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Myth Busters: Do you have to draft goalies in the first round?

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Goalies are voodoo, but to get an elite one you have to roll the dice at some point

2019 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For the longest time, the mantra that all (read: most) hockey fans have taken to heart is the idea that you NEVER draft a goalie in the first round. They’re too volatile, too voodoo, and there are too many tales of regret to make it worth the risk that you find an exception to the rule.

But during these playoffs, I’ve seen more than a few people point out that most of the playoff teams, and especially the teams who have gone deepest so far, all have goalies who were former first round picks. So, the counter claim goes, you absolutely should draft goalies in the first round! I think a large part of what’s driving this is not only seeing goalies who were high draft picks doing well this year, but also because each of the last two drafts and this coming draft have had at least one goalie prospect with a lot of hype going in the first round. Two years ago it was Spencer Knight, last year it was Yaroslav Askarov, this year it is Jesper Wallstedt and Sebastian Cossa.

Now, I find that both ideas are a bit too black-and-white and lacking in analysis. The former is a bit of a lazy saying driven out of fear and uncertainty among fans. Goalies are really hard to evaluate, and as fans we know that. We also believe that this is true even for NHL teams, which is why you have the likes of Rick DiPietro used as a bogeyman to fans for years. But the counter-claim is also a bit lazy, for three reasons:

  1. It’s only looking at this year
  2. It exaggerates how many of the teams who made the playoffs, and are still in the playoffs now, have as their starting goalie someone they took in the first round. In fact, of the 19* starting goalies for teams who made the playoffs, seven were taken in the first round, nine were taken after the first round, and two of them were undrafted. The reason why I include 19 goalies is because Samsonov and Anderson each had 3 games for Washington, and Driedger and Bobrovsky each had 3 games for Florida.
  3. A good chunk of those goalies who were first round picks were not playing for the team that drafted them, which kind of ruins the point of saying you have to draft them.

If I’m going to call both sides lazy, I should probably do some legwork. So I did! I did it a bit lazily, but I did it all the same. I thought this would be a good research project to sort out fact from fiction, especially if I’m going to write about goalie prospects in any of my profiles in the coming month.

What I did was pull all of the goalies drafted into the NHL from 2000 to 2017. I stopped after 2017 because there has yet to be any goalies taken in subsequent years to play anything but a small handful of games in the NHL. I also pulled all undrafted goalies who played in at least one game in the NHL whose first draft year was 2000 or later.

I then counted how many of those goalies met the following criteria:

  • They made the NHL by playing in at least one game
  • They were a “success” by having at least three seasons in the NHL with an average save percentage
  • They were “elite” by having at least five seasons in the NHL with an above average save percentage
  • If they were not counted as a success, they were labeled as a “fail” regardless of the round in which they were drafted

Note: I know that Jokke Nevalainen, formerly with Dobber Prospects and now a scout for the Carolina Hurricanes, had done a similar kind of analysis (and probably did it more in-depth than I have here). He broke the first round up into different segments: top 5, 6 to 14, and the rest. He also only measured a “success” by playing in 100 NHL games, and only with goalies drafted between 2000 and 2009. So I’m looking at more drafts, and I’m not measuring “success” the same way. But it’s insightful to look at another approach to the same question.

Here’s what I found:

NHL Goalie Draft Picks 2000-2017

Draft Round Count Made NHL NHL Rate NHL Success Success Rate NHL Elite Elite Rate NHL Fail Fail Rate Total NHL GP NHL GP/Pick Average SV%
Draft Round Count Made NHL NHL Rate NHL Success Success Rate NHL Elite Elite Rate NHL Fail Fail Rate Total NHL GP NHL GP/Pick Average SV%
1 28 27 96% 13 46% 9 32% 15 54% 6,781 251 0.898
2 52 37 71% 12 23% 3 6% 40 77% 5,265 142 0.904
3 65 32 49% 10 15% 3 5% 55 85% 3,901 122 0.887
4 55 20 36% 7 13% 3 5% 48 87% 1,977 99 0.894
5 73 22 30% 4 5% 2 3% 69 95% 1,867 85 0.92
6 75 22 29% 3 4% 0 0% 72 96% 1,463 67 0.917
7 63 19 30% 4 6% 2 3% 59 94% 2,168 114 0.88
8 17 6 35% 1 6% 1 6% 16 94% 946 158 0.848
9 13 2 15% 2 15% 1 8% 11 85% 1,041 521 0.913
UND 61 61 100% 9 15% 4 7% 52 85% 4,267 70 0.892
Grand Total 502 248 49% 65 13% 28 6% 437 87% 29,676 120 0.897

CONCLUSION #1: FIRST ROUND GOALIES ARE ELITE AND VOODOO

So right away, I see two big flashing numbers that tell me that BOTH sides are partially right. 32% of goalies drafted in the first round became “elite”, which is by far the most out of any other round (and undrafted). But even though first round goalies also have the lowest fail rate by far, having a 54% chance of your first round pick never playing in the NHL/putting up below average numbers for their careers is scary. For every Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury, there’s a Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya.

In that other article from Dobber Prospects I linked below, you can see how much goalies drafted lag behind forwards or defensemen in terms of success rate in the first round, but after that it’s more in line or even higher. Now, this does not take the QUALITY of success into account — that is, how many of the goalies who were successes turned into elite goalies.

CONCLUSION #2: GOOD GOALIES CAN BE FOUND BEYOND THE FIRST ROUND

The other thing that’s worth pointing out is that even though the first round has the most successes and elite goalies out of all the other rounds on their own, you can also look at how many total goalies were successes or elite outside the first round as a whole. The second and third rounds had almost as many successes as the first (13 vs 12 and 10), and undrafted free agents accounted for 9. And while the first round had 9 elite goalies, the other 19 were taken after the first round entirely.

CONCLUSION #3: UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS ARE UNDERVALUED

Lastly, is the undrafted goalies. If I count goalies who were taken in the 8th and 9th rounds — since the NHL draft doesn’t go that long anymore — they had the third most successes and second most elite goalies. This is another reason why I think the whole “goalies are voodoo” thing comes from a point of logic. You are almost as likely to find a success or elite goalie in the NHL by picking them up off the scrap heap, as you are of drafting them with a first round pick. Since an undrafted free agent doesn’t cost you a pick, and 54% of goalies taken in the first round wind up failing, that all adds up to a good amount of uncertainty around it.

The undrafted goalies are also, I think, a good sign that goalie development is just really hard to predict. Some develop really fast and are great from a young age, breaking into the NHL as stars and staying there in their early 20’s or even their teens. Some struggle even in obscure minor leagues, but suddenly come into their own before they can be drafted and turn into NHL successes if not elites. Even a goalie who seems like a lock to be an NHL success at the draft, and who get taken in the first round, can lead to more than a few never playing more than a small handful of games in their careers.

CONCLUSION #4: UNCERTAINTY RULES AT THE NHL DRAFT

If there’s one thing I’ve really learned since starting to get much more into the NHL draft, it’s that uncertainty kills a player’s ranking and draft position. I’ve written it several times across my various profiles. If a guy is small, there’s more uncertainty about whether they can succeed in the NHL or not. If a guy plays in a more obscure league, or less competitive league, there’s more uncertainty about how good their numbers there would translate relative to their peers in major junior or professional leagues. If they have a really late birthday, if they were injured their draft year, if they have a big flaw in their game (e.g., skating), it all creates uncertainty that makes you not want to pick a particular type of player, and they fall down the draft board.

CONCLUSION #5: IF YOU WANT A GOOD NHL GOALIE, YOU DON’T HAVE TO DRAFT THEM

Aside from the potential of finding a good goalie among undrafted free agents, there’s also the fact that successful and even elite NHL goalies move teams all the time.

Of the 65 goalies marked as a “success” in the table above, 35 of them (54%) played games for a team besides the one that drafted them. The highest number of successful NHL goalies who moved came from the first round, where 9 of the 13 (69%) first round goalies who were successes moved to a new team.

And it’s even more pronounced among the elite goalies, where 19 of the 28 (68%) elite goalies moved teams and had at least one good season. And again, in the first round it is the most pronounced: 7 of the 9 elite goalies (78%) have moved teams at least once in their careers.

CONCLUSION #6: IF YOU WANT MORE CERTAINTY, DRAFT GOALIES WHO PLAYED IN EUROPEAN PRO LEAGUES

As a small side note to all of this, I also tracked the league/level that each goalie played in during their first draft-eligible seasons. I was curious if this would give any insights into where the best source for goalies would be. I wouldn’t take any of the following numbers too seriously, but the general gist I would take from it is:

1) North American major junior leagues are way overrated for goalies — OHL, QMJHL, WHL, and USHL are the source for almost half of all drafted (and undrafted free agent) goalies over the past two decades. They do have the highest number of elite goalies, but they also have the lowest hit rate for becoming NHL goalies, successes, and elite goalies.

2) European goalies are likely very underrated. They account for 67 fewer drafted and undrafted free agent goalies as the major junior leagues in Canada and the USA, but they turned into the exact same number of successes AND elite goalies. Their success rate is simply better. What this is telling me is that there’s roughly an equal amount of good goalies to be had in Europe as there is in North America.

3) It’s perhaps a really, really good idea to give any goalie who plays his draft season in a pro-level league in Europe a loooong look. Even if his numbers aren’t great, even if it’s in a second or third division pro league, and even if they only play in a few games. The simple fact that they’re playing against older players and tougher competition than junior is a strong testament to their ability. Such goalies have the highest rate of goalies who make the NHL, become a success, and become an elite NHL goalie (Jonas Hiller, Kari Lehtonen, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, Sergei Bobrovski, Frederik Andersen). That’s why goalies like Yarsoslav Askarov last year and Jesper Wallstedt this year are so highly regarded.

Here’s the save percentage for each of the goalies mentioned above in the pro leagues:

  • Jonas Hiller (Swiss Division 1): 2 games, and even Elite Prospects doesn’t know the save percentage.
  • Kari Lehtonen (Liiga): 4 games, .937 sv%
  • Pekka Rinne (Liiga): 14 games, .897 sv%
  • Tuukka Rask (Liiga): 4 games, .875 sv%
  • Sergei Bobrovski (former KHL equivalent league): 8 games, .893 sv%
  • Frederik Andersen (Denmark pro league): 30 games, .932 sv%

NHL Draft: Goalie Sources

League Drafted Made NHL NHL% Success Success% Elite Elite% Fail Fail% NHL GP GP / Goalie Average of SV%
League Drafted Made NHL NHL% Success Success% Elite Elite% Fail Fail% NHL GP GP / Goalie Average of SV%
European Jr 97 49 50.52% 16 16.49% 5 5.15% 81 83.51% 5,416 113 0.891
European Pro 67 39 58.21% 12 17.91% 6 8.96% 55 82.09% 6,358 159 0.892
NA Major Jr 231 108 46.75% 28 12.12% 11 4.76% 203 87.88% 12,269 114 0.897
NA Minor Jr 82 39 47.56% 7 8.54% 6 7.32% 75 91.46% 4,489 115 0.909
NCAA 25 13 52.00% 2 8.00% 0.00% 23 92.00% 1,144 88 0.896
Grand Total 502 248 49.40% 65 12.95% 28 5.58% 437 87.05% 29,676 120 0.897

ULTIMATE CONCLUSIONS: HOW TO FIND AN ELITE NHL GOALIE

After going through this exercise, I can come to a few conclusions about the best ways for a team to get a good and elite goalie:

  1. You can draft them in the first round, but only outside of the top 10. Once other prospects that have more certainty of being stars are gone, then you can start thinking of swinging on a goalie.
  2. You better be damn sure of the goalie you’re taking in the first round, especially if it’s in the top 15 or top 20. They better have otherworldly numbers in highly competitive leagues, and you better have good goalie scouts who know their stuff to identify a guy who is quick, mobile, reads play well, has good rebound control, and so on.
  3. Stay away from Canadian goalies who put up inflated numbers on very good CHL teams and Team Canada rosters in international tournaments.
  4. If you don’t see a goalie that you’re sure of in the first round, don’t worry. You can wait to take someone in any of the other rounds and still have decent potential for finding a success.
  5. Recruit the best amateur goalie scouting and development team who can identify diamonds in the rough. Don’t be afraid to look in minor junior leagues like the NAHL (Ben Bishop, Connor Hellebuyck), or European junior leagues (Henrik Lundqvist, Antti Raanta, Robin Lehner). Don’t be afraid to take goalies as overagers, because as mentioned above goalies can develop late.
  6. Use that same team to look for undrafted free agents who are real late bloomers. Sergei Bobrovski, Antti Raanta, Cam Talbot, Pekka Rinne, Jaroslav Halak and Jonas Hiller were just sitting there for their respective teams to grab for nothing. Newer goalies like Alexander Georgiev and Kevin Lankinen look like they could join that rank in a few years too.
  7. If you still strike out, don’t worry about it too much. Good and elite goalies are being shopped or let go by the teams that originally draft them all the time. Jonas Hiller, Craig Anderson, Mike Smith, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jaroslav Halak, Devan Dubnyk, Ben Bishop, Tuukka Rask, Cam Talbot, Sergei Bobrovski, Robin Lehner, Frederik Andersen, and Philipp Grubauer are all prime examples of that.
  8. Related to the above, be patient with your goalie prospects. Eventually you do have to let guys go or trade them away, either for cap reasons, because you are out of roster spaces in your NHL and AHL rosters for new and promising prospects, or because you won the lottery and have too many good goalies (Luongo-Schneider, Gibson-Andersen, Holtby-Grubauer, Crawford-Raanta, Lundqvist-Raanta/Talbot). But this is the one place where having a full ECHL system can work well and allow you more time to make decisions whether or not to cut bait on someone.

Final notes: I did put about 6-8 hours into this, but my methods for checking a goalie’s stats to label it average or above average were just me eyeballing the stats. I did not check actual “average” save percentage for each season, and I did not really set a hard number for a minimum games played per season to count it. Anyone else who wants to dig deeper into this to get more accurate numbers is free to do a better job than I did. In this case, I wanted to check this semi-quickly (while looking at the numbers of hundreds of goalies across almost two decades) and get a general idea of trends, not the most numerically accurate assessment per goalie.

Happy goalie hunting, folks!