When Is the Best Time to Pick a Goaltender in the NHL Draft?

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When Is the Best Time to Pick a Goaltender in the NHL Draft?
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Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins was the last goalie taken No. 1 in 2003.

Drafting and scouting goaltenders are two of the most difficult challenges for NHL teams.

It's the most important position on the ice and one that greatly impacts the chances that a franchise has of winning the Stanley Cup. This is why taking goaltenders in the first round may seem like a good idea, but when you look at recent NHL history, it's best to wait a little longer before selecting a player at this position.

For teams in a rebuilding phase, drafting a goaltender high in the first round, especially with a lottery pick, is oftentimes a very risky move. Since most teams these days are less willing to go through several years of finishing at the bottom of the standings, stockpiling top picks and rebuilding properly, taking a goaltender in the top 10 of the draft rarely happens.

Too many teams try to rebuild on the fly and don't have the patience to draft an 18- or 19-year-old goalie who needs three, four or even five years of development at the junior and minor league levels before being ready to make a strong impact in the NHL.

Many of the goalies drafted in the later rounds become quality NHL players. Here's a list of some notable netminders drafted after Round 1 who are current NHL starters.

Player Year Round Team
Tomas Vokoun 1994 9th MTL
Miikka Kiprusoff 1995 5th SJS
Ryan Miller 1999 5th BUF
Henrik Lundqvist 2000 7th NYR
Craig Anderson 2001 3rd CHI
Jimmy Howard 2003 2nd DET
Jaroslav Halak 2003 9th MTL
Pekka Rinne 2004 8th NSH
Jonathan Quick 2005 3rd LAK

Of the 30 NHL teams, only nine of them have starting goaltenders who were drafted in the first round, and five of those players were drafted by the club they are currently playing for.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jonathan Quick (left) and Henrik Lundqvist are the NHL's top two goalies. Both were drafted in Round 3 or later.

Let's take a look at the amount of goaltenders drafted in the first round during the salary cap era (2005 draft to the present) and look at how many of them are currently a starter or backup in the NHL.

Year Goalies Drafted In NHL?
2005 2 2
2006 4 2
2007 0 0
2008 2 0
2009 0 0
2010 2 0
2011 0 0
2012 2 0

Of the 12 first-round goaltenders selected in the last eight drafts, only three of them are starters in the NHL. They are Carey Price (Montreal, 2005), Tuukka Rask (Toronto, 2005) and Semyon Varlamov (Washington, 2006). Jonathan Bernier, who was just traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, is the other player in the NHL.

Price is the only one of these four goaltenders still playing for the team that drafted him. This is not uncommon, however. Since goalies take longer than skaters to reach their full potential, teams make the mistake of giving up on them too early. This was the case with Rask, who was traded to Boston in 2006 when the Leafs decided to keep goalie prospect Justin Pogge instead.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Toronto took Rask in the first round when it already had a quality prospect in Pogge. Just one year after drafting Rask, the Leafs gave up on him. If teams are going to take a goalie in the first round, they must be willing to wait long enough for that player to develop or it will likely become a wasted pick.

Among the 30 starting goalies, 27 of them came into the league as draftees (three were undrafted) and 17 of those players were drafted 10 or more years ago. It takes goalies longer to develop into an elite level, which is why so many teams don't exercise the patience required to ensure they reach their potential.

Since 1996-97, 13 of the 16 Vezina Trophy winners won the award at the age of 29 or older, including 10 goalies in their 30's. This year's winner Sergei Bobrovsky, 24, is one of just two goaltenders to take home the Vezina at 25 years of age or younger in the last 20 years. Since 1994, Martin Brodeur and Olaf Kolzig are the only first-round goalies who have won the Vezina.

This year's class of goaltenders is led by Zachary Fucale of the Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. He has first-round talent, but in the last half of the top 30 there's only two teams who need a future franchise goalie. They are the Buffalo Sabres at No. 16 and the Calgary Flames at No. 22 and 28.

Calgary has three first-round picks and needs a goaltender of the future because last year's starter Miikka Kiprusoff is retiring. The Flames are going into a rebuilding phase and wouldn't need to rush Fucale to the NHL, so it makes sense for them to gamble on him with the 22nd or 28th selection.

Don't be surprised if Fucale is the only goalie taken in the first round on Sunday. There are some quality goaltending prospects in this class, but taking a chance on one with a top-30 pick in a year that is so deep with talented skaters is too much of a risk.

Over the last 10 years, most lottery teams have opted to go the route of drafting a forward or a defenseman who will contribute at the NHL level quicker and sell tickets. When you look at the impressive number of franchise cornerstone forwards and defensemen selected in the top 10 of the first round since 2000, it's hard to argue with teams' deciding to stay away from goalies.

Since 2001, the only No. 1 overall pick who hasn't live up to expectations is Erik Johnson (2006, St. Louis). In that time, the only goaltender taken with the first pick was Marc-Andre Fleury, who lost his starting job with the Penguins in the playoffs this season.

Is taking a goalie in Round 1 worth the risk?

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When a first-round skater doesn't perform as expected, what could have been a top-six forward or top-four defenseman becomes a bottom-six forward or a depth defenseman, and teams need these players more than ever in the cap era when building depth requires multiple players with inexpensive contracts.

Skaters still have value if they don't reach their potential, but the same cannot be said of goaltenders who fail to live up to the hype.

The best time to pick a goaltender is after the first round. Given the success of goalies being drafted in the middle and later rounds over the last 15 years, in addition to the time it takes for them to develop fully, it's wise to use top 30 picks on forwards and defensemen who will contribute sooner and give a franchise marketing opportunities.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Follow Nick on Twitter for live updates from the 2013 NHL Draft on June 30.

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