There is an interesting debate about to take place in Canada and it revolves around goalies. Depending on who you ask up north, there is a Canadian crisis in goaltending, as in they’re not the best anymore.
This apparent crisis seems to be eliciting some reaction from the Canadian Hockey League. As CHL president David Branch told Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, the CHL is looking at putting a ban on European goalies across its three member leagues. Really.
“The CHL has had discussions in a broader sense with Hockey Canada,” said Branch. “One of the ideas put forward was eliminating goalies from the annual import draft to allow more focus on North American goalies.
Hockey Canada has a lot of say in what happens in the CHL. Right now, the Canadian goalie pool is a tad thin. It’s not bad. It’s just not as deep as the collective pool of European goalies, and probably not even the U.S. at this point.
From the NHL down, Canadian goalies are dwindling among the elite, but calling it a crisis is nothing short of hyperbolic. Could it be better? You bet. Why isn’t it? It’s not because Canadian goalies are bad, it’s because everyone is getting better and is now passing up the country of the sport’s origin.
The issue with the goalies appears to be part of a bigger problem. Hockey Canada recently fired its chief scout and goaltending coach.
“Those are not easy things to do, but we have to do it,” Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson explained to TSN regarding the dismissal of Kevin Prendergast and Ron Tugnutt. “We’re not panicking, but we do have the red light on saying, ‘hey, we have to get better.’”
The dismissals weren’t terribly shocking as Canada’s gold-medal drought at the World Juniors has reached four years. Prendergast helped build three of the last four teams after taking over for Al Murray, who is now the director of scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not medaling at all in 2013 was the tipping point.
So while Nicholson says Hockey Canada isn’t panicking, there’s nervousness. Enough nervousness to suggest that European goalies shouldn’t be taking Canadian goalies’ jobs.
Additionally, the guy that knocked Canada out of the gold-medal hunt at the WJC was current OHL goalie John Gibson, an American. Apparently, Hockey Canada is OK with that, as long as it’s not one of those Euro characters.
The first question is, is it necessary? This seems like nothing more than putting a discriminatory band-aid on a superficial wound.
The potential European ban is supported by the now-dismissed Tugnutt, who had been Hockey Canada’s national goaltending consultant for the last few years before being fired last week. Oddly enough, his firing was about a month after Philippe Derosiers led Canada to the gold medal at the World Under-18s with dominant goaltending.
“For me, it’s all about opportunity,” Tugnutt told Cox. “There’s nothing wrong with goalies in our country and there’s nothing wrong with how we’re developing them. They’re just not getting a chance to step up to the plate.”
In the Ontario Hockey League in 2012-13, 14 of the 20 most utilized goalies were Canadian. Two each were from U.S. and the Czech Republic, while one each came from Germany and Sweden.
In the Western Hockey League in 2012-13, 15 of the 20 most utilized goalies were Canadian. Two are from the Czech Republic and there is one each from Russia, Finland and the U.S.
In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2012-13, 18 of the most 20 utilized goaltenders were Canadian. One is from Finland, the other from Germany.
That’s 47 Canadians getting ample opportunity as No. 1s on junior teams. The opportunity is there, and in large number. There are also other opportunities available to Canadian goalies such as Junior A and college hockey, where they won’t be turned away because of their nationality.
Now there is also a larger issue here about general development and one that is less easy to answer. How much responsibility does a junior hockey coach have to give any goaltender on his roster an opportunity to play?
This is a major issue throughout for-profit development systems. The money is made based more on wins and losses than on which alumni play in the NHL. If a coach has two goalies and one is clearly better than the other, the better one will play the most minutes and the other guy might barely play.
So it’s development, if you help the team win. There’s really not a lot wrong with that. Positions should be earned and that is all part of the developmental process, but it’s worth noting.
Goalies have to play to develop. It’s as simple as that. More than any other position, goalies need games to improve. Coaches need to keep their jobs, too. They have to win to do it. That’s why it is incredibly difficult to be a junior hockey goalie. If you’re not the best option for your team at 17 or 18, your career might be done already. Tough luck.
In some ways, Hockey Canada and the CHL may be trying to take that decision away from the coaches by taking away a more-talented European option. Less elite options means more opportunities for would-be backups and potentially more coaches rolling his goaltending tandem instead of just one guy. If the former, that only benefits five or six players, the latter could benefit a dozen or so annually. Is it worth changing the rules for that? It probably isn’t.
The only thing this rule would do is take opportunities away from teenage hockey players that are looking for a developmental avenue in North America, one that is more challenging than the one they currently play in overseas. Many of these European players don’t have NCAA eligibility, so if they want to come to North America, the CHL is their only option.
NHL teams must be happy to see more European prospects in North America longer. They can keep a closer eye on their prospects, if drafted, or they can get more looks at a guy they are considering drafting. It’s a winning situation for the NHL and for the team that ices its more-talented Euro goaltender.
All this proposed rule says is that Hockey Canada doesn’t want to help improve foreign goalies. That’s fine. That’s not their responsibility, but to go back and change the rules because the country has had a few down years in its goalie production and at the World Juniors? Come on.
We’re just a year removed from Malcolm Subban — gasp! A Canadian goalie — getting drafted in the first round. However, according to Cox’s column, it’s a problem that a Canadian goalie hasn’t been the first drafted netminder in an NHL draft since 2008. While that may show the elites are dwindling, 11 Canadian goalies were selected in the 2012 draft, 11 in 2010 and 10 in 2009. The down year was 2011, when only four Canadians were picked. Aside from 2011, that’s some solid production in the grand scheme.
One would also have to wonder how the NHL would feel about the CHL limiting its goalie pool.
The NHL gives the major junior outlet a lot of grant money through Hockey Canada to develop hockey players. Not to solely develop Canadian players, but to continue feeding players into NHL systems, which the three CHL leagues have done in spades over the years. With the CHL’s proposed limiting of the pool, what message does that send to its biggest investor?
The number of players they would be telling to take a hike is relatively small, but not insignificant. I’m not sure how the NHL would feel about the CHL turning away already-drafted or potentially-drafted NHL prospects because of where they get their passports.
Hockey is a world game now and other countries are getting better at it. That’s the reality. Competition has made the game better and will continue to make the game better. Other countries are improving around Canada at an alarming rate and this is the type of reaction it is eliciting, which is kind of sad.
It is not Hockey Canada’s responsibility to improve the game internationally, but if it wants its junior hockey league to remain an elite-level training ground, it can’t be turning away elite-level prospects.