Goaltenders are like wine. When they're young, there isn't really anything special about them. They're drafted on promise and moldability and, in some cases, athleticism. It takes time and careful handling to mold them into NHL puck stopping machines; refining their mechanics and exposing them to better and better competition. Eventually, if you're lucky, you get to pop the cork on a special netminding talent that backstops your team for an entire generation.
The Washington Capitals currently have three bottles of grape juice young goaltenders manning the crease for them this season. One could assume all three are too young to take a team to the promised land, but just how accurate is that statement? How much experience does a goaltender need before they're ready to take over the reins and be a successful NHL starter? Let's take a look.
In order to accurately judge a goaltender, it's important to judge him against his peers. In this case, we'll look at goalies by country (and for Canada, we'll look at Quebec-trained goalies separately from the rest of Canada) to see how long it takes for goalies to 'make it' in the NHL. A goalie will have ‘made it’ when they've played more than 20 games in 2 NHL seasons, or 41 or more games in one season (whichever comes first). We'll count the seasons from the player's draft-eligible season.
- Czech Republic (Vokoun, Pavelec, Neuvirth) – 5.3 Seasons
- Quebec (Brodeur, Luongo, Giguere, Fleury, Crawford, Theodore) – 5.5 Seasons
- Russia (Khabibulin, Nabokov, Bryzgalov, Varlamov, Bobrovsky) – 5.6 Seasons
- Canada (Price, Ward, Roloson, Mason, Turco) – 5.8 Seasons
- Slovakia (Halak, Budaj) – 6.5 Seasons
- Sweden (Lundqvist, Gustavsson) – 6.5 Seasons
- US (Miller, Thomas, DiPietro, Anderson, Quick, Howard) - 7 Seasons
- Finland (Rinne, Backstrom, Kiprusoff, Niemi, Lehtonen, Rask) – 7.5 Seasons
- Switzerland (Hiller) - 9 Seasons
On average, it takes 6.3 seasons for a goalie to ‘make it’ in the NHL, an average that drops if you remove the likes of Tim Thomas (13) or Niklas Backstrom (11) who became NHL starters later in their careers.
It’s interesting to see that Quebec, Russia, the Czech Republic and the rest of Canada are nearly even in how long it takes their goalies to ‘make it’. While Canada and the Czechs are part of the ‘technique’ goaltending school, Russian goaltenders rely more on their athleticism to stop pucks. Apparently, either style works, although there are clearly far more Canadian goalies than either of the other two groups.
Also interesting is that some of the best goaltenders in the league, namely the Finnish goalies, take a long time to mature. It’s no coincidence that these netminders are also the most successful once they make it, as they master their technique before entering the NHL. One could argue that it's taken till this season for Kari Lehtonen to 'make it', or that Tuukka Rask has yet to get to that point.
Two Caps goalies qualified as having ‘made it’ this season: Varlamov and Neuvirth both took 5 seasons to get there; Semyon with two 20 game seasons on his resume, Neuvirth with 41 games played this season. Both took less than the league average to ‘make it’, one through his technique and one through his athleticism. But are they ready for the next step?
Taking a look at the goaltenders that have taken their team to a Cup Finals since the lock-out, 4 goalies (Niemi, Leighton, Emery and Ward) either had yet to have made it or made it the year they went to the finals. Marc-Andre Fleury played in the finals three years after 'making it', and won a Cup the next year. Of the others (Osgood, Giguere and Roloson), only Roloson was playing in his first Cup Finals. It seems that while experience is a nice thing to take into the playoffs, the last few seasons have proven that it isn't necessary.
So could the Caps' young netminders help the team go on a long playoff run? Recent history suggests it wouldn't be unprecedented. Whether that goaltender is Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth (or even Braden Holtby?) remains to be seen. That's for Coach Boudreau to figure out.