CHL gets it right on goalies

Banning European netminders from Canadian junior is wise

19.06.2013
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Czech Republic native and Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is one of only a handful of CHL-trained European goaltenders since 2004 to have made a successful transition to the NHL. Photo: Steve Deschenes/Hockey Hall of Fame

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) made a decision that will provide benefits on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean when it opted to ban European junior goalies entirely from its annual import draft starting in 2014.

The new policy, announced earlier this month, will still allow teams in the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) to select European goalies born in 1994 and 1995 at the 2013 draft slated for July 3, but only during the first round. In 2014, the ban will be complete (European goalies currently playing in the CHL can stay on).

This move is primarily intended to improve the state of Canadian goaltending. As has been well-documented, Canada hasn’t won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship since 2009, and goaltending has been a problem in each of its four consecutive stumbles. Losing medal round games versus CHL-based goalies like Russia’s Igor Bobkov (London Knights, 2011) and Andrei Makarov (Saskatoon Blades, 2012, 2013) has amplified Canada’s pain.

The CHL hopes to give more opportunities to homegrown talent and thereby reverse this trend. In the big picture, the motherland of hockey also has legitimate concerns about its Olympic and World Championship goaltending.

But what hasn’t been widely pointed out is that the new CHL policy will also serve young European netminders well. How so?

History and statistics clearly indicate that the best European goalies have been developed in their own domestic leagues. Conversely, very few who have come to the CHL for their U20 years have reached their potential.

That’s not to take anything away from the fine job CHL clubs have done in developing North American talent between the pipes. Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Grant Fuhr, and countless other top NHL and international goalies for Canada have emerged from these leagues. In the future, greater emphasis on goalie coaching, along with the increased CHL opportunity for Canadian netminders, could very likely make Canada the premier goaltending nation again.

However, teenage European goalies go on to bigger and better things, both in the NHL and in senior IIHF competition, when they nurture their skills in their native environment.

Want proof? Take a look at this list of the 52 European goalies taken in the CHL import draft since 2004. It’s in chronological order. Goalies who went on to play in the NHL are marked with an asterisk.

Marek Schwarz (Czech Republic, 2004, Vancouver Giants, WHL) *

Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia, 2004, Lewiston Maineiacs, QMJHL) *

Eero Kilpelainen (Finland, 2004, Peterborough Petes, OHL)

Ondrej Pavelec (Czech Republic, 2005, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, QMJHL) *

Stefan Grauwiler (Switzerland, 2005, Oshawa Generals, OHL)

Sebastian Dahm (Denmark, 2005, Belleville Bulls, OHL)

Anton Khudobin (Russia, 2005, Saskatoon Blades, WHL) *

Lukas Flüeler (Switzerland, 2006, Ottawa 67’s, OHL)

Michael Neuvirth (Czech Republic, 2006, Plymouth Whalers, OHL) *

Jaroslav Janus (Slovakia, 2007, Erie Otters, OHL)

Robert Mayer (Switzerland, 2007, Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL)

Timo Pielmeier (Germany, 2007, St. John’s Fog Devils, QMJHL) *

Milan Pucholt (Czech Republic, 2007, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL)

Juha Metsola (Finland, 2007, Lethbridge Hurricanes, WHL)

Jakub Kovar (Czech Republic, 2007, Oshawa Generals, OHL)

Marek Benda (Czech Republic, 2007, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, QMJHL)

Tomi Karhunen (Finland, 2007, Sarnia Sting, OHL)

Riku Helenius (Finland, 2007, Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL) *

Tomas Vosvrda (Czech Republic, 2007, Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL)

Philipp Grubauer (Germany, 2008, Belleville Bulls, OHL) *

Maximilian Englbrecht (Germany, 2008, Niagara IceDogs, OHL)

Jonathan Sääf (Sweden, 2008 Val-d’Or Foreurs, QMJHL)

Robin Lehner (Sweden, 2009, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL) *

Christopher Gibson (Finland, 2009, Chicoutimi Sagueneens, QMJHL)

Petteri Similä (Finland, 2009, Niagara IceDogs, QMJHL)

Petr Mrazek (Czech Republic, 2009, Ottawa 67’s, OHL) *

Ville Kolppanen (Finland, 2009, Lethbridge Hurricanes, WHL)

Tadeas Galansky (Czech Republic, 2009, Saginaw Spirit, OHL)

Ramis Sadikov (Russia, 2009, Erie Otters, OHL)

Joni Ortio (Finland, 2009, Swift Current Broncos, WHL)

Alexander Pechurski (Russia, 2009, Tri-City Americans, WHL) *

David Honzik (Czech Republic, 2010, Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL)

Andrei Makarov (Russia, 2010, Lewiston Maineiacs, QMJHL)

Igor Bobkov (Russia, 2010, London Knights, OHL)

Dennis Saikkonen (Switzerland, 2010, Brampton Battalion, OHL)

Matej Machovsky (Czech Republic, 2010, Guelph Storm, OHL)

Juraj Holly (Slovakia, 2010, Calgary Hitmen, WHL)

Steffen Søberg (Norway, 2011, Swift Current Broncos, WHL)

Johan Mattsson (Sweden, 2011, Sudbury Wolves, OHL)

Mathias Niederberger (Germany, 2011, Barrie Colts, OHL)

Roman Will (Czech Republic, 2011, Moncton Wildcats, QMJHL)

Jonathan Iilahti (Finland, 2011, Vancouver Giants, WHL)

Jaroslav Pavelka (Czech Republic, 2011, Niagara IceDogs, OHL)

Patrik Bartosak (Czech Republic, 2011, Red Deer Rebels, WHL)

Oscar Dansk (Sweden, 2012, Erie Otters, OHL)

Joonas Korpisalo (Finland, 2012, Prince George Cougars, WHL)

Patrik Polivka (Czech Republic, 2012, Victoria Royals, WHL)

Nikita Serebryakov (Russia, 2012, Saginaw Spirit, OHL)

Eetu Laurikainen (Finland, 2012, Swift Current Broncos, WHL)

Marek Langhamer (Czech Republic, 2012, Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL)

Andrei Vasilevski (Russia, 2012, Mississauga Steelheads, WHL)

Marvin Cüpper (Germany, 2012, Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL)

Seventeen were drafted by WHL clubs, 22 by OHL clubs, and 13 by QMJHL clubs. Four never played in the CHL (Jonathan Sääf, Jonathan Iilahti, Joonas Korpisalo, Andrei Vasilevski); the other 48 did.

Let’s go step by step here. Only three of those goalies have won major CHL prizes. Ondrej Pavelec twice captured the Jacques Plante Memorial Trophy for having the QMJHL’s best GAA (2006, 2007). Philipp Grubauer backstopped the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires to the 2011 Memorial Cup. Patrik Bartosak was named both the WHL’s and the CHL’s Goalie of the Year for 2013.

Out of those 48 CHLers, 11 have played in the NHL. That might sound good.

But in reality, only three of the CHL-trained Europeans – St. Louis’s Jaroslav Halak, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec, and Washington’s Michal Neuvirth – have become starting NHL goalies at any point in their careers. Only Pavelec is currently the undisputed starter for his club, and NHL.com statistics ranked him 37th in GAA (2.80) and 34th in save percentage (90.5%) out of 50 NHL goalies who played 14 or more games in 2013.

None of these three have won a Stanley Cup or a Vezina Trophy.

Boston’s Anton Khudobin is a backup at age 27. Ottawa’s Robin Lehner is still hoping to establish himself at the NHL level, and the jury is also still out on youngsters like Washington’s Grubauer and Detroit’s Petr Mrazek.

As for the other four? Their NHL stays were brief. Marek Schwarz played just six career games with St. Louis. Timo Pielmeier (Anaheim), Riku Helenius (Tampa Bay), and Alexander Pechurski (Pittsburgh) were all one-game wonders.

Of course, it takes time for goalies to develop, but it’s fair to say we already have a good idea of the NHL prospects for this group of 48. And the odds are slim for most.

Conversely, none of the European-born and trained Vezina Trophy winners – Pelle Lindbergh, Dominik Hasek, Miikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist, and Sergei Bobrovsky – played one minute in the CHL.

This year was the first time ever that all three Vezina Trophy nominees were European. And like Bobrovsky and Lundqvist, Antti Niemi had zero CHL experience.

In senior IIHF competition, the achievements for CHL-trained European goalies are pretty sparse too. Slovakia’s Halak is the only one who has played at the Olympics. Pavelec was on the 2010 Czech Olympic roster but didn’t suit up. Pavelec won a gold medal as a backup at the 2010 Worlds and bronze in 2011 as the Czech starter. Jakub Kovar had a good run with the bronze-winning Czechs in 2012.

The fact is, whether you’re talking about Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Niklas Bäckström, Tomas Vokoun, Semyon Varlamov, Jonas Hiller or Viktor Fasth, today’s best European NHL goalies were not developed in Canada as teenagers. They stayed home until they were ready to come over and compete against men.

Due to the CHL’s policy change, that’s a pattern that will now be easier for other European teens to emulate. From the standpoint of international development, it’s a win-win.

In 2013, 82 goalies played in at least one NHL game. Here’s the breakdown by continent and by nation.

North America: 50
Europe: 32

Canada: 36
Czech Republic: 4
Finland: 8
Germany: 2
Russia: 6
Slovakia: 2
Sweden: 9
Switzerland: 1
United States: 14

LUCAS AYKROYD

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