The hockey world was turned on its head this week with the emergence of Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson. At age 20, he is 2-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in his first two Stanley Cup Playoff games. He may have also swung the Western Conference Second Round series against the mighty Los Angeles Kings.
What makes this development so incredible is that most people around Gibson aren't even surprised by what he's done.
This guy is exactly what you're seeing. This is the genuine article, this is what he is as a goalie. He has been that dominant goalie at every level, from the under-17 and under-18 teams with the United States Development Program, right through to Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League and Norfolk in the American Hockey League. He even led the United States to bronze at the IIHF World Championship last summer.
Here's how impressive that last accomplishment is: Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning was amazing this season. He's a Vezina Trophy finalist who was a huge part of an impressive Lightning team. But it was Gibson who started the bronze-medal game for the U.S. against Finland last summer; Bishop was the backup. That's unbelievable.
I said in an earlier column that I wouldn't be surprised if Gibson was named the starter at the beginning of the playoffs. But you have to give the Ducks credit for how they played this one and how they developed their prized prospect. Frederik Andersen has exceeded expectations and has been tremendous as a rookie. I think Jonas Hiller is still a world-class goalie. But I can't recall a goalie of Hiller's accomplishments just getting brushed aside like this.
The work that Norfolk's goaltending consultant, Sudsie Maharaj, has done with Gibson is amazing. He was a super prospect already, but now his footwork and rebound control are even better. He's playing with a little more structure, but in a way that complements his natural gifts. Internally, the Ducks already knew he has ice water in his veins. They knew he wouldn't be fazed by this situation.
What convinced them he was ready was his play in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Manchester Monarchs were the No. 1 seed and Norfolk was the eighth seed, but Norfolk won that series largely because of Gibson. Manchester had their pre-scout game plan and they threw it out the window because Gibson got in their heads. Not only did he help dispatch Manchester, he might do the same to their NHL affiliate in L.A. against the goalie I believe is the best in the League in Jonathan Quick.
The funny thing is people that know Gibson aren't surprised. They think he hasn't played his best yet.
"Wait until he has a 'Gibby night,'" people keep telling me.
That is scary.
The Ducks are a super-elite team, but they have seven or eight players who were at Norfolk this season who are now contributing in a huge way. That leads me to Devante Smith-Pelly, who was Gibson's roommate in Norfolk.
Smith-Pelly has been a big-time goal scorer at every level, especially in the OHL with Mississauga. He also led Norfolk with 27 goals this year. Talking to Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau and different players on this team, they have all told me that they're very impressed with him. Norfolk coach Trent Yawney said Devante was their best player in Norfolk this season, which says a lot because Emerson Etem is a tremendous prospect along with Rickard Rakell.
Smith-Pelly now has five goals in the playoffs and has played with the big boys on that top line alongside Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. He's come aboard now and is starting to become the player they thought he would be.
Great as Devante has been, Gibson is on the verge of being an NHL star and an elite goalie in this League. Look at how he's playing against Quick, who is the standard. And he's 20, which defies all conventional development for a goalie. Development is a very inexact science, especially with goalies, but the Ducks have done a great job here.
On a quick side note, I spoke with Kirk Muller right after he was officially hired to join the St. Louis Blues coaching staff. He is very appreciative of his time in Carolina, but he's also looking forward to this opportunity in St. Louis with people he knows very well in Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock. Being a former player, he'll be a bridge with the forwards. He's really looking forward to working there.
It's a smart hire and a proactive hire for St. Louis. I don't think it's a default move just because the Blues know him. They did their homework and didn't just wait to see who would be available. They made it a priority to get someone they wanted. Kirk Muller is a guy I played with. I know him as a player and a person. He sees this as an opportunity to continue his growth. He looks at this as an opportunity to learn under Hitch and grow as a coach. In the end, it's a win-win all around.