One of the things about signing undrafted (or drafted but unsigned) free agents is that you need to go in with an appropriate mindset.
The way hockey's talent acquisition system works, players are claimed early in their development cycle and groomed by that organization. The number of players that organizations give up on, that fall through the cracks only to land with another club and flourish, is getting smaller, especially as scouting and player development become more key avenues of team building.
What that means is that expectations for players who are picked up after other organizations have taken a pass on investing in that player at the pro level should be sufficiently reduced. In all likelihood, they won't become impact players, if NHLers at all.
Now having been part of the Leafs organization for two seasons following not being offered a contract by the Los Angeles Kings, Finnish goaltender Christopher Gibson has shown adequate potential and development in his game. Gibson, by merit of his very successful season with the Marlies in 2014-15, earns the #25 position in our Top 25 Under 25.
When veteran journeyman Drew McIntyre left the organization following the 2013-14 season, he left an opening for one of the Maple Leafs three young goalies in the system - Gibson, fellow sophomore pro Garret Sparks, and rookie pro Antoine Bibeau - to compete for the starting job at the AHL level.
Goaltending sometimes comes down to getting the right opportunity, and for Gibson last season, that may have come last year, when he took control of the starting role in the second half of the season, and put up a solid campaign. Gibson was in net as the Marlies overcame a significant deficit in the standings to make the playoffs, before falling to the defending champions in a hard-fought first round series.
While the 22-year old wasn't at his best during the playoffs, his performance just to get the Marlies there was quite good. HIs .921 save percentage was good for 12th highest among qualifying goalies in the AHL, and the highest single-season mark of his career.
We talked to Kyle Ciccerella of the National Post and kylethereporter.com about Gibson's season about what he saw that made Gibson stand out watching the Marlies all season, and where he saw Gibson going forward:
PPP: Was Gibson's last season for real?
KC: I saw many positives in Gibson's play but I always need to see more than one quality year at the AHL level to ever be truly sold on a goaltender. I also want to see how he bounces back from a disappointing ending.What separated Gibson from Bibeau was his consistency and reliability for the entire regular season. The two rotated starts the first 44 games and had almost identical numbers. Even when the team was at its worst through November -- with offensive production absent -- Gibson stole them points some nights.Gibson improved as the season went on took over the No. 1 role in March right up into the playoffs. You have to keep in mind the entire roster was better at that point but for the one-on-one battle in a playoff run against Bibeau, he won the job.Unfortunately his worst play came in the post-season and Bibeau was given the most important game of the year - Game 5 against Grand Rapids.Gibson appeared in 45 regular-season games and most of those came in the second half of the season so I am not sure what was the biggest reason for his drop in play. Games 3 and 4 against the Griffins he gave up goals he shouldn't, and wasn't, earlier on. Perhaps it was workload piling up, but confidence could have been an issue too.
PPP: The Marlies goaltending situation is crowded with Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks also looking for a role. Where do you see Gibson's role going into this season?
KC: I see Gibson and one of Sparks or Bibeau rotating on the Marlies to begin the year like last season. At this point there is no reason to place him in the ECHL, especially because I would expect the organization needs to see more out of him too, and you have to see progress in his development. Both him and Sparks are restricted free agents at the end of the year so that may even be a factor in anything from the first spot-duty call-up to the Leafs to how much more time management will invest going forward. His role at the end of the season likely won't be the same as how it starts -- especially with the other two fighting to prove themselves too.
PPP: The big question; can Gibson progress to the NHL level?
KC: Still too early to tell. He only has 67 AHL games in two pro years so the sample size isn't great. For me the big thing is that he showed real progression in his first real season with the Marlies. If he builds off that then he's worth working with. With a December 92 birthday he's also still only 22. We know management is looking at a three to four year rebuild so time is on his side. There is potential.The question I was asking myself prior to Bernier re-signing was 'if they Leafs were to deal one of Bernier or Reimer could Gibson step in and be an everyday NHL back-up right now?' And I wasn't confident enough to say yes just yet.
If you read our opening posts last weekend about some of the players that just missed our list, you would notice that very few voters put them in their rankings, and that Gibson's is not all that different. With only six of fourteen voters giving him a spot in their top 25, and with only one vote over the top 20, Gibson's consensus rank was much closer to those that were left off the countdown than those that were on it.
Gibson faces a very big year for his professional development. As Kyle mentioned, he enters the season as an RFA, on a team that is entering what may end up as a multi-year rebuilding project, and with a pretty undefined goaie situation (no goalie in the system has a contract length longer than 2 years).
While Gibson enters this year as the de facto incumbent for the #3 job, that's far from a certainty if he's outplayed early on by either of the other two goalies. He occupies an interesting middle ground where first he has to prove himself to be the top choice among the three young goalies developing in the system.
If Gibson can do that, he then has to do enough at the AHL level to convince Leaf management that he is capable of growing into one of the roles curently occupied by the NHL goalies on the roster, which would almost certainly see him make a big move up this countdown.
As we said at the beginning, if Gibson can pull that off it will be a nice piece of business for the Maple Leafs to have found an NHL goaltender cast off from another teams' system.