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Should prospect goaltenders play a lot in the AHL – or a little in the NHL?

Matt Larkin
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Matt Murray. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

News

Should prospect goaltenders play a lot in the AHL – or a little in the NHL?

Matt Larkin
By:

Conference finalist goalies Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy took very different development paths to the NHL. Are prospect netminders better served with a lot of AHL seasoning or with NHL apprenticeships?

A fractured larynx
 is horrible news for anyone. Merely writing about such a gruesome, frightening injury churns the stomach. For Providence Bruins goaltender Malcolm Subban, though, taking a puck to the throat Feb. 6 was especially discouraging.

After all, he was somewhere he didn’t think he should be.

If it were up to Subban, 22, he would’ve been far away from Portland, Maine and the Providence warmup, where he sustained the injury before a game against the Pirates. Subban spoke to THN shortly before training camp, and he made it clear he would rather be an NHL backup, fighting for scraps behind Tuukka Rask in Boston, than an AHL starter.

“From the OHL to the AHL, once I got in and got comfortable, I did really well coming in as a young guy, so I feel I can do the same in the NHL,” he said. “I’ve done it at the last two levels and succeeded there. So, looking at it the same way at the NHL level, I could play until I’m 28 and develop in the AHL, you know what I mean? So who’s to say when the age is? I definitely feel I can jump up there, and I’ve had a good couple seasons in the AHL.”

Subban wasn’t pulling a prima donna act. He dutifully accepted his AHL assignment to start 2015-16. He only admitted his preference for the big club when asked. And his mentality reflects how virtually every young goaltender feels once he’s drafted. They all want to be in the NHL as soon as possible, no matter how small the workload might be.

“In one sense, we’d all think there’s something wrong with them if they didn’t say that,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, a former NHL goalie.

But whippersnappers with trappers don’t know best. Parent clubs do. Most teams want their young goalies starting at all costs to ensure the maximum number of reps. It’s thus extremely rare to see teams’ best prospects employed as NHL backups today. Subban tasted the NHL for one game last season but spent the first half of 2015-16 starting for Providence. The Colorado Avalanche’s Calvin Pickard led the NHL in save percentage for a good portion of 2014-15 while he spelled injured Semyon Varlamov, but he began this season as the San Antonio Rampage’s starter. The Penguins’ Matt Murray had absolutely nothing left to prove in the AHL, having set the 80-year-old league’s all-time shutout streak record, but the Pens employed him at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to start the year, seeing little point of burying him behind workhorse Marc-Andre Fleury in the NHL. It wasn't until Fleury sustained a concussion in December that Rutherford changed his mind and gave Murray an NHL call-up. Murray later earned a recall on merit in February, and the rest is history, but the Pens were content to have him ripen in the AHL as long as possible.

Ninety-two goalies played at least one NHL game this season. Only two, or 2.2 percent, were selected in the past three drafts. Peruse the pages of Future Watch and you’ll find dozens of farm-club goaltenders in their early 20s, many of them good enough to be NHL backups. Playing a lot in the AHL versus a little in the world’s best league is the norm. But should it be? What’s the best way to develop a goaltender?

The divide is clear. Players want to be up, while team executives and goaltending coaches want them down for seasoning. Sometimes, it takes retirement and crossing over to a new role to gain perspective. Just ask former NHLer Corey Hirsch, who, as St. Louis goaltending coach, shepherded the Blues' crowded crease from 2010-11 to 2013-14. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak locked down the net at the NHL level, meaning Hirsch had to manage future stars Jake Allen and Ben Bishop on the farm. Hirsch is convinced Allen and Bishop are high-end commodities today, Bishop in particular, because they each played several years in Peoria.

“When I was younger, I always thought, ‘Oh, it’s better to play in the NHL,’ and I used to always push the NHL, when actually I should have just been worried about playing where I was,” Hirsch said. “Everybody wants to be in the NHL. The hard part is you have to check your ego. What I learned is that, as a goalie, your physical skills get better in practice, but goaltending is such a head game that you have to play to know how to deal with certain situations mentally. Sitting on the bench, you’re not developing that skill. You’re getting better physically in practice, but you’re not developing those things to do in game situations.”

Talk to any front office member or coach and they’ll champion the AHL because it allows players to make mistakes as they learn. Vancouver goaltending coach Roland Melanson sets a 100-game benchmark as the ideal AHL sample size. He sees the difficult travel schedule, which can include three games in three nights, as a positive, as it means more reps. Melanson oversaw Carey Price’s development in Montreal and Cory Schneider’s in Vancouver. Most recently, Melanson worked with the man we’ve dubbed ‘Mr. Future Watch’: Jacob Markstrom, who appeared as a top-ranked farmhand six times in our magazine. Markstrom finally broke full time into the NHL in a timeshare with Ryan Miller this season, and Melanson credits the AHL work.

During a phenomenal 2014-15 campaign with Utica, Markstrom worked out the kinks in his game. He learned to stop being so aggressive in the crease, to stop chasing the play, to spend more time in the blue ice and rely more on his 6-foot-6 frame. He grew to believe he could repeat his performances and become more consistent.

“If you rush it, you can put the goaltender in a situation where you stop his development for a couple years, because confidence is still a vital part of goaltending,” Melanson said. “You can’t play the position without confidence, and if you put him in a situation to fail before he has a chance to succeed, that can be a really tough road to walk. You’ve got to be careful. I’m very protective about my goalies that way, because I want to make sure they understand they’re able to go through the growing pains in the minors.”

We’ll likely never see another era of teenage Tom Barrassos instantly dominating the NHL. There are exceptions to the unofficial rules, though. Tampa Bay Lightning stopper Andrei Vasilevskiy, last season’s top-ranked Future Watch goalie, saw just snippets of duty in the KHL and AHL before playing for the Bolts. In his age-20 season, he appeared in just 25 AHL games versus 20 NHL, including playoffs. He even played in the Stanley Cup final, replacing the injured Bishop, and Vasilevskiy has been thrust into duty as an injury replacement again this post-season.

But the conditions have to be perfect for a youngster to avoid ruining himself in a backup role. It helps to have a starter on hand who doesn’t feel threatened and is comfortable as a mentor, like Roberto Luongo to Schneider in their Vancouver days. And the backup job description can’t mirror that of guys who played behind Martin Brodeur during his routine 75-game campaigns.

“Being a backup in the NHL is not a bad thing if you’re playing 30 games,” Rutherford said. “If you’re playing 10 or 12, regardless what age you’re at, it’s not ideal. It’s very difficult.”

That’s why Rutherford kept Murray in the AHL to start 2015-16. That’s why the Winnipeg Jets demoted Connor Hellebuyck as soon as Ondrej Pavelec returned from injury. And that’s why the Anaheim Ducks kept John Gibson on the farm for months at a time last year. Reps lead to success, and even if goalies don’t like it at first, they come around.

“I was brought along the right way,” Schneider said. “Spent three years in the minors, played over 100 minor league games, was 24 when I got to the league. Just where I was at in my life and my career, I was set up for success better than some other guys might be, and that was a big part of it.”

Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This is an updated version of a feature that appeared in the Future Watch edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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Should prospect goaltenders play a lot in the AHL – or a little in the NHL?