Without a doubt, the cornerstone of a successful NHL franchise is goaltending. But it’s not enough to simply have one solid netminder and hope he can carry your team for a full regular season schedule as well as a long playoff grind. With few exceptions, depth is crucial.
For teams consistently at the top of the pack, that depth goes deeper than just the starter and the backup. A franchise that strives for constant success must have prospects lined up, because as the years go by, even that vaunted MVP starter is eventually going to wear down and force his understudies into the limelight.
The classic case of depth in the modern era is the San Jose Sharks. Through the team’s excellent scouting staff, the Sharks drafted Evgeni Nabokov in 1994 (219th overall, at that), followed by the back-to-back selections of Vesa Toskala (90th overall) and Miikka Kiprusoff (116th overall) in 1995.
From 2000-01 on, that cluster gave the Sharks an embarrassment of riches in net, which would eventually be cashed in for more goodies. Kiprusoff would be traded to Calgary for a second round draft pick which became defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, while Toskala went to the Maple Leafs for three draft choices (two of which were traded to St. Louis in a package for Logan Couture) and the bonus of getting Mark Bell’s salary off the books (not to mention Bell himself).
Nabokov has become one of the league’s pre-eminent goalkeepers and with prospects such as Harri Sateri, Tyson Sexsmith and Timo Pielmeier in their stable, the Sharks will have options for years.
Now here’s the key: Every team drafts goalies, but along with picking the right ones, San Jose essentially set up a pipeline, where their three gems would stay in Europe for a couple seasons, come over for some American League experience, then graduate to the NHL with confidence. First Nabokov joined the Sharks, then the next year Kiprusoff and Toskala the season after that.
While Nabokov generally got the majority of starts, both Kiprusoff and Toskala contributed enough so that they became tangible trade assets, not to mention star keepers in their own right.
Another team that has grasped this important development concept is the Dallas Stars, although the collective bargaining agreement has stung them more for their success.
Dating back to the team’s Stanley Cup victory in 1999, Dallas has had top-notch goaltending, which explains why the team has only missed the playoffs once since Ed Belfour, in his prime, took the Stars to the promised land; Marty Turco picked up the ball from there.
True, Turco remains the starter today, but thanks to the Dallas scouting team, he’s had some pretty outstanding backups. Up until recently, the two most prominent non-starters, for several years, also happened to battle each other for the spot behind Turco. You may recognize them as Tampa Bay starting goaltender Mike Smith and Nashville breakout star Dan Ellis.
Smith bore the most fruit; he was the main prong in a trade that landed the Stars Brad Richards at the trade deadline last season. With Ellis, the CBA and time conspired against Dallas; the team lost him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2007.
“With Ellis, we had no option,” said Tim Bernhardt, director of amateur scouting for the Stars. “You only have so much room and the timetable is only so long. We would have lost Smith at the end of this season – what can you do?”
For Bernhardt, he and his staff can only keep doing what they’re doing and wince when one of their prizes leaves – after all, too many good goalies is a nice problem to have and if one of them turns into a player like Brad Richards, you’re playing with house money.
Just look at how Dallas has once again set itself up for the future: the team’s current backup is 24-year-old Tobias Stephan, who was well-seasoned in Switzerland before coming over. Richard Bachman is entering his second of four years at Colorado College, where he was fantastic as a freshman, and Tyler Beskorowany is standing on his head again in Owen Sound for the Ontario League’s Attack. Both will need some time to become NHLers, but that’s the beauty of it: Marty Turco’s still got plenty of hockey in him, so the kids have time.
It seems like such a simple concept, but somehow only a select few teams have mastered it.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his feature, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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