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Rangers-Devils rivalry will be exciting this season, Vanbiesbrouck says

Former NHL goalie discusses offseason moves, growth of USA Hockey in wide-ranging conversation with

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- John Vanbiesbrouck, a former NHL goalie and member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, said the offseason acquisitions by the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers have made the Hudson River rivalry a must-see event this season.

Vanbiesbrouck, who played 20 NHL seasons with the Rangers, Devils, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, is most looking forward to watching rookie forwards Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Hughes was selected by the Devils with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft out of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team. Kakko of TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, was chosen No. 2 by the Rangers.

"Jack is going to play with some fantastic players like Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier and they're going to take the pressure off him, so he doesn't have to be an impact player right away," Vanbiesbrouck said. "Kakko also has some major support. I mean, the Rangers have gone out and done some amazing things. I really think that rivalry is going to be one of the best to watch this season, without a doubt."

Video: What are the Devils' needs after an active offseason?

Vanbiesbrouck is also hoping to build his own contender for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship as general manager of the United States. That process begins at the World Junior Summer Showcase this week at USA Hockey Arena, where Vanbiesbrouck is evaluating 44 invitees. He's expected to release a few players on Thursday. 

However, Vanbiesbrouck said he's learned a few things about roster management since the setback last year when the United States lost 3-2 to Finland in the final of the 2019 WJC after Kakko scored the game-winning goal at 18:34 of the third period. 

"I'm a fairly quick decision-maker, so I learned to be a little bit more patient," said Vanbiesbrouck, who is in his second season as GM of the U.S. National Junior Team and assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. "It's a process and we want the process to be successful. It's not just in the result, because we were close to a great result. The dynamic of the team is so different, so you've got to be more patient."

In a wide-ranging interview with, Vanbiesbrouck discusses the development of USA Hockey, the 2020 WJC, and the evolution of goaltending:


A record 17 players were selected from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team at the 2019 NHL Draft, including eight in the first round. What was going through your mind watching this happen at Rogers Arena in Vancouver?

"These were players being drafted at every position. Some of them weren't even on the radar, like defenseman Domenick Fensore (Carolina Hurricanes, No. 90). I'm sorry he didn't play in our USA Hockey All-American Prospects game in September 2018, I feel bad now for him. But you know, the fact is he got drafted pretty high for an undersized kid (5-foot-7, 151 pounds), but he brings it every night. When it actually plays out in front of you, you always want more. It's just one of those things that you always want more of so hopefully you can follow it up."

Video: Canadiens draft F Cole Caufield No. 15


What does it take to build a team capable of winning a gold medal at the WJC?

"The big thing is how to deliver the message and set the tone from the start. I believe we did a great job last year delivering the 'We is greater than me' message. We need to identify how to carry that out while not missing on some things. There are things that I missed on last year, so you got to assess how well you did. There are some procedures when it comes to players and viewing them and making assessments that we're going to adjust. I think that one of the things is to keep guys around for a little longer and not be so quick to make an assessment."


Why is University of Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin your choice as U.S. National Junior Team coach?

"He was with us last year (as an assistant), and he won a national championship with Minnesota Duluth last season. Winning a national championship is a big thing but it doesn't always work out that way. I think what I really like about Sandy is he's fair. I think the players really love to play for him and it's evident in what he's done the last couple of years. It's hard to have that spirit that he does, but he's got a great spirit. He's a soft-spoken guy but can be very stern. I let players know what he expects. He's got such a great long-term view of things and I appreciate that about him. He's very open-minded to the type of player and how to use that player. He's not the type of coach who's going to fit a player into his game. He's very conscientious of how the team can be molded to succeed."


What did Spencer Knight learn last year as the third goalie on the roster and not playing a single minute for the United States? 

"From the goalie's position, you're very analytical and a lot of times you don't see the way the game rolls out because you're involved in it so deeply. You replay the game but don't really watch the tape until you get that opportunity. When you're not involved in it, you have a tendency to take a breath and be a little bit more analytical and watch from a different set of circumstances. To be low-key was good for him because now he's going to be in the high-key position where it's very likely he's our guy. Hopefully, it plays out as a great experience, and he can call on it. He's had a lot of international games, seen other places, handled situations, and has seen some really great goalies. Cayden Primeau (Montreal Canadiens) and Kyle Keyser (Boston Bruins) did such a fantastic job for us last year. I think Spencer also saw that while there may be an opportunity, it may not be from the outset."

Video: Knight on being drafted by Panthers, development plan


How has goaltending evolved since you last played in 2001-02 with the Devils?

"It's changed radically. I see well-trained goalies who have so much foundational skills. There was a lot of sandlot learning when I was playing the position, a lot like baseball where you just go to the playing field, select sides and play the game. That's how the learning principles were and that's where goaltending got this stigma that everybody was crazy. There are no more crazy goalies. These guys are calculated, they're analytical and approach the sport like an athlete. Goalies used to have that stigma too of being a little bit overweight and not being able to lift weights ... but they all can do it now. I'm certainly not putting everybody in a bubble, either, because Mike Richter pushed me to become a better in-shape athlete because he was so into it. I would say that the game, the way it's coached, the philosophy of it, the terminologies, the equipment, it's all radically changed. The save-ability factor, too. You don't even hear announcers say 'What a great save' anymore. It's more like they slid into it or it hit him, or he got it in his basket. Roberto [Luongo] was probably one of the last of the old-school types, but even he was part of the new school. He says some of these new terms and things he had to do were starting to get beyond him. When you start seeing the generations change like that you wonder what's next. The puck-playing ability is different, too. A goalie who can't play the puck is a tough guy to have back there now because they're looking for the quick bumps. I have a total amount of respect for the new age of goaltending, the instruction, and the guys who have changed and influenced the game in a better way. They're hard to beat and that's why there are less goals being scored. Everybody talks about how goal-scoring is up, but every game I watch seems to be a 2-1 game, particularly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's a radical change from the past and probably all for the better."

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