May 22, 2010
The Globe & Mail's James Mirtle has an awesome analysis tracking the rise of European starting goalies in the NHL, at the expense of Canadian goalies.
The trend toward Europeans in goal has meant Canadians have been pushed from the crease more and more every season. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of NHL goaltenders born in Canada has shrunk from about 85 per cent to less than 45 per cent, with this season marking an all-time low.
Mirtle spoke with Nashville Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who theorized European goalies were starting to dominate because in Europe, teams pay for expensive goalie equipment, players often work with coaches early on, and players play professionally younger, meaning they get seasoning sooner than their Canadian counterparts.
Those are all strong, logical reasons. But I think there are a few others.
For instance, as Mirtle mentions, NHL teams are spending more time and energy scouting in Europe. With more people scouting Europe more thoroughly, obviously more European goalies are going to be found. It's almost like a form of confirmation bias, where people notice things that reinforce an existing preconception.
NHL teams are expecting to find more goalies in Europe, so they're finding more goalies in Europe.
Another reason I suspect we're seeing more European goalies is that more GMs are comfortable with a European at that position.
Shockingly, especially given how many exceptional European NHL players we've seen over the years, it seems many NHL executives sometimes seem to have a prejudice against European players, feeling they're not as tough as North Americans, or else not as interested in winning a Stanley Cup.
It's not a fair or accurate view, but it seems to exist within some corners of NHL management. Mats Sundin(notes) was the first European player ever to go first overall in the draft, and that was just in 1989. Since then, only four other European players have gone first overall, surely an indication GMs still have some reservations about the quality of non-North American talent.
But goalies are different from forwards and defensemen. They have a different temperament, but one that's more universal. No goalie, regardless of where he/she is from, wants to get beaten. GMs understand that universal truth and are comfortable trusting it and so they are probably more open to a European goalie. NHL GMs seem to recognize European goalies and North American goalies all have similar personalities. Or lack thereof.
Another reason we're seeing more European goalies is the NHL is an echo chamber. When one team finds success with something, especially with something as important as goalies, everyone else copies it. Washington had some success with a full-time goalie coach and soon you were seeing goalie coaches all over the league. Goalie coach Francois Allaire and goalie Patrick Roy found success with the butterfly and soon GMs were fervently looking for butterfly-style goalies.
I also wonder if European goalies find NHL success because they come up playing on a bigger sheet of ice. The wider ice means more east/west puck movement, which gets European goalies proficient at quick, lateral movement. While I don't think they have to deal with as much traffic and screening in the European game, I wonder if it's easier to get used to huge bodies knocking into you than it is to get used to the huge bodies AND the pucks coming at you from all angles, as North American goalies have to.
But if you're looking for definitive proof Mirtle has a point, watch Don Cherry take his theory to task. If Grapes is disagreeing with you, there's a better than average chance you're correct. But Mirtle does address Cherry's points.
One point that Cherry missed is that there will probably never be a European player with the last name of Wall, while the NHL does have goalie Mike Wall (the British Columbian played four games for the Ducks in 2006-07), which is just about the most awesome goalie name possible. So until Europe can produce a goalie with a last name that perfect (other acceptable alternatives: Save, Glove, Pad, FiveHole), Canadian goalies do hold a little bit of leverage in terms of getting NHL jobs.