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Jacob Fowler: 2023 NHL Draft Prospect Profile; This Year’s Best USHL Goaltender

The New Jersey Devils have selected a goalie in every NHL Draft since 2015. Who will be their goalie pick in 2023? Why not Jacob Fowler, the Youngstown Phantom netminder who was the USHL’s best goaltender in 2022-23? Read this profile to learn more about him.

2023 Biosteel All-American Game
Jacob Fowler performed well enough at the USHL level. Will his name be called at the 2023 NHL Draft?
Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

One of the safest bets for the upcoming 2023 draft class for the New Jersey Devils is that they will select a goaltender. They have done so in every year since 2015. A team without quality goaltending is sunk. It is position of interest. Yet, it is difficult to identify which goaltending prospects will flourish and which will not. Goaltenders are wild cards as prospects. It is a position rife with success bias and little room for error unless management really believes in the goalie (e.g. MacKenzie Blackwood) or the team makes room for the goalie to suffer for a better future. Which is not really viable at the NHL level. And once a team has one to three quality goaltenders, then the prospective goaltender may find himself unable to get the minutes they need to grow or even have a career with that organization. It is necessary and difficult and seemingly random.

Here is an example of how offbeat goalie prospects can be. Did anyone predict Akira Schmid to do so well in 2022-23 and effectively cement a NHL career after a miserable cup of coffee in 2021-22? Keep in mind Schmid was a fifth round pick in 2018 out of Swiss junior hockey. He was not a dominant goalie in the AHL. It was not until this season where he demonstrated that he could hang at the NHL level. Then he proceeded to show he can hang opposite Igor Shesterkin on a heater. Nothing as a prospect or even as he was developing in the pool suggested Schmid could do that. Yet, he did. Now the scout(s) who found Schmid look smart, the team looks good for trusting in Schmid, and Schmid gets paid real well. Despite not even being anyone to rely on in the future back in September 2022. This is how it is with prospect goaltenders, apparently.

The trend in the NHL Draft seems to be to pick someone the goaltender experts on the team likes, do not use a high draft pick unless the goaltender is special, and keep trying until one hits. And even if a pick or two does hit, it does not hurt to have talented goaltenders in the pool for future transactions. I have a suggestion for who could be the Devils’ goaltender pick of 2023: Youngstown Phantoms goaltender Jacob Fowler.

Who is Jacob Fowler?

Per Elite Prospects, Jacob Fowler is an 18-year old goaltender from Melbourne, Florida. He was born on November 24, 2004, which makes him one of the older prospects in this draft class. He catches with his left hand, his height is listed at 6’2”, and his weight is at 201 pounds. And as his stats show, Fowler has just been a fantastic performer. The product of the Florida Alliance youth organization; he went up to Connecticut to play for the South Kent School Selects, a U-18 AAA team. That lasted until 2021-22 switched to the United States Hockey League to join the Youngstown Phantoms. He was never picked; he earned a spot at age 15 at a mini-camp and would join as he got older. Fowler proceeded to shine in the ‘U.’

In the 2021-22 season, Fowler did join the Phantoms during the season. He made 18 appearances lasting 963 minutes, just 227 shy to be a qualified goalie. That said, if you filter for all goalies at the USHL site, you will see that Fowler led the entire league in overall save percentage with a 92.7%. Further, his performances were good enough to be named to the USHL All-Rookie Second Team. The Phantoms were successful with Fowler in the crease given Fowler’s 11-4-0-1 record. Aside from one playoff appearance that did not go so well, Fowler was in a position to succeed in 2022-23.

Success is an understatement. Fowler was easily the best goaltender in the entire USHL in this past season. With 40 games played in the season, the Phantoms went 27-9-3-1 with Fowler in net. His 92.1% overall save percentage was the best among qualified goalies by at least 0.4%. Only five goalies were superior in the All Goalies category - 4 one-spot appearances and 14 games of Trey Augustine with the USNTDP. Only Cameron Whitehead tied him for the most shutouts in the season. The only blemish on his regular season performance was giving up five goals out of 22 shootout attempts - which is still above the general rule of thumb of a 66.7% save percentage. Fowler was named the USHL Goaltender of the Year, which followed a season where he was named Goaltender of the Week six times. Appropriately, Fowler was also named to the All USHL First Team.

When the playoffs came around for the Phantoms, Fowler stepped it up even more. Nine games, eight wins, one shutout win, 273 shots faced, 13 goals allowed, and a league leading 95.2% save percentage. Fowler backstopped the Phantoms to their first ever Clark Cup championship. The Clark Cup-clinching game was a 1-0 win over Fargo, the apex of a best-of-five series wherein he posted a 97.6% save percentage. Fowler was named as the Most Outstanding Player of the Clark Cup in addition to leading his team to their first ever championship.

If that was not enough, Fowler did get a taste of the international game. He was a part of the American roster at the World Junior A Challenge, an Under-19 tournament. It is not a major tournament but with fowler not being a part of the USNTDP, it would be the only chance he got to represent the Red, White, and Blue. He would get into four games. America won all four with Fowler - they would win the whole tourney with just one loss - and the goalie was beaten just 7 times in four games for a 91.8% save percentage. The second best in the tournament behind a two-game appearance of Sweden’s Teodor Munther. Even in a brief, minor international tourney, Fowler was superlative among his fellow goaltenders there.

All together, Fowler was recognized by USA Hockey for his campaign. This past Friday, they announced that Fowler won the Dave Peterson Goaltender of the Year Award, which is awarded to the top American-born goaltender who played junior hockey. Past winners include Cory Schneider, Jack Campbell, John Gibson, Cal Petersen, Jimmy Howard, Alex Stalock, Isaiah Saville, Dustin Wolf, and Charlie Lindgren. This is just one more achievement to cap off what has been a fantastic 2022-23 for Fowler.

The next step for the goaltender is college. After decommitting from Clarkson, Fowler is committed to Boston College for next season. This is a very good development as the Eagles play in Hockey East, one of the better conferences in college hockey, and they typically ice strong lineups. BC’s 2023-24 team will feature multiple players from the successful 2022-23 USNTDP U-18 team such as Will Smith, Will Vote, Ryan Leonard, and Aram Minnetian. Fowler will have plenty of opportunities to further his game as well as have the time to do so by being in college.

Where is Jacob Fowler Ranked?

Surely, someone who did as well as Jacob Fowler did in the net would be ranked highly among this year’s class of goaltenders, right? There is no Askarov or Knight or Wallstedt level player that would make a team think about taking a goalie early. In fact, the top European goaltender according to CSS is a guy who got passed over last season, Alex Hellnemo. There are some goalies with some serious potential and tools as with any draft class. Yet, I am confused by where Fowler is ranked by some of the places that rank prospects.

I understand that goaltenders are hard to judge but the range on Fowler is all over the place. Gabriel Foley loves Fowler. Other places did not even rank him out of 100 players. And others have him anywhere between the late second to the third round. What confuses me the most is that these lists often have Michael Hrabal, Trey Augustine, and/or Adam Gajan ahead of Fowler - all goalies who played in the USHL in 2022-23. While Augustine was the USNTDP’s main goalie, he did not play that much in the USHL in this past season. And while I presume the argument is that either Hrabal and/or Gajan may have more skills or upside, Fowler clearly out-performed both of them in the same league. (Gajan spent more time in the NAHL, actually.) I understand that evaluating prospects means more than looking at a basic statline and concluding who is better on that alone. But just as point production does not mean nothing at all for skaters, save percentages are not nothing either for goalies. Fowler was the best at stopping pucks in his league. That has to count for something at least among his peers, right? Let us find out what others have stated about Fowler.

What Others Say About Jacob Fowler

Let me begin with the site that loves him the post. Gabriel Foley of Recruit Scouting ranked Fowler as the best goaltender in the draft in his view. Here is what he wrote about him in his top 100 ranking, where Fowler came in at 22nd.

Fowler is a very poised goaltender that doesn’t stray from his crease. He’s incredibly quick and poised in his movements, allowing him to find angles quickly and maintain really strong positioning. And to boot, Fowler is undeniably the best puck-handler of the goalies in this class. His glove side is notoriously weak, and will need some solid patching if he wants to step cleanly into the pro scene. But Fowler’s incredible consistency and calm style make him a strong candidate to be the first goalie off of the board this year, and my personal choice.

In the eyes and words of Foley, Fowler is consistent (the stats back this up), collected (OK), and quick enough for the position in and outside of the crease. Foley’s criticism is Fowler’s glove. The latter was also a sticking point in Smaht Scouting’s ranking for Fowler. He came in much later on their list at 51st. Josh Tessler wrote the following about the goaltender:

Fowler does an excellent job of widening his stance in the crouch when facing a threat in high danger. He’s also quick with his pads and can slam the door shut in the butterfly by shifting over with his pads. While he does do a good job of widening himself and quickly reseting in butterfly position, I’d like to see him work on extending his glove to take away space top shelf. (Josh Tessler)

Tessler goes more technical in his blurb, and it is mostly positive. It suggests that Fowler plays a butterfly style of goaltending or at least uses that stance. Tessler’s description also supports Foley’s assertion of Fowler being quick. It also supports the suggestion that Fowler’s glove hand could use work in terms of getting it out there. Which is crucial in a butterfly stance. Clearly, Tessler and the Smaht Scouting staff did not think that highly of Fowler, but it is encouraging to read.

There were two different takes at Dobber Prospects about Fowler. On Fowler’s player page, Sebastian High wrote these observations in April.

Jacob Fowler is the 2023 draft class’ “unbelievable stats but will it translate?” goaltender. He’s been a big part of a strong Youngstown team and trailed only Trey Augustine in USHL save percentage, which is especially impressive considering 19 and 20-year-olds typically dominate the league’s goaltending statistics. Fowler is a very cerebral goaltender who has had to stylistically adapt to his subpar skating and fluidity. His cross-crease movements can be quite choppy, but his high degree of anticipation and strength in tracking pucks compensate for this weakness at the USHL level. His skating and mobility will need to progress to unlock tangible NHL upside, but Boston College is a strong program for goaltending development according to Dobber’s goaltending scout Colin Hunter, which will be crucial in his progression. Fowler lacks Augustine’s consistency and control, as well as Hrabal’s raw tools, but he is a good dark horse candidate to be the best goaltender to come out of the 2023 class, though he remains behind the aforementioned two on our board.

High would be correct about the ranking Both Hrabal and Augustine were ranked higher on their list at 46th and 36th, respectively. High was critical of how Fowler moved with in the crease. The subparness may be more in technique than in an actual speed given the statements about “choppy” cross-crease movements. I can see how that could be an issue at higher levels, especially if Fowler is not able to read situations so well to put him in better positions for saves as he did in the USHL.

Colin Hunter, who focuses on goaltenders at Dobber Prospects echoed some of the same concerns about his movement (and BC being a good program to go to) in this blurb to go with his 63rd place in Dobber Prospects’ spring ranking:

Fowler is somewhat unique in his goaltending style and is not the strongest skater. He does, however, possess a couple of very intriguing skills – excellent lateral speed and athleticism, and great anticipatory abilities (both in reading the play and individual shooters). He is headed to a strong school for goaltender development at Boston College, which bodes well for his post-draft progression.

Perhaps this is all not so incongruent. Hunter’s blurb about not being the strongest skater could go with the choppiness High wrote to, but Fowler could still be quick enough to stop pucks that less athletic goalies could make. And those technique concerns could grow into larger issues if, again, the reads do not continue at higher levels of hockey. Both High and Hunter acknowledge that it is a strength but when I usually read about flaws about a player, I think about whether the flaw is a flaw on its own or something that could get worse and hinder even a possible strength.

For a similar yet somewhat different perspective, here is a profile on Fowler written by Pavel Malyugin at Hockey Royalty, which is a LA Kings blog. While Malyugin wants the Kings to take Fowler, he notes some issues with Fowler’s play with a bit more detail than the previously cited people:

Fowler often plays with a tall stance in the net and shows a lot of confidence when the puck closes in on him. He’ll often make a chip to poke the puck away. He’s quick to vision-down the puck. He stands high and falls earlier whenever there’s traffic in front. He takes extra safeguards whenever there are bodies in front and possesses a quick thinking technique. Realistically, when he drops early, it’s better to be ready than late. As long as he doesn’t make it a habit, he should be fine.

One thing I haven’t liked about him is how liminal his foot movement is when he tracks down the puck from far. His feet start to slow down and become sluggish as his focus shifts to the puck. He has an issue with multitasking. If that isn’t fixed, he won’t compete in the NHL.

His athletic positioning in the net allows him to move from side to side fluidly despite his feet lacking speed. When he moves from one side of the net to the other, he almost looks like a robot with his mechanical movement. His pad positioning allows him to cover the bottom of the net while his gloves remain high and active, covering any open space up high.

This matches up with skating issues and further confirms my thought that the technique issue will only hinder what else Fowler can do well in net. Malyugin is also concerned with how Fowler plays the puck, which is a departure from what Foley felt about the player. Or maybe this draft class of goalies is that bad at puck handling such that Fowler is superior. Malyugin concludes that Fowler has plenty of upside but that these issues need to be addressed in order for that to be realized. I think that is a fair assessment.

Together, this paints the picture of how Fowler could be regarded behind other goalies, even those who played in the same league as Fowler, may get ranked or even picked ahead of him. While Malyugin thinks he has upside, that was not really pointed out by others outside of Foley. It is also not so clear whether the issues with how he skates and moves in the crease are fixable or not. Is it something that needs coaching? More experience? Both? Something else? It remains to be seen and it adds to the already-difficult proposition of drafting a goaltender for the future.

A Little Video

There is not a lot of video on Fowler, the hockey player, in particular. Even the Clark Cup winning game where he shut out Fargo only had highlights of the one goal scored and the post-game celebration on Youngstown’s Youtube channel. So this truly is a little video:

There is not much useful video out there on Fowler in terms of what to see about the player. Then again, he is a goaltender. The majority of the clips are either going to be a save or a goal against anyway. And based on what is written, I feel confident enough to form an opinion.

An Opinion of Sorts

In reading up on Fowler and the goalies in this year’s draft class, I am still left thinking that Fowler should be exalted more than he has been. The crop of goalies for this year’s draft is not that strong and so I would prefer to highlight those who have at least been successful in their respective positions.

In North America, here is a quick run down of the other names I have seen around. Hrabal may have the tools and the size but it will take work for those tools to be put together. Augustine may have the results with the USNTDP. He may be seen as one rival Fowler’s accomplishments among the North American goalies. Yet his 6’1” frame and how he tracks the puck could limit him. Gajan may have upside too but struggled in the USHL and thrived in a lesser NAHL despite his World U-18 tourney with Slovakia. Bjarnason may have been sandbagged by a bad Brandon team but he didn’t have a good World U-18 with Canada and his own skills need work too. Scott Ratzlaff had a good second season with Seattle in the WHL as well as an excellent Hlinka-Gretzky Cup performance. Another to rival Fowler from an achievement standpoint. However, there are questions about his upside as well as his blocker side. Some of these players will get picked ahead of Fowler even though Fowler has had a better 2022-23 than most of them, if not all of them.

It is even more sparse in Europe. The top European goaltender per CSS, Alex Hellnemo, is a 19-year old who thrived only on a U-20 team and struggled against pros in Sweden. One who is confident in the MHL play may like what Yegor Zavragin did for Mamonty Yugry, but that is asking a lot out of a MHL goaltender. Damian Clara has been Italy’s best prospect in years but still had issues at the U-20 level in Sweden and playing for the Italian national team in hockey is not exactly high-end competition. Adam Dybal did crush it for HC Energie Karlovy Vary at the U-20 level but got crushed in other competitions and the less said about his one game for HC Banik Sokolov, the better. Juha Jatkola may be the top Finnish goaltender for this draft class and played regularly for KalPa in Liiga - only he turns 21 right before the 2023-24 season; he is a triple over-ager. Plus, I do not think a 90.3% save percentage in 40 games in Liiga is that special either. Again, no one from Europe is a standout in the crease much less one to claim as many accomplishments as Fowler in 2022-23.

In light of these and others, Fowler can claim to be the best in his league, the most important part of Youngstown’s first championship, acquitted himself well in an U-19 tournament as an 18-year old, got love from USA Hockey for his goaltending play, and committed to one of the traditional powers of college hockey where he can start. I understand there are concerns with his actual skating and his glove side. Being able to smoothly move laterally and get into position will make a big difference at higher levels where the game is much faster. Yet, Fowler’s own speed as a whole has been seen as a plus. He has been very good at reading plays to get into positions to make saves. His glove can be quick at times to make stops too. And he has been successful at stopping shots for every team he has played for per his EP profile. If taking a goaltender is inherently riskier than a skater - and I think it is - then why not take the one who has excelled in his position instead of trying to build up a toolsy goalie as a project pick?

I am resigned to the fact that the Devils will take a goalie at one point of this draft because they have done so for a while now. I think if they do and the other skater prospects are not so hot with their second round pick, then they could justifiably go for Jacob Fowler. He can cook at BC for a few years and then go pro once some clarity is achieved with the goaltending pool.

Your Take

I am a fan of the player and the concept of taking prospects who at least performed admirably at their level in the hopes of growing further at higher levels. You may not be down for the Devils using their second round pick or any pick this year on a goalie. But I think Fowler is worth it if he is available that late. Now I want to know what you think. Were you also impressed by Fowler’s 2022-23 season in the USHL? What did you like reading about him? What did you not like reading about him? Regardless of what I think, would you want the Devils to take him at all? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Jacob Fowler in the comments. Thank you for reading.