Who is the best goaltender available in the 2016 NHL Draft and how soon should a team even consider selecting a player at the most important position?
That seems to be the million-dollar question each draft, and each year brings mixed results.
The Washington Capitals selected Ilya Samsonov of Magnitogorsk of the Russian junior league in the first round (No. 22) of the 2015 draft. It was the first time a goalie was drafted in the first round since 2012, when the Tampa Bay Lightning picked Andrei Vasilevskiy (No. 19) and Boston Bruins selected Malcolm Subban (No. 24).
There appear to be a few solid options for the 2016 draft, which takes place in Buffalo on June 24-25, although many anticipate the first goalie to be selected no earlier than the second round.
"It's really the most important position but arguably the hardest position [to develop]," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "The development process takes a little bit longer; goaltenders have to play, and at lot of times at this age, they're not the No. 1 goaltender on their team so they don't necessarily get the quality ice time. They're still 18 years old.
"If you do a quick study of the top goaltenders in the League, and look at it based on salary, a lot of them weren't high picks in the draft. It's a very difficult position for some to grasp."
Marr's point is backed by the fact that neither of the two starting goaltenders in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final was a household name in his draft year. Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray was selected in the third round (No. 83) of the 2012 draft, and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones wasn't drafted. Jones signed a three-year entry level contract with the Los Angeles Kings in October 2008, was traded to the Bruins on June 26, 2015, and then dealt to San Jose four days later.
Four goaltenders each is in the running to hear his name as the first taken at the position this year: Filip Gustavsson of Lulea Jr. in Sweden's junior league, Evan Fitzpatrick of Sherbrooke in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Carter Hart of Everett in the Western Hockey League, and Tyler Parsons of London in the Ontario Hockey League.
Gustavsson is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international goalies.
For many young goaltenders looking to take that next step in their development, goalie coaches have become an invaluable voice of reason.
Gustavsson learned many lessons from Linda Blomqvist, who serves as goalie coach of Lulea's Under-18 and U-20 programs.
"I have been working on my technique from in close with [Blomqvist] in Sweden," Gustavsson said. "I feel pretty confident when guys are crashing the net; that's what my coach helped me with most. I try to keep my hands active and work on that too."
Fitzpatrick is No. 1 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American goalies; Hart is No. 2, and Parsons is No. 3.
Fitzpatrick has worked with three goalie coaches the past two seasons, including Sherbrooke assistant Jean-Francois Labbe.
"I watch video almost every day, and the biggest thing was learning how to control my game and keeping [movements] between the goal posts," Fitzpatrick said. "Sometimes when you watch goalies and if a shot is going wide, they push way too far over and go outside the post, and are out of position, and that's when bad things start to happen.
"All the goalies having success these days keep it between the posts, so that's the biggest thing."
Al Jensen, who evaluates goaltenders for NHL Central Scouting, said he believes injuries and better coaching are two reasons backup goaltenders have been given more opportunities to prove their ability in the NHL.
"I'm sure there are a number of good ones in the American Hockey League right now who could play well in the NHL but have never gotten the chance," Jensen said. "Injuries to the starters have certainly come into play too; it's given these quality goaltenders a chance, and that's all they can ask for. What they do with it is up to them. Look at Murray in Pittsburgh for Marc-Andre Fleury, and how Vasilevskiy stepped in for Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay.
"Coaches today have an option 1A and 1B in goal, and that's good."
Parsons, who had an incredible run in the playoffs and may have elevated his draft stock as a result, credits London goalie coach Dave Rook for his turnaround in 2015-16.
Parsons capped his season with four wins at the Memorial Cup with a 1.78 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. That came after he went 37-9-2 with a 2.33 GAA and .921 save percentage in 49 regular-season OHL games, and 16-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage in 18 OHL playoff games.
"My new goalie coach [in London] preached to me to just relax and let the puck come to me," Parsons said. "He wanted me to be calm and use my biggest assets: my competitiveness and athletic ability. He wanted me to use my best assets when I had to, and not all the time. That's one thing I did in my first year (2014-15), and I ended up with a lot of injuries. I had the right mindset."
London won 17 straight postseason games, outscoring its opposition 87-34 during the streak on the way to the OHL championship and its second Memorial Cup.
"Tyler is solid and consistent," Marr said. "On a good team, you don't get a lot of action, but what Tyler brings is the mental toughness of goaltenders and he's lightning quick. I like the goalies that stay up and wait for the shot, and he's that type of player."
Parsons understands why London's defense may have been overlooked at times this season.
"The thing is, we played the best teams in the playoffs, so our defense had to play well," he said. "I had to see some tough shots, and that helped me playing those tough teams. I knew going into the playoffs I had to be one of the better players on the team, be the backbone of the team. I knew my teammates would have that confidence in me."