenders who took the reins for their teams this year excelled. When looking at save percentage, four of the top 10 are freshmen. The top freshman goaltender, Ferris State’s Jason Kapelmaster, doesn’t even have the most minutes for his team, but his .941 is only bested by Canisius senior Charles Williams. Francis Marotte of Robert Morris, Jake Oettinger of Boston University and Western Michigan’s Blacker also sit in that top-10 ranking.
Oettinger proved critical to a young, but extremely talented BU team so far this season. His .937 save percentage is fourth in the nation, and he’s looked like anything but a 19-year-old freshman in net this season.
“I’m glad we got this guy,” Boston University coach David Quinn said. “There’s not another guy I’d want. If you look at goaltending in North America, it’s pretty good. College hockey is a great level of hockey, and I still don’t know if it gets the proper credit it deserves in the hockey world.”
Oettinger is the top goaltender in a stacked and young Hockey East group. Joseph Woll of Boston College and Connecticut’s Adam Huska also currently sit in the top 20 of save percentage in the nation, while Massachusetts-Lowell’s Tyler Wall and Vermont’s Stefanos Lekkas are putting together solid seasons.
“When they’re freshmen, they’re there for a reason,” said Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, who brought in three freshmen goaltenders this year and let them compete for the top spot. All that's happened is UMD is No. 1 in the Pairwise.
“They’ve shown some great abilities, they’ve been successful wherever they’ve been. It doesn’t matter. The game changes a little bit, as far as the pace, just like it does at every level. I think it’s good. It’s a healthy thing because there’s a lot of great goaltenders out there.”
Having a strong goaltender is critical, and if a team is not riding a goaltender who is one of the top in the country, they don’t have much of a chance for success. With more schools developing elite talent — 30 percent of NHLers in 2015 played in the NCAA ranks, according to College Hockey Inc. — the goaltending position needs to keep up at this level. The string of successful young goaltenders this season may be another example of this trend working.
“You need to be 92 (percent) to 93 (percent) at any level,” Murray said. “At the NHL level, the college level, you need to be 92 to 93. If you’re not 92 to 93, you’re not good enough at that position.”
Part III: Brace for Departures
So there's no question there are more openings in net, and more freshmen are coming in and taking advantage of them. But why are there more openings?
Some coaches believe that, with college hockey becoming more of a reliable breeding ground for the NHL, that NHL teams are avoiding drafting goalies because the position is so unpredictable. Instead, they wait to see how a player does in the NCAA for a little bit, and grabs them as a free agent. This creates more openings.
For Minnesota-Duluth, there was a question mark regarding who would take over with sophomore goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs after last season. Current starter Hunter Miska was already committed, but the unexpected move forced Sandelin to move quickly to grab another goaltender — freshman Nick Shepard — to fill out the roster.
However, Sandelin didn’t feel that the issue hurt them on the ice too much, as goaltenders are typically more experienced than their skating teammates.
“It seems to me that a lot of the freshmen goalies have quite a few years of junior experience and are usually coming in a little bit older.”
Regardless, players leaving early is a problem that many teams face, as professional teams look to fill out their farm systems with promising talent each year.
“It’s affected everything a little bit,” Sandelin said. “There’s so much uncertainty. Whether they’re a goalie, a forward or a (defenseman), if they’re a high draft pick, you’re only going to have those kids for a couple of years. It’s the free agents — like ours that left last year — they had two good years. I was hoping to get at least three, but those are just tough situations. It’s just different now.”
Minnesota-Duluth’s situation was unusual — there was not a goaltender on the roster in October who had any NCAA experience in net.
“It was unique. I’ve never been in that position as a coach, with three goalies who have never played a game of college hockey. Usually, you get some returns who have maybe played some. So far, it’s worked out.”
The problem worked itself out for Duluth this year. After trying multiple options early on in the season, Miska eventually won the job. The freshman is a catalyst for the team’s impressive run so far, and the Bulldogs are one of the favorites to make it to the Frozen Four.
Murray, who coached in the AHL and NHL for several years, felt that players jumping wasn’t solely an issue for the goaltending ranks. To him, the NHL is dealing with a higher number of young players, and goaltenders jumping from the college ranks may just be more noticeable because there’s one on the ice compared to two defensemen or three forwards.
However, even considering the need to fill spots on three levels of the organization, the increased interest from the pro level means that college hockey is doing something right.
“I think it’s the way that the overall relationship has gone,” Murray said. “The other thing it speaks well for is how much the National Hockey League values the development of college hockey players. We’re getting a lot better players going the college route than ever before. The talent coming in, in my opinion, is at an all-time high.”
There may be more players getting the call to the pros, but Pearson echoed Murray’s sentiments that the quality of the game at the collegiate level is improving. With it, more doors are opening for young and talented goaltenders to showcase their skills and contribute from the outset.
“In the old days, you used to have to wait your turn, or wait a couple years, and you get the shot,” Pearson said. “But, because of goaltenders leaving early and different things going on, guys are thrust into these roles. Because most teams play pretty strong defense, I think that’s helped the goaltenders, too. Not surprising to see young guys coming in and being able to do it right off the bat.”
While some may take issue with early departures and feel that less experienced players getting time before coaches planned to put them in could hurt the game, it seems there’s a widespread belief that the talent level is growing so much, change may be a good thing after all.
Either way, there are some talented, young goaltenders out on the ice every weekend, and the next untested goaltender waiting for his shot could be the key to a team’s march toward a title.