Imagine a scenario where a top defensive team with a solid tandem of goalies in their 20s – let’s say ninth-best goals-against San Jose Sharks with 28-year-old Martin Jones and 29-year-old Aaron Dell – drafts a “project” goalie in the first round out of high school as a plan for the future.
Then imagine a few months later that the 18-year-old goalie has a change of heart when it comes to which amateur team he wants to spend his development years with. Instead, he wants to go to NHL training camp to see what it’s all about.
First, you laugh. Then you watch. Then imagine that teenage goalie out of high school blowing the lid off things in training camp and pre-season. He wins the starting job. Then he goes on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and the Vezina Trophy as top goalie. Then in the final week of the season he turns 19. Only in a dream? That’s exactly how Tom Barrasso burst on the scene with the Buffalo Sabres in 1983. Here’s how it happened.
The Sabres had a good squad in 1982-83 (ninth out of 21 teams) and had three picks in the first 11 selections of the 1983 draft. They felt they could take a gamble on one of them. GM Scotty Bowman figured he’d get safe pros at Nos. 10 and 11 (Norm Lacombe and Adam Creighton), so he decided to use his flyer at No. 5. Buffalo rolled the dice and picked an American high school goalie who looked promising but was about as far from a lock as anyone in the latter rounds. “There’s no way you could evaluate a goalie playing 20 games a year at a level so far less than major junior,” recalled Boston GM Harry Sinden. “We’d go there to scout him and he’d only face a few shots. There would be nothing we learned. But the Sabres had all those picks and took the chance. I never would have done that with a pick so early.”
Barrasso had great stats at Acton-Boxborough High School (0.99 GAA), and was headed to college in the fall, or perhaps the 1984 U.S. Olympic team if it was interested. That was the plan. Besides, the Sabres were set with 27-year-old Bob Sauve and 22-year-old Jacques Cloutier, with the duo finishing sixth out of 21 teams in goals-against average the previous season.
As the 1983 summer went on, Barrasso had big-league aspirations. The tall, lanky netminder beat Cloutier out of a job in training camp and played more games in 1983-84 than Sauve, the proven starter. Barrasso appeared in 42 games with a 2.84 GAA and .893 save percentage; Sauve had a 3.49 GAA and .868 save percentage in 40 games. The Sabres finished second overall to Washington in team GAA. As for the Vezina, Barrasso won it over Calgary’s Rejean Lemelin.
He’s one of just four goalies to win both the Calder and Vezina in the same season. The other three are Boston’s Frank Brimsek (1938-39), Chicago’s Tony Esposito (1969-70) and Chicago’s Ed Belfour (1990-91). Steve Mason of Columbus was 20 when he won the Calder and was runner-up for the Vezina in 2008-09. “Let me tell you, that was an unbelievable story,” said Sinden in 2009. “It’s been 25 years since that happened and it gets more remarkable the more you think about it…an 18-year-old from high school stepping in and becoming the best goalie in the NHL. Think about that for a second.”
Barrasso played 20 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s. But besides a pair of second all-star team honors in the years after his remarkable debut, that was it for individual accomplishments. That’s one reason induction into the Hall of Fame has eluded Barrasso since he first became eligible in 2006.
Born: March 31, 1965, Boston, Mass.
NHL Career: 1983-2002
Teams: Buf, Pit, Ott, Car, Tor, StL
Stats: 369-277-86, 3.24 GAA, .892 SP, 38 SO
Awards: 2 (Vezina-1, Calder-1)
All-Star: 3 (First-1, Second-2)
Stanley Cups: 2
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1990, Barrasso took a six-week leave of absence from the Penguins to care for his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who had been stricken with neuroblastoma cancer. Barrasso soon launched the Ashley Barrasso Cancer Research Fund. Ashley underwent chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant to save her life. She survived the cancer and now lives in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., where she works in life insurance.