On a chilly November evening in front of 200 or 300 spectators at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, John Gibson flipped a switch. The Pittsburgh native had been at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program for less than three months, playing as one of two goalies on the U.S. National Under-17 Team and to that point and he was struggling.
The big goaltender hadn’t really made the adjustment from AAA to Junior, to the point where he wasn’t really seeing a lot of USHL action. He was raw and athletic, but he hadn’t quite figured out how to use his size and everything from positioning to awareness was messy.
His team was struggling, too. The U.S. National U17 Team was playing in the USHL for the first time and they couldn’t buy a win. By that November night in Ann Arbor, the U17s had not won a game in USHL competition yet. Gibson had barely played at the start of the season while battling some early-season injury trouble and the other goalie, current Minnesota Duluth netminder Matt McNeely, showing a little more polish.
Then Gibson stepped between the pipes for just his second USHL start on Nov. 20, 2009 against the Tri-City Storm, which featured Jaden Schwartz, the eventual scoring champion in the league that year and a first-round selection of the St. Louis Blues.
I happened to be the PR guy in Ann Arbor at the time and helped out with color commentary on the broadcast that night, which is why I probably remember a regular-season USHL game as vividly as this one.
It seemed as though Tri-City was going to roll into town and roll over the U17s and in a way, they did. But they didn’t count on the 16-year-old goalie to have one of the greatest goaltending performances in league history.
Gibson stopped 58 of 59 shots to help the U17s capture a 3-1 victory, their first of the season in the USHL.
Up to that point, Gibson was a project goaltender who had so much work left to do, but after that game I and I think everyone on the staff viewed Gibson differently. There was more potential than anyone realized.
Goaltending coach Joe Exter saw the potential in Gibson from the beginning, continually working with him to improve his technique and learn to use his natural gifts in a more focused manner. The results were pretty immediate.
Years later, I learned Gibson had tried out for his high school hockey team as a freshman and got cut. This isn’t Minnesota or Michigan high school hockey, it’s Pittsburgh.
Two years later, he was asked to join the premier program for teenagers in U.S. hockey and even then, the folks in Ann Arbor weren’t totally sure what they had.
Fast forward four years to Saturday night in Los Angeles. At 20 years old, Gibson became the youngest goaltender in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to earn a shutout in his postseason debut. He made 28 saves in Game 4 for the Anaheim Ducks to help them even the series with the Los Angeles Kings with a 2-0 win. Sunday, it was announced he will start Game 5 as well.
If his play surprised you, perhaps you haven’t seen what Gibson has been doing over the last four years since that 58-save performance in front of a light crowd that tended to be comprised of parents, billet families and high school girls.
That performance against Tri-City was merely a glimpse of what was possible. Gibson gave up six goals in his very next start with the NTDP and ended up with a sub-.900 save percentage that season. Over the course of that year, however, he continued to improve under Exter’s tutelage. Though he had his ups and downs, there was one other defining moment of his U17 season in which he turned the corner from project to prospect.
It was in Timmins, Ont., at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge where Gibson cemented his status as a budding prospect. The tournament is kind of like a U17 World Championship, only Canada has multiple teams in the tournament, with each region represented. There were also really great teams from Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.
Gibson and tandem mate Matt McNeely split the starts at the tournament, but the championship game would go to the hot hand. It was Gibson.
Team USA met Canada-Ontario in the final. The Ontario team featured Ryan Murphy, Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton and a few other future first-round picks. They were one province, but the deepest one.
In the biggest game of his young career (the game aired on TSN in Canada and was picked up by NHL Network in the U.S.), Gibson looked as though he was bored leading up to the start. It was just another day to him.
He made 38 saves, losing the shutout with one second to go as Canada-Ontario flailed desperately to get back in the game. Maple Leafs first-rounder Tyler Biggs had scored twice earlier for the U.S. For the first time since 2002, the Americans were World U17 Champions. It was one of the best games by a goalie I saw in my time in Ann Arbor.
From there, Gibson took off. He gained confidence. All the while, Jack Campbell, the U.S. U18 Team’s goalie at the time, was developing a reputation as the best American goaltending prospect in nearly a decade.
The day after Gibson stoned Ontario for the U17 title, Campbell came on relief in the gold-medal game at the World Junior Championship and backstopped Team USA to gold as an underager. A few months later, Campbell won top goalie honors as he backstopped the U18s to their second consecutive gold medal and in June he was selected 11th overall by the Dallas Stars. He and Jason Zucker at that time were the only American men to have won three IIHF gold medals at any level, having won the 2009 and 2010 U18s and 2010 WJC together.
Campbell cast a long shadow, one that Gibson years to actually get out of.
The following season after his U17 performance, Gibson was Team USA’s sure-fire No. 1 goalie at the World U18 Championship. Again, he was called upon to be brilliant and was. Gibson matched Campbell’s performance and won top goalie honors as the U.S. U18s claimed their third straight gold medal. By that point it was clear Gibson was a star in the making and possibly would join Campbell as a first-round draft pick. But he didn’t.
Gibson tumbled, somewhat surprisingly, to 39th overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, where he was selected by Anaheim. Gibson wasn’t even the first goaltender taken. Nashville selected Magnus Hellberg one spot ahead of the budding American star.
The next year, Gibson went to the OHL, deciding against joining the University of Michigan and signing with the Kitchener Rangers, somewhat following in Campbell’s footsteps again. He played well at Kitchener, leading the OHL in save percentage as a rookie. Gibson then made the U.S. National Junior Team to be Campbell’s understudy in 2012.
Knowing that they would need him at some point, head coach Dean Blais inserted Gibson into an important game against Finland. And for the first time since prior to that Tri-City game in 2009, I thought Gibson looked rattled.
Not long after the U.S. tied Finland 1-1 in the second period, Gibson took an unnecessary and uncharacteristic interference penalty. He wasn’t himself after that. Finland scored on the ensuing power play and added another shortly after. The U.S. lost 4-1. Then they lost a shocker to the Czech Republic with Campbell in net and Team USA had to play in the relegation round. It was a disaster, but it was also a learning experience.
The following season, Gibson looked for redemption. Clearly his team’s No. 1 goalie at the 2013 World Juniors, Gibson was at his best every single game, even when the U.S. lost twice in the preliminary round, back-to-back 2-1 stumbles against Canada and Russia. Gibson probably kept those closer than they ended up.
Then it came down to the medal round and with the stakes at their highest yet, Gibson was exceptional. Typical. He made several key stops in the semifinal Team USA eventually won over Canada 5-1, then was brilliant against Sweden in the gold-medal game, making 26 saves to shut the door.
He was named the MVP of the tournament and all of the sudden, Campbell’s shadow didn’t seem as long.
While Gibson was making a name for himself internationally, he continued his development and dominance in the OHL over two seasons with the Kitchener Rangers. He posted a career .928 save percentage, leading the league in that category his rookie season. He also led the OHL in save percentage in each of his two postseason appearances with the club, posting a .946 mark in 2013 and .938 the year prior.
He had an incredibly successful junior career, won at each level of international hockey under the age of 20 and was already cemented as an elite prospect. What he did in May of 2013, however,took him from an elite prospect to whatever is higher than that.
At 19, Gibson was added to the roster for the Men’s World Championship, giving him a chance to play with and against NHLers. With Ben Bishop taking the reps as starting goalie coming into the tournament, it was unclear how much Gibson would play. However, due to his international success, it seemed like he could get some time. But who would have guessed he would unseat an NHL goalie as the No. 1 for the team down the stretch?
That’s exactly what happened. After Bishop faltered in the team’s final preliminary-round game, Gibson was called upon to start against Russia, which had a roster full of stars including Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russians were heavily favored, but Gibson made 31 saves, allowing just three goals, two of which came in garbage time and led the U.S. to the semis. The Americans couldn’t help Gibson out in the semifinal against Switzerland, which earned a 3-0 win including an empty-netter. Gibson once again gave his team a chance to win, making 28 saves. Had he gotten some goal support early, that could have been a different game. That sent Team USA to the bronze-medal game.
With an opportunity to win the United States’ first medal at the Men’s World Championship since 2004, Gibson was called upon again against another heavily-favored squad in Team Finland. He made 36 saves through regulation and overtime and allowed one goal on four shots in the shootout to help the U.S. claim bronze, his second medal that year and third overall in IIHF competition.
This was a 19-year-old kid going up against pros in a tournament the U.S. so rarely succeeds at. Everywhere he has been, John Gibson has given his team a chance to win. That helped him earn an invite to Team USA’s Olympic Orientation Camp even.
Now in his first full season as a pro, Gibson went through the ups and downs you’d expect a first-year pro to go through, especially at the young age of 20.
Over 45 appearances with Norfolk in the AHL, Gibson posted a solid .919 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average. He played well enough to earn a late-season callup while the Ducks were in the midst of chasing the President’s Trophy (where they would fall just short) and like he always seems to do, Gibson impressed.
He went 3-0-0 in his first three NHL starts, earning a 18-save shutout in his regular-season debut. Over those three appearances, he stopped 83 of 87 for a .954 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average.
Then he makes 28 saves in his postseason debut to beat Chris Osgood’s 20-year-old record for youngest goalie to earn a shutout in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut.
There is a school of thought that goaltenders take a long time to develop. That they can’t be or shouldn’t be rushed. Because of the position’s importance, the best goalie prospects are often handled with extreme care. Gibson seems to be on another level, though.
In four years, Gibson went from this raw goalie with size to NHL starter. It’s freakish, really. But if you go back over those four years and watch what he’s done and how he’s done it, this early NHL success probably isn’t a surprise.
One of the overwhelming factors in this rapid rise has to be the way Gibson approaches the game. The physical tools were always there. He then developed the technique over his time in Ann Arbor, working closely with Exter (now an assistant coach at Ohio State and probably a future head coach somewhere down the line). What he always had, even when he didn’t have the experience was confidence. That may end up being a separating factor between him and the litany of goaltending prospects that have had to climb a rather tall ladder to the top levels of hockey.
I’ve never seen a player as mentally tough as Gibson, but it doesn’t look like toughness. It looks more like nonchalance, as if the game doesn’t even matter. However, anyone that has spent enough time around Gibson knows that he is competitive and wants to stop every puck and win every game. You just wouldn’t know it by looking at him because he looks the same after every big save or every goal against or mistake he makes.
There is no moment too big for him. Maybe he doesn’t know enough to know to be nervous, but anxiety doesn’t seem to be in his blood. That’s why when you take all of his physical tools and athleticism and put them into a body that doesn’t know how to panic, you’ve got yourself something special.
When you look at his tournament and playoff numbers over the last four years, his ability to raise his game in those high-pressure situations is a trend. Is it clutch if it comes to be expected?
Just to recap, here’s his save percentages in major events and postseason play as his team’s primary starter:
2010 World U17: .957; 2011 World U18*: .926; 2012 OHL Playoffs: .938; 2013 WJC*: .955; 2013 OHL Playoffs: .946; 2013 WC: .951; 2014 AHL Playoffs: .955.
And just for fun: 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 1.000.
* – Named Tournament’s Best Goaltender
His NHL sample is too small to declare Gibson a star in the making, but when you look at everything else, it certainly seems he’s on his way to something incredible. The hype may end up being too big to match on the ice, but while so many crumble under that kind of pressure, Gibson seems to thrive on it or at the very least unbothered by it.
I don’t want to sit here and say Gibson is going to become the next great NHL goaltender or has a career filled with Vezina Trophies. I just won’t be surprised if he does.