What Went Wrong in Rick DiPietro's Once-Promising Career?

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What Went Wrong in Rick DiPietro's Once-Promising Career?
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Rick DiPietro was just cut from a professional tryout with Carolina's AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, his career all but over at age 32. This is the same Rick DiPietro that was drafted first overall, started for Team USA in the 2006 Olympics and was awarded the longest and richest deal in goaltending history just seven years ago.

The tragic case of DiPietro was a result of a fluke combination of hype, unrealistic expectations and a parade of non-stop injuries hitting him right in his prime.

What can NHL teams who are currently developing young goaltenders learn from this experience? To answer that, we'll examine how each of these three circumstances developed for DiPietro.

 

The Hype

In a move that even general manager Mike Milbury called gutsy, the New York Islanders made Rick DiPietro the first goalie ever to be selected first overall in the NHL entry draft (though Michel Plasse was drafted first overall by Montreal in its predecessor, the NHL amateur draft).

The Islanders even moved star goaltending prospect Roberto Luongo to clear a path for DiPietro. "We're hanging a lot of reputation on this kid," said Milbury, per CBC Sports. "It's gutsy, and maybe crazy ... but we think he's a really special player."

What was so special about DiPietro? "We think his unusually strong puck handling skills weighed out in his favor" said Milbury on draft day, via asapsports.com. In the same interview, the Islanders GM also mentioned DiPietro's aggressive style, his leadership and especially his confidence as key factors in their decision to select him first overall.

DiPietro certainly had a lot of confidence, maybe even too much of it. AHL goaltending partner Wendell Young once told Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber that "Ricky's going to need two seats on that plane: one in coach for his body and one in first class for his ego."

That's the context in which DiPietro's NHL career began. A first overall selection, on a team that already had a blue-chip prospect, known largely for his tremendous self-confidence (and puck-handling skills).

Foreshadowing what was to come, DiPietro pulled a groin muscle in his first practice with the team, missing four preseason games. His highly anticipated 19-year-old 2000-01 debut featured just three wins and 15 losses. His career would eventually get off to a good start, but not until three years later.

 

The Unrealistic Expectations

Despite two average seasons as New York's starting goalie (split up by the 2005 NHL lockout), DiPietro was the starting goalie for the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, starting four of its six games in Torino.

Amidst that preliminary success, DiPietro was signed to a historic 15-year, $67.5 million contract in September 2006. At the time, GM Garth Snow said, via Si.com, that "It's a great deal for the team because we get a flexible (cap) number that we can work with and add players as we need, it's a great deal for Ricky because he has term, and the big bonus is for our fans because they get to see a player that everyone loves for many more years to come."

It appears the Islanders were paying for potential, because at the time of the deal, DiPietro was a 25-year-old goalie whose special character and tremendous confidence was only producing league-average results.

Rick DiPietro's Save Percentage
Season GP Save Pct% Rank
2000-01 20 .878 53 of 54
2002-03 10 .894 N/A
2003-04 50 .911 25 of 50
2005-06 63 .900 27 of 55
2006-07 62 .919 6 of 53
2007-08 63 .902 38 of 50
2008-09 5 .892 N/A
2009-10 8 .900 N/A
2010-11 26 .886 52 of 53
2011-12 8 .876 N/A
2012-13 3 .855 N/A

Hockey Reference

The New York Islanders enjoyed some immediate rewards for their investment, as DiPietro had his one impressive season in 2006-07. Unfortunately, the steady parade of injuries would begin the following season, leading to his worst and last season as their starting goalie.

Looking at that one four-season stretch as their starting goalie from 2003-04 through 2007-08, DiPietro played in 238 games, sixth most in the NHL. Of those who played at least 150 games during his prime, DiPietro's .908 save percentage was merely 18th, tied with Marty Turco, Ryan Miller and Chris Osgood, just short of Evgeni Nabokov, Martin Gerber and Vesa Toskala.

At the time, .908 was roughly the level where it was difficult to keep a starting job in the NHL, especially for those older goalies. They consequently all dropped off one by one.

The one exception was Ryan Miller, who is just over a year older than DiPietro. Miller is also American and came up through the U.S. College system but was drafted in the fifth round and didn't play his first real NHL hockey until age 25.

The lack of hype and the careful development helped Miller become a solid starting goalie for nine seasons (and counting), including one spectacular season in 2009-10. Of course, one of the other key advantages Miller had over DiPietro was his luck in staying healthy.

 

The Non-Stop Injuries

DiPietro's string of injuries began in 2007 with a concussion and a hip injury, followed in 2008 by the first of numerous knee complications. DiPietro just couldn't stay healthy, also being hit with groin injuries, a hernia and Brent Johnson's fist, which led to an extended absence with a facial injury.

Ironically, his contract did give the Islanders some cap flexibility, as DiPietro's deal helped the Islanders stay above the league's minimum. The deal was bought out this past summer, awarding him $1.5 million per year through 2029, when he'll be 48 years old.

 

What Can NHL Teams Learn from DiPietro?

The key thing we can learn from Rick DiPietro is the unpredictability of young goaltenders. Some hit it big, some don't—and no one is immune to injury. They need to be brought along slowly, and there's a tremendous amount of risk in those long deals.

Take Jonathan Quick, for example. Like DiPietro, the Kings star netminder also had a monster season at age 26, backstopped the U.S. Olympic team, landed a 10-year, $58 million contract and has been hit with back and groin injuries ever since.

The comparison isn't perfect, of course. Quick was brought along more slowly and carefully with far less hype, and he had much more legitimate NHL success before landing his big deal. The point is more that young goalies can be quite unpredictable, whether they're ultimately hit with injuries or not.

Let's take a more concrete current-day example, that of Philadelphia's Steve Mason. The statistical similarities between these two goalies when DiPietro was the same age is astounding.

Rick DiPietro vs. Steve Mason
Situation DiPietro SV% DiPietro GAA Mason SV% Mason GAA
Early Career .903 2.84 .901 3.08
Hot Streak .934 2.09 .933 2.10
Post-Career .896 3.73 TBD TBD

First of all, they both had an 18-game hot streak at around the same age. For DiPietro, it was right near the end of the 2006-07 season, and for Mason, it was right out of the gate this season. Their stats during these hot stretches are identical.

Normally, that would mean absolutely nothing, because pretty much every goalie has a hot streak like this at one point or another, but there's another key similarity. In his 178 previous career games, DiPietro's statistics were also nearly identical to Mason's 183 games over the past four seasons.

What does this mean for Mason? These may be two very different goalies, from slightly different times, playing for much different teams, but it nevertheless remains a cautionary tale. Young goalies can go on hot streaks, but in the end, DiPietro's numbers fell to a .896 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average in the remaining 117 games of his NHL career.

Mason is currently signed to a low-risk deal, and even if his solid play continues, the Flyers should resist the temptation to lock him down to a long-term, high-cost deal. Of course, their recent experience with Ilya Bryzgalov has likely given them the right perspective on such types of contracts anyway.

 

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Closing Thoughts

So what happened to DiPietro? A unique combination of hype, unrealistic expectations and injuries caused this particular tragedy.

Being drafted first overall by a team that already had a blue-chip prospect is a lot of hype for a teenage goaltender, even one of DiPietro's tremendous confidence. Even someone of his potential needed several years of development before becoming an effective NHL starter.

Strike two was the contract DiPietro was offered in 2006, one that was entirely out of proportion with his relatively average play up to that point and also with the more likely upper estimates of his potential. The final and most meaningful strike was the steady parade of injuries that began in 2007 and plagued the rest of his career.

It's a cautionary tale that reveals the unpredictability of young goaltenders, the time they need to develop and the incredible risk involved in long-term, high-cost contracts. Unfortunately for the Islanders and Rick DiPietro, they learned these lessons the hard way.

 

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

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Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.

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