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Goaltenders mostly immune to youth movement in NHL

Intricacies, demands of position lead to longer development curve

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- The NHL is in the midst of a youth movement, but it doesn't apply to goaltenders.

More forwards and defensemen than ever may be NHL-ready as teenagers, but the path to stopping pucks at the highest level continues to take time.

There has been a 33 percent increase in the number of skaters between the ages of 18-20 to play 10 or more games during the past decade compared to the previous 10 seasons. The number of goalies in that age range to play double-digit games dropped from seven to four.

At a time when the position has been as talented as ever, the decline becomes starker, especially in comparison to the youth movement among skaters.

"You can't really ease into it as a goalie," said Jacob Markstrom, who will get his first chance to be a No.1 with the Vancouver Canucks this season, more than nine years after the Florida Panthers made him the first pick in the second round (No. 31) of the 2008 NHL Draft. "If you are a top draft pick, the team wants to get you in the lineup, so they slowly play you more and more minutes. But you can't do that as a goaltender; you play 60 (minutes) or nothing."

Last season, there were more 23-and-under forwards (142) who played at least 10 games than forwards 30 or older (122) who played at least 10 games, according to Hockey-Reference.com, which lists the age of players as of Feb. 1.

Video: EDM@VAN: Markstrom robs Maroon on the doorstep

Roughly 25 percent of skaters had reached their 30th birthday by the end of the 2016-17 season, compared to 40 percent (25 of 63) of goalies who played 10 or more games.

There is not much new goaltending blood to start this season, so that percentage is about to go up.

In fact, with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers turning 30 prior to this season, 17 of the 31 projected starting goaltenders in the League this season will be 30 or older.

The NHL is not bereft of rising young stars in net though.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, 23, will start this season as the No.1 for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have Stanley Cup aspirations. Matt Murray, 23, has won the Cup twice heading into his first season as the clear-cut starter for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Video: BUF@TBL: Vasilevskiy denies Gionta's breakaway

Still, it's a far cry from Patrick Roy winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a 20-year-old rookie with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986, or 21-year-old Martin Brodeur winning the Calder Trophy as top rookie in the NHL in 1994 with the New Jersey Devils.

So why is it taking so many goalies so long to break through?

"You have to kind of grow into it and live it," said Markstrom, who came from Sweden seven years ago labeled as the best goalie not in the NHL. "When you play games, you learn, and I feel like you have to do that to become a good goalie. You have to play games, you have to be in certain situations, you have to play playoff games, you have to get experience to grow as a goalie and then the mental part is different from being a [skater], for sure."

Most organizations prefer its goalies get that experience in the minor leagues, worried in part that too much, too soon could create long-term problems.

There are also typically style and tactical adjustments required coming from lower levels, or overseas, and trying to adjust on the fly against the world's best shooters isn't ideal.

Steve Mason had a .916 save percentage and won the Calder with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008-09 coming straight out of junior hockey as a 20-year-old. Over the next five seasons, he had a .905 save percentage.

Since arriving in Vancouver four seasons ago, Markstrom's evolution has included technical adjustments, including improving his efficiency by playing deeper in his crease and shortening his movements. But even as the ability to break down and correct style issues improves in the NHL, there's still rarely one answer when it comes to the mental side of the game.

It takes time to find what works for each individual. Ask the next two guys on the Canucks' depth chart.

Anders Nilsson, the backup to Markstrom, earned the No. 1 job ahead of Talbot with the Oilers two seasons ago, holding it for almost two months before fading. He had a .923 save percentage with the Buffalo Sabres last season. The difference was his work with a sports psychologist from Norway.

"I didn't have all the tools mentally to refocus," Nilsson said. "I took a huge step last season with that, and he was a big part of it."

Thatcher Demko, who was the No. 36 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, said his breakthrough in the American Hockey League came from a change in preparation.

Demko, 21, had an .884 save percentage before a call from Vancouver goaltending coach Dan Cloutier and a decision to let go of a pregame routine that had gone from exhaustive to exhausting.

"You hear about those guys that are so laser-focused," he said. "I had this crazy warmup. I'd be sweating doing tennis balls, go in the stands and do visualization … I was a slave to it."

Letting go turned his season around. Demko had a .913 save percentage the rest of the season.

Not every goalie figures those things out in his first season, which is just one more reason so few spend those first few seasons of professional hockey playing in the NHL.

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