This is due in part to the natural evolution of the position, but it's also due to more NHL teams investing more resources than ever before into full-time goalie coaching staffs. In fact, more than a third of NHL clubs now employ assistant goalie coaches (Chris Osgood assisting Jim Bedard in Detroit is one example) to aid in the development of their organization's minor-league and junior prospects.
With the importance of goaltending growing by the day and depth in the goaltending ranks becoming a key analytic in the health of a franchise, NHL.com introduces a new monthly feature, The Next Wave, which will present the goods on the goalies poised to be difference makers in the near future. We'll include some style analysis, plus provide updates on prospects that earned NHL exposure during the past month.
Top 10 Goalie Prospects
This monthly ranking is a projection of a goalie's long-term future value in the NHL. Goalies included have 10 games of NHL experience or less, and are playing at the professional level in North America. Rankings are based on non-statistical categories such as opportunity, skill potential, development, and other attributes of a future NHL goaltender. The plus or minus for each goalie is movement based on last month's results (NR means not ranked in previous rankings). It is important to note that our rankings reflect sheer long-term value, not their talent alone. A less-talented goalie could be ranked higher due to their placement in the team’s depth chart.
|1.||Jacob Markstrom, Panthers|
|2.||Robin Lehner, Senators|
|3.||Alex Salak, Blackhawks|
|4.||Eddie Lack, Canucks|
|5.||Matt Hackett, Wild|
|6.||Kevin Poulin, Islanders|
|7.||Cedrick Desjardins, Colorado|
|8.||Ben Bishop, Blues|
|9.||Leland Irving, Flames|
|10.||Mike Murphy, Hurricanes|
Matt Hackett: It may seem strange, but when a goalie's NHL debut hits without warning, it's often better than if they have a day or two to prepare. Why? Because when they're thrown right into the fire, they don't have time to think; they just hit the ice, rely on instincts, and benefit from the adrenaline rush. More often than not, they succeed due to a clearer mind.
This is exactly what happened to Hackett, the former Plymouth Whaler standout, back on Dec. 6 in San Jose. Josh Harding took a heavy elbow to the head just 1:11 into the game, so Hackett, who was simply filling in for the slightly injured Niklas Backstrom as backup, was suddenly forced into his NHL debut.
But with hands visibly shaking due to the excitement, Hackett responded by stopping all 34 shots he faced, sparking the Wild to a thrilling 2-1 win against the Sharks. Two days later, Hackett's surge of adrenaline helped him withstand a barrage of 44 shots in a 4-2 road win against the Los Angeles Kings.
When evaluating Hackett's style, it's easy to see the pure goalie blood coursing through his veins. The nephew of former NHL goaltender Jeff Hackett is naturally gifted in many areas, including footwork, instincts, puck-tracking skills, and overall athleticism. Plus, he receives guidance from Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, as well as pointers and advice from his uncle, Jeff.
Although he's only two games (plus a 23-minute relief effort on Jan. 12) into his NHL career, Hackett's play proved he's still on the fast track to being a full-time NHL goaltender. He transitioned ever so smoothly from the Ontario Hockey League to the American Hockey League, taking the Houston Aeros all the way to the AHL Finals as a rookie, but suffered a loss in Game 6 to Binghamton and another AHL rookie, Robin Lehner.
Combined with a trip to the AHL All-Star Game this past weekend, Hackett has been on quite an impressive ride since he was drafted in the third round (No. 77) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Leland Irving: Set to turn 24 on April 11, Irving already has four AHL seasons (83 wins in 167 games) under his belt. His patience was put to the ultimate test when the Flames re-signed Henrik Karlsson to a new two-year contract this past summer, but when Karlsson suffered an injury back in early December, Irving's patience paid off and he earned his first NHL recall.
On a breezy Friday night on Dec. 17 in Sunrise, Fla., Irving stole the show in a game against the Panthers, stopping 39 of 41 shots in what turned out to be a 3-2 shootout loss.
Irving would go on to play in three more games before returning to the AHL, posting a 1-1-2 record with a 3.67 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. All four games came on the road, and his first NHL win came in a 3-1 win on Dec. 23 against the Canucks.
Irving's style is a nice natural blend of the butterfly, one that includes some fan-friendly flair and acrobatics. He reveals shades of Curtis Joseph when he battles for loose pucks, while a fundamentally sound foundation allows him to remain mobile and very square to shots. He has a quick glove hand, and his lateral movements appeared quite fluid and polished for his first taste of NHL action.
It is unclear what Irving's timeline for an NHL job will look like now that he has been returned to the AHL. Karri Ramo was acquired from Montreal, and Karlsson still has a year on his contract, so the story once again is Irving's patience within the Flames organization. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Richard Bachman: No rookie goalie has had a smoother transition into the NHL than the 5-foot-11 Bachman. Recalled after Kari Lehtonen suffered a groin injury on Nov. 26, Bachman stole the crease from Andrew Raycroft in December and solidified his presence in the NHL by going 5-2-0 with a 2.76 GAA and .912 save percentage.
That stretch also included a 34-save shutout in a 1-0 win against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, a game that may have single-handedly opened the door for him to take the backup job.
Big saves in big buildings are somewhat par for the course when it comes to Bachman. He played in tough buildings throughout his collegiate career with the Colorado College Tigers (NCAA). And while it may not have matched the intensity of the Canadian Hockey League, Bachman's competition in the powerhouse WCHA helped hone the skills needed to ultimately develop into an NHL goaltender.
"I like to tell people that Bachman is quietly good," said Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley. "He's got tremendous feet, he's got tremendous positioning, and if you watch him in practices, it looks like everything just hits him in the chest. When you're a smaller goalie, you have to be quick, you have to be smart, and you have to be disciplined with your movements. He certainly has all of those features, so it has made him really successful so far."
Ultimately, that might be the best lesson to take away from our inaugural prospects report. When it comes to this bountiful crop of future NHL goalies, it's not just the fact that they work so hard to earn these rare opportunities, but when their time does come, they also work smart.
Hackett, Irving, Bachman, plus the Islanders Kevin Poulin, Florida's Jacob Markstrom and Buffalo's Jhonas Enroth, have all worked hard enough to make the most of their chances this season. In wins and in losses, they all displayed mental toughness, managed nerves well, and showcased traits that prove they can be successful in the NHL.