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Friday, May 20, 2011

Drafting goalies in the modern NHL

Tim Thomas barely made the cut 17 years ago.

The Quebec Nordiques drafted him in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Entry (217th overall) arguably one of the greatest single rounds for successful NHL netminders after the third, having produced all of Thomas, Johan Hedberg, Evgeni Nabokov, Tomas Vokoun and John Grahame. That's over 2,000 NHL games between them with Thomas the shoo-in for his second Vezina Trophy in three years.

However, if Thomas was 10 years younger, one can argue that he might have been snubbed altogether. For one thing, the NHL draft reduced from 11 rounds in 1994 to 9 rounds in 2004. However, the real essence of what might have doomed him comes down to the one thing people cannot control, no matter how much they work: size.

Height, and specifically, long limbs, has become an essential ingredient that NHL teams look for in their netminders and prospects. Where once the big leagues had their share of small little guys who were cat-quick and top stoppers (Grant Fuhr, Mike Vernon, Andy Moog, Curtis Joseph, Arturs Irbe to name a few), sub 6-foot goalies became an endangered species in the mid-to-late 80s when agile big men like Patrick Roy, Daren Puppa and Sean Burke served as the harbingers for what was to come for the position.

Nowadays, the small goalie is the extreme rarity, with Thomas being one of just two starting NHL netminders listed at 5-11 (Jaroslav Halak- St. Louis).

It comes down mostly to net coverage. The smaller player has shorter arms and legs, meaning that they have to move greater distances to cover the net and move their limbs to spaces in the net that the naturally taller goalies cover more readily in their basic stance.

You see that Thomas aggressively and consistently plays several feet beyond his crease. This is essential to his survival, because the further out he is the more difficult it is for the shooters to pick the corners on him. Playing deep in the net means that Thomas has to move his arms or legs to said corners, and the puck is going to beat you to those spaces more often than not. Another key aspect to his stellar performance at the NHL level is his hockey sense.

Thomas has a rare instinctive feel for the flow and an ability to anticipate where the shot is going to come from. Yes, he's reactive. However, he's also highly proactive in that he will often times begin his lateral push as the puck is leaving the carrier for a pass. Whereas many goalies can get caught cheating, Thomas does not very often because of that preternatural feel for whether the puck carrier is going to dish it to the open man, or keep it himself for the shot. It's subtle, inexplainable body language and signals that Thomas picks up on- he can't explain it, either. We've even asked him to do so, and that question is always met with the same smile and chuckle that Boston media types are so familiar with when interacting with Thomas.

When Thomas is struggling and fighting the puck, he's often deep in his net, where his size becomes a disadvantage. He also has trouble tracking the puck at times and will get turned around, leading to backdoor goals when he's swimming. The great thing about Thomas, however, is his ability to shake off the bad goals and refocus. He plays angry, and it works for him. Angry Timmy doesn't go into extended slumps (unless he's playing on a bad hip) because Angry Timmy has the ability to concentrate and rebound from a shaky outing by getting back to basics and not beating himself.

Even so, and as outstanding he's been for the Bruins, NHL teams view him as a freakshow, an oddity. Few are willing to gamble one of their seven assigned draft picks on a small goalie even with a player like Thomas and the success he's enjoyed.

Hockey has gotten so much faster, violent and with that has come a precision with the shooters inconceivable just 20 years ago. Whereas Roy spawned a generation of top athletes with size who in the 70s would have desired to play up front or on defense to get in the net and stop pucks, the forwards and defenseman have gotten so much better at finding the back of the net. As such, NHL clubs want their goalies to not only take up as much space as possible, but to have the fluidity and agility to deny second, third and even fourth scoring chances. As quick and combative as they may be, small goalies are at a natural disadvantage in a crowded, crashed crease and when play gets scrambly after the first save is made.

The big guy can see around screens better. He can stand up to the inevitable opponent who will blitz him in a high-speed collision when he loses an edge going hard to the net.

The little guy...well, he's simply not as equipped for that.

The numbers do not lie. In 2010, 21 goalies were drafted. Of those just one- Cody Rosen (5-11) to the Islanders in the 7th was under 6-0 in height. Former Salisbury School superstar Andy Iles, a prep champion in 2009 and Jack Campbell's backup at the U.S. NTDP (U18 gold in '10, WJC bronze in '11) was passed over because he's 5-8. Tremendous reflexes and competitiveness, but the size was his undoing.

This time around, you're going to see someone like Colby Drost, a standout EHJL netminder with the New England Jr. Huskies have a better shot of being picked because he's 6-1, 195 even though he played on a poor team and is a '92 than you will Dubuque Matt Morris, who took his team to the USHL Clark Cup championship round, because Morris is 5-10.

It's just the way things work these days. A big kid with rough mechanics is preferable to the little guy with flawless technique. Why? Because you can teach a big kid to be a better goalie, but you cannot teach a small goalie how to be big in the net.


  1. Johan Gustafsson is actually 6'2".
    source :

  2. Well what do you know? That's the pitfalls of using HockeyDB- thanks for the save.

    So the numbers are even worse- Cody Rosen may only be the sub-6-footer drafted last year. Will verify his vitals.

    1/21- writing's on the wall for the 5-6 to 5-11 guys. If you have NHL dreams, you'd better be prepared to work hard and spend a long time riding buses.