Thatcher Demko knows he will need to wait.
He is coming off his freshman season at Boston College, a hockey player both young and in need of practice and improvement. But it’s his position that likely will dictate the amount of time it will take him to reach the NHL. He’s a goalie.
Although forwards and defensemen can often reach the NHL without a significant apprenticeship, that’s not usually the case for goaltenders. There are exceptions (Roman Cechmanek, Steven Mason, Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury), but the usual path takes years of work in college or juniors or the AHL or European leagues, even for goaltenders who will become among the very best.
Ben Bishop, the Tampa Bay goalie who spent Tuesday in Las Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, didn’t become a full-time starter until this season, when he played in more than 13 games for the first time in his career, with 63. Bishop, 27, was drafted in 2005, the banner draft that also produced goaltenders Price, Tuukka Rask, Ondrej Pavelec, and Jonathan Quick.
“Goaltending really isn’t any different [than other positions], except that I think the experience factor – all players need it, but I think goaltenders certainly need to be put in situations that they can draw from, the playoff levels, responding to bad games,” said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney.
“It’s a unique position that they’re the last line of defense and they generally get blamed for situations that sometimes [are] certainly not their fault, other times it is. But they have to handle it the same way. So I think it’s the uniqueness of the position, sometimes lends to taking a little bit more time.”
That time can extend on and on, sometimes due to the lack of an opportunity, sometimes due to a need for more seasoning. In a recent conversation, Demko, while acknowledging he’s not ready for the next level, clearly balked at the four, five, six, sometimes seven years it could take to make it at the highest level.
Like any young goalie, he would like to be more Mason (who started 61 games for the Blue Jackets at age 20) than Cory Schneider (who started 45 games for the Devils at 27 this past season) or Craig Anderson (who started 71 games for the Avalanche at age 28).
Or, say, Tim Thomas, who played just four games in the NHL before he turned 31. Thomas went on to win two Vezina trophies and a Stanley Cup.
But beyond the intricacies of the position — the technical and mental aspects – it comes down to, as Sweeney said: “The goaltender doesn’t get to hide.”
For much of Dougie Hamilton’s time in the NHL, which he reached at 19, the defenseman has been paired with Zdeno Chara. Mistakes can be avoided that way, even on the top defensive pairing, that can’t be avoided for the man standing in net.
Hamilton has had a crutch. There are no crutches for goalies.
“The biggest thing is from [an organization’s] standpoint, I think it’s to be overly ready because as a player you can step in at a young age and a team or a coach or an organization can sort of hide you and baby you a little bit more with your ice time and how much you play on the ice,” said former Bruins backup goaltender Chad Johnson, who made just 10 career starts in the NHL until the 27 he started at age 27 this past season.
“Obviously if you make mistakes or you’re out of position, other players can help you out, whereas a goaltender, you’re either in there and you’re stopping the puck or you’re not.”
And if you’re not, you’re not going to last.
Preparation is key
That position, as the last line of defense, as the ultimate difference between a win and a loss, can be taxing mentally. That, too, is one reason teams feel the need – if they can – to delay a goaltender, to give him a few more years to see more shots, to be in more situations, to understand how to handle all he needs to handle.
“There’s always a big mental side of it that you have to be ready for,” Johnson said. “So I think for goaltenders being at the minor league level and being a lot older, a lot more mature mentally and physically gives you an advantage.
“When you do step in at the NHL level you have more experience and you’re more ready for that NHL-caliber shot and the lifestyle and everything that goes with playing in the NHL. I think you’re better off the longer you wait.
“I think that’s why teams hold onto goalies a lot longer in the minors.”
There’s getting through good games and bad games. There’s getting through high-pressure situations. There’s being able to relax in the face of tension and high stakes and enduring the heat of the spotlight. There’s staying focused, and having a short memory, all skills Johnson said he developed as his career went on.
Also, the prime for a goaltender is later.
“There’s definitely the belief that a goaltender can play well into the later stage of his career as opposed to, at times, other players,” Sweeney said. “It’s beyond where they’ve peaked and they’re still effective players.
“For the most part, you look at the guys that are in their [peak] window and in their range and as effective as they are, they’ve sort of moved more toward that 26, 27 range.”
So, yes, Demko – regarded as the No. 1 North American goaltender in the draft – will be taken by an NHL team this weekend. Some of his compatriots, those defensemen, those forwards, could be looking at a short wait for NHL glory.
As for when goalies will graduate to the NHL, and when they might evolve into starters? That’s harder to predict. If past experience is a good indicator, it will be later rather than sooner.
Though, as evidenced by Mason and Price, that’s not always the case. As Sweeney said, “I think the players themselves, whatever position, to be honest with you, will dictate the vast majority of the time as to when they’re ready to make their impact.”
Depth an asset for Bruins
That 2005 draft provides an interesting example of the divergent paths organizations can take with goaltenders. Montreal took Price at No. 5 overall, while Toronto took Rask at No. 21.
Price played 41 games in 2007-08, his 20-year-old season, and hit 50-plus the next year, out of necessity. Rask, meanwhile, didn’t truly become the Bruins full-time starter — save for supplanting Thomas in 2009-10, when he played in 45 games — until 2012-13. By then, Rask was 25, and was seven years out from being drafted.
The Bruins had the luxury of using Rask as a backup to Thomas, at a time when they knew he had the technical aspects to succeed, but didn’t necessarily have the strength. The Canadiens didn’t have that.
And that’s what the Bruins are doing now, too, with Niklas Svedberg and Malcolm Subban in Providence. With Rask as the (well-compensated) starter, Boston can afford to let Svedberg (24) and Subban (20) learn and mature, with Svedberg likely ascending to the NHL this year as Rask’s backup.
“In Svedberg’s situation, he was coming from a big ice surface and in Europe they don’t shoot from the half-wall. All of a sudden shots are coming from the half-wall,” Sweeney said. “He didn’t have to be as tight in his post coverage and certain things that he was doing, he had more time.”
As for Subban, the 2012 first-round draftee is a highly athletic goaltender, who needs to work on some of the more technical aspects of the position.
“He gets the ones at times that other goaltenders can’t get to because of the result of his athleticism,” Sweeney said. “Now, let’s sort of make the game a little easier as a result of being in position.”
Because the systems played by Boston and Providence align so well, the Bruins’ AHL goalies get important lessons in positioning, in understanding where shots are coming from, in adjusting to those shots, all things they’ll see in similar order in the NHL. That takes time to learn.
For now, though, the Bruins are set in goal with Rask, who won his first Vezina Trophy on Tuesday.
They can let their prospects age and season and mature, while Rask is among the best at stopping pucks in the league at perhaps the prime time of his career, having turned 27 in March.
For the Bruins, that is a luxury. It works for them. It might not always work for the goaltenders waiting down in Providence for their shot.
“What lines up in the player’s mind doesn’t always line up in what you think is the proper trajectory,” Sweeney said. “There’s the balancing act. Sometimes there’s a little trial and error where a player gets put into that situation, realizes maybe [he] wasn’t completely ready, and sometimes he hits the ground and runs and doesn’t look back.”