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Why the New Jersey Devils Should Not Draft a Goaltender in the First Round

Just because Martin Brodeur was a first round draft pick in 1990 doesn't make it a good idea for the Devils to use their first round draft pick on a goaltender in 2012.  Or in future drafts, actually.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Just because Martin Brodeur was a first round draft pick in 1990 doesn't make it a good idea for the Devils to use their first round draft pick on a goaltender in 2012. Or in future drafts, actually. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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One of the more common opinions among various mock drafts and fans is that the New Jersey Devils should take a goaltender in with their first round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Some say it should be Malcolm Subban of Belleville. Others think Andrei Vasilevski should be the guy. Maybe there will be a reach for Oscar Dansk or Brandon Whitney. The general idea is that since the Devils are picking late in the first round and Martin Brodeur's career is near his end, the team should look for their Goaltender of the Future. After all, they're not going to find that guy on the free agent market this summer.

I've made it pretty clear in comments to other posts, a few tweets, and in actual conversation that the Devils should not draft a goaltender in the first round. In fact, I don't even know if the Devils should try to take one even in the second round. With the first round taking place tonight, it's a good time as any to go into depth as to why I feel so strongly about this. After the jump, I'll go into the history of goaltenders being taken in recent drafts as well as explain why goaltender is not the position the Devils should be trying to aim for with their early picks.

First, let's establish the Devils' history of drafting goaltenders. They have had success in the past according to their listed history at Hockey DB. Martin Brodeur (1990, 1st Rd) is the first name that comes to mind for obvious reasons. They also hit on Chris Terreri (1983, 5th Rd), Craig Billington (1984, 2nd Rd), Kirk McLean (1984, 6th Rd), Sean Burke (1985, 2nd Rd), Mike Dunham (1990, 3rd Rd), Corey Schawb (1990, 10th round), Chris Mason (1995, 5th Rd), and Scott Clemmensen (1997, 8th Rd). OK, your mileage may vary on the quality of some of those goaltenders and they all didn't succeed for New Jersey. Still, they all got to play 100 or more games at the NHL level.

However, the problem is that Clemmensen was the last goaltender to become a successful draft pick. The Devils have drafted seven goaltenders since then and they have a combined zero minutes played in the NHL. For the record, those seven are Ari Ahonen (1999, 1st), Matus Kostur (2000, 5th), Jason Smith (2003, 6th), Josh Disher (2004, 6th), Jeff Frazee (2005, 2nd), Scott Wedgewood (2010, 3rd), and Maxime Clermont (2010, 6th). Wedgewood and Clermont are still in development with potential still to meet. It can be argued that Frazee at least has a long shot in this organization to get to the next level. The rest were busts in retrospect.

I wouldn't make the conclusion that the Devils have just been bad at picking goalies from 1995 onward. Jean-Francois Damphousse was a first round bust (1997) with a mere 6 NHL appearances and Clemmensen has only come out as the best of that draft class in recent seasons. While the Devils successfully found 9 goaltenders since 1982, that's out of 26 goalies. A 34.6% success rate historically may look good, the bulk of their successes came early. Terreri, Billington, McLean, and Burke were the first four goalies the Devils drafted before missing their next six goalie selections. 1990 and two hits in the mid-90s strengthen the percentage, but since Brodeur, the Devils haven't drafted a goaltender that has become a starter in NJ. Mason has been the last goalie picked to eventually become a starter and that didn't happen until the 2007-08 season with Nashville.

Over all teams in the league, teams that have drafted goaltenders in the first round haven't found too many successes. Two years ago, Scott Reynolds had done an extensive analysis of goaltenders drafted from 1997 through 2005 at the Copper & Blue. He found that while some top picks turned out well, such as Roberto Luongo and Kari Lehtonen, however the most successful goaltenders have come from later rounds. Reynolds came to the conclusion that unless a team feels the goalie's a can't-miss prospect, teams looking for a goaltender may be better suited to pick an undrafted player from free agency than burning a top pick on them. Based on what he found, I can't really disagree.

Drafts since 2006 have bore this theory out at least in the first round. NHL teams have drafted a total of eight goaltenders in that time frame: Jonathan Bernier (2006), Riku Helenius (2006), Seymon Varlamov (2006), Leland Irving (2006), Chet Pickard (2008), Thomas McCollum (2008), Jack Campbell (2010), and Mark Visentin (2010). Only Varlamov has become a starter out of the eight. The rest are either backups or still developing in the minors or in juniors. Sure, teams have spent plenty of second round picks on goalies, but the fact that so few first round picks have been spent on goaltenders is a sign that many NHL teams don't feel a goalie is worth it.

Let's go away from history and drafting trends and focus on Varlamov. He's the only goaltender drafted in the first round since 2005 that has become a starting goaltender in the NHL. What's important is that it happened just in this past season. It took Varlamov years and a trade to a good situation for him to play a majority of a team's games in a season. The fact is that it generally takes a lot of time for goaltenders to become established NHL players.

To further highlight this fact, I went to Hockey-Reference to see how many goaltenders have played their first season at age 18. This means they were drafted and they saw some NHL action right away. Taking Reynolds' post into account, I bounded my search from the 1997-98 season to the 2011-12 season. Only two goaltenders met that criteria: Olivier Michaud (1 GP, 18 minutes) and Dan Blackburn (31 GP). Both did it in the 2001-02 season, too. I then widened my search to include 19 year olds, since H-R defines a player's age as of February 1 of that season and a drafted goalie could be 18 and then turn 19 during the season. That increased the scope to nine goaltenders, with none playing more than Blackburn's 31 games. Unfortunately, only five of those nine goalies are active, four of the nine were first round draft picks, and only one has become and remained a starter: Marc-Andre Fleury. (Rick DiPietro would have made it two until injuries undercut him.) There may be hope for Bernier to eventually become the second, though. Nevertheless, it's quite clear that most goalies do not quickly enter the NHL and become ready to play.

The total number of goalies receiving their first taste of the NHL increases as the age goes up from 20 (30 goalies), 21 (64 goalies), 22 (88 goalies), and 23 (121 goalies). This is not a coincidence. The goaltending position requires plenty of experience in addition to the development of their skills. Being able to read plays, react to shots of all kinds, and to stay mentally prepared takes time to hone. It's hard in general to identify from a cold, statistical basis because we can't discern whether a goaltender just got hot or lucky, or is truly good without playing a lot. (Example: Steve Mason) And young goalies simply don't have that experience that can compare with professional leagues, much less the NHL. That's why it's a big risk to take a goaltender early. At least with skaters, a team can put them out there with pros in preseason and practice and see how they perform in various aspects. When they hit 20 and their entry level contracts stop sliding, a team can throw them into the NHL and monitor their effectiveness, increasing or decreasing their role as necessary. A 20 year goaltender may not necessarily have his skills developed to where it needs to be at a higher level, and that's a problem considering a faltering goaltender can cost his team games. (Again, see Steve Mason).

In addition to needing more time to develop, a goaltender needs the right kind of situation to break into the NHL. A roster has 18 spots for skaters but only two goaltenders. Those goalies who got more than a game at age 18 or 19 were lucky in a way that their team's goalie situation led the powers that be to give them a shot despite their inexperience. For others, like Chris Mason and Scott Clemmensen, it could be many, many years before they even get a chance to become a backup somewhere, much less a chance to be a starter. Remember, Varlamov only became a starter in this past season because Colorado needed help and they dealt for him as he had some NHL experience at such a young age. Even Martin Brodeur had to wait until he got some pro experience in the minors and earned the #2 spot in the team's training camp prior to the 1993-94 season. Combine the two needs for development and an opportunity, and the wait for a prospect to become a NHL goaltender is much longer than it is for a skater.

Now, the Devils' situation will have openings. Martin Brodeur is near the end of his career. He may come back for the 2012-13 season, but the end will likely come shortly after that. Johan Hedberg is also close to pushing 40 and his future is up in the air. However, history has shown that the vast majority of goaltenders don't jump into the NHL right away. And the Devils are going to need goaltending help sooner rather than later. Even if they pick a goaltender in the first round tonight, whoever it is will most likely not be ready for at least three seasons. The Devils can't wait that long for the 2012 pick to become a #1 goalie, assuming the prospect's development can even reach that level. The team will want to still be competitive after Brodeur retires, so they need someone capable in the short term. In short, the Devils can't use this draft for that need even if they burn their first round pick on a goalie. In fact, this is a reason why a draft shouldn't be used for a short term need - prospects won't be able to contribute for several seasons. (Unless you're picking really high - which, in that case, there will likely be a lot of needs.)

Moreover, the Devils already have three goalies in the system: Wedgewood, Clermont, and an example of Reynolds' suggestion of looking for undrafted free agents, Keith Kinkaid. You can even call it four if you include Frazee. Those guys have had the benefit of experience and further development than any of the goalie prospects available in this draft. They're going to be given long looks at training camp this fall to see if any of them are ready for the next level. Even if Brodeur and Hedberg return for one more season, that collection of goalies will get the first crack at filling in for them. And if those guys aren't ready, then the Devils will probably explore a trade or make do with what they have until the 2013 offseason. A drafted goalie is going to have to wait to quite a bit, which is good for him as it'll likely what he'll need - even if he is a first round pick in the 2012 draft. A 18 or 19 year old netminder won't be filling in Brodeur's or even Hedberg's pads.

Lastly, if there is a need among prospects, it's not at goaltender, where they have three young guys in development. It's at forward. Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson have successfully become NHL players. Beyond them, the only guys in the system who can step up to the next level are Mattias Tedenby and Vladimir Zharkov. Only Tedenby has any potential beyond the fourth line, and both have already had extended stays in the NHL in past seasons. Among prospects, there aren't any forwards in development that could become scoring forwards in the future. This can become a problem in a few years when guys like Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Dainius Zubrus, and so forth are just about done with their careers. It's nice to see Blake Pietila and Blake Coleman perform at the NCAA level, but it's unknown as to whether they'll develop to the next level. The Devils are more likely find a potential NHL forward in the first round as opposed to a NHL goaltender. They are more likely to have said forward come in and contribute the moment he turns 20 as opposed to a goaltender, who will likely need more time to develop.

Team history at the draft show that selecting a goaltender in the first round is a bad idea, especially since 1997. Recent league history shows that most goalies in the first round aren't necessarily as successful as those taken later, which furthers the point that taking a goalie in the first round is a bad idea. That so few goalies have been taken at all in the first round since 2006 further suggests that taking one in the first round in 2012 suggests it is a bad idea. Taking a goaltender in the first round in 2012 and waiting 3 to 5 (or more) years before they're ready for the NHL when the Devils will need a goaltender much sooner makes the idea of taking a goaltender in the first round a bad idea. Taking a goaltender in the first round when the prospect system is bereft of forwards, players who can and have contributed in some way at a earlier age than most goalies, appears to be a bad idea.

Lastly, please notice that I didn't bring up the actual talent or potential of Subban, Vasilevski, or any other goalie prospect available for this year's draft. That's because it's not about them. I have no doubt that they're good prospects. Even Corey Pronman, someone who normally doesn't think much of goalie prospects, actually ranked Subban and Vasilevski in his top 100 this year. The general concept of taking a goaltender in the first round, even with a late pick, isn't really a good one in general and it's not one the Devils should follow. Should the Devils really, really want another goalie in the system, I can live with them using their later picks on one since the likelihood of getting a NHL player late in the draft is low. No one regrets, say, Jason Smith not panning out since he was only a sixth round selection. It's the higher picks, like Ahonen, Damphousse, and soon Frazee that don't pan out that become regrettable because other prospects taken at that point of the draft could be useful players down the line.

Anyway, I hope that these reasons further explain why I'm so adamantly against the Devils using their first round pick on a goaltender. What do you think of them? If you felt that the Devils should use their first round pick on a goalie, did this post change your mind? If so, which of these reasons swayed your opinion more: the team history, recent league trends and results from the draft, or the fact that goalies take more time to develop? If your opinion hasn't changed after reading this, why do you think the Devils should pick a goaltender in the first round in this draft? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about drafting goaltenders in the comments. Thank you for reading.