Maybe Drafting Goalies in the First Round Isn't a Bad Idea

With four teams in the Stanley Cup final using goalies selected in the first round, is it time to start re-thinking how teams evaluate goaltenders at the draft table?
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Andrei Vasilevskiy

Andrei Vasilevskiy

It's hard to win the Stanley Cup without an elite goaltender. The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks may say differently, but there's a reason why most Stanley Cup winners over the past decade did so with a goalie playing out of their mind.

That's exactly what we're seeing this year, too. The four starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup semifinals are all playing spectacular hockey – exactly what you'd expect at this point in the playoffs. But one thing that ties them all together is their status as first-round draft prospects: Marc-Andre Fleury went first overall in 2003 to Pittsburgh, the Montreal Canadiens selected Carey Price fifth overall in 2005, the Washington Capitals put faith in Semyon Varlamov at 23rd overall in 2006 and Tampa Bay's choice of Andrei Vasilevskiy at 19th overall in 2012 has really paid off.

In Fleury and Varlamov's cases, both were selected by different teams than to what they play on now, but played some tremendous hockey with their previous teams, too. Fleury was Pittsburgh's starting goalie for a decade, winning a Stanley Cup as a starter and two while sharing the crease with Matt Murray. 

Four goaltenders isn't exactly a big sample size, especially with many others not living up to expectations. For as good as Jack Campbell was this season, it's not like his career has been full of stellar play. Since Fleury was taken in 2003, Al Montoya (2004), Jonathan Bernier (2006) and Chet Pickard (2008, probably the only true bust) all went on to mixed results.

But times really have changed. It wasn't that long ago that teams were shelling out first-round picks for enforcers. Enforcers, for the most part, have gone extinct in the NHL, and maybe the thinking that drafting a goalie in the first round is a big risk is something that's become outdated, too.

Goaltending has been a top focus of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2021. Price has been dynamite for the Canadiens, easily establishing himself as Montreal's saving grace. Fleury has been great himself, but didn't start Game 4 after a blunder in Game 3 got Montreal back into the game – don't be shocked to see him back for Game 5. Varlamov has come up huge for the Islanders, just like he did in much of last year's playoffs, too. And Vasilevskiy? Yeah, he's been the Vezina winner we expected him to be.

This season, Florida's Spencer Knight (13th overall in 2019) and Dallas' Jake Oettinger (26th overall in 2017) both made an impact to the point where they should be starting goalies sooner rather than later. Campbell, of course, turned heads when he set an NHL record for wins to start a season with an 11-game winning streak. Washington's Ilya Samsonov (22nd overall in 2015) had a tough season, but he's just a sophomore with a bright future.

The expectation is that Jesper Wallstedt will become the third goalie in a row to get selected in the opening round. Of course, there was Knight two years ago, and Yaroslav Askarov was taken No. 11 by Nashville last fall, too. If Wallstedt goes in the opening round this summer, it'll mark the first time that goalies have gone in the first round in three consecutive drafts since 2006, when Jonathan Bernier completed a 14-year run when goaltenders were drafted early. 

But it was that run that produced so many duds that forced teams to re-think how they evaluated goaltenders. From 1996-2008, 12 of the 31 goalies taken in the first round became NHL starters, while 11 played fewer than 10 games (and a handful made it just over that mark). 

Projecting goalies will always feel like a crapshoot, but there's better data and tools available now to decide whether a goalie is performing well because of the team in front of him or whether they're actually contributing in a valuable way. In Askarov's case, he's both. At the NHL level, Price is doing a lot of the carrying, while someone like Vasilevskiy is contributing in a big way despite playing on a powerhouse. 

There's a lot of risk in drafting a goalie in the first round, but some teams can face that head-on and come out looking like geniuses. In the case of Nashville and Florida, both were teams near the edge of the playoff spectrum with starting goalies already in place. For Tampa Bay in 2012, the opportunity to pick up the guy that ended up becoming the best player selected that year was too much to give up, and he's been tremendous ever since.

For a goaltender to go in the first round, they have to be really, really outstanding. There's still a ton of risk associated with selecting a goaltender, especially given how different their development path can be compared to a forward who has more opportunities to make a roster. It's highly, highly unlikely we'll ever see another Rick DiPietro situation where a goalie is taken first overall – that's almost too dangerous.

But if the talent is worth an early pick – especially this year with Wallstedt in a weaker draft – you have to make the consideration. Heck, even Sebastian Cossa has a realistic shot at going in the first round this year. You're always going to find some scoring depth in the draft – there are enough picks to make it happen. But you're not always going to find an NHL-caliber goaltender, so if it makes sense, you got to go for it.

And four teams are figuring that out right now.

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