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NHL seeing merit in NCAA goaltenders

College provides opportunity for maturation, development

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- It's easy to understand the attraction NHL teams have for undrafted college goaltenders.

Playing a position that typically requires more development, NCAA goalies get more time to mature on and off the ice, giving teams a better idea of what they are getting than if they pick an 18-year-old at the NHL Draft.

"I look at it this way now that I am waist deep in this: At 18 we are out there trying to find goalies and they haven't even found themselves yet," said Mike Valley, who is in his first season as the Dallas Stars goalie development coach after five seasons as their NHL goaltending coach. "They have no idea about the game really. It takes you until you are 25 or 26 years old to figure it out. But we pull guys out early and then they have to play pro at 20 or 21 and they are not ready, and then they quickly get labeled. If you have a college kid, the biggest thing is you get to buy time and they get to mature physically and mentally."

Of the six goaltenders signed by NHL teams since their college seasons ended, two were picked in the NHL Draft. The Buffalo Sabres signed Jason Kasdorf, 23, a 2011 sixth-round pick (No. 157) by the Winnipeg Jets before being acquired by Buffalo as part of a seven-player trade in 2015, after his senior season at RPI ended. And the New York Islanders signed Eamon McAdam, who they drafted in the third round (No. 70) in 2013; McAdam spent the past three seasons playing at Penn State.

The other four college goalies signed were passed over in the draft.

The list includes Kasimir Kaskisuo, 22, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs after two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Adam Carlson, 22, signed by the Washington Capitals after one season at Mercyhurst University. The Anaheim Ducks signed Kevin Boyle, 23, after his senior season at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The Montreal Canadiens signed Charlie Lindgren, 22, after three seasons at St. Cloud State and are keeping him in the NHL for the rest of this season; Lindgren was the backup to Mike Condon against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

There are more signings to come.

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning has made it clear he wants to sign Thatcher Demko, who was drafted in the second round (No. 36) in 2014, after his junior season at Boston College ends at the NCAA Frozen Four, which will be played April 7-9. Quinnipiac University senior Michael Gartieg will have NHL offers to choose from once his season ends at the Frozen Four, and Alex Lyon reportedly is mulling double-digit NHL offers after being named a first team All-America as a junior at Yale University. Lyon played for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Championship.

"Everybody wants to find the next Eddie Belfour or Curtis Joseph," Valley said.

Although there undoubtedly is an element of wanting to increase their odds in the lottery that is goaltending development by adding prospects that did not cost them a draft pick, NHL teams clearly see merit in the NCAA as a development path for goalies. Some think an increase in NCAA goaltending coaches is creating more pro-ready goaltenders. Others believe less structure in college helps goalies learn to read the game and manage their own style without becoming overly technical or too predictable. Either way, there are more development steps required after graduation.

There are few absolutes in goaltending at any level, but the majority of college goalies play an aggressive positional game that rarely translates well at the professional levels.

"It's more of a shot game in the NCAA, with more shot blocks, more shooting from the outside, more protection on the inside, and a lot of defensive structure," said Scott Murray, the Capitals goalie development coach. "So it's more of a first-shot type of game and that's where you see some of that aggression. It's not necessarily the right way to play, but I don't think they get hurt by it as much as they might playing like that in major junior and when they turn pro."

Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen said he thinks a mix of bigger rinks and playing only on weekends also contributes to the aggression.

"They are gung-ho every night," he said. "So when we get them as pros a lot of times you have to calm them down, work on their patience, work on their depth and manage their energy a little more. To have consistency over a longer schedule there are some small changes that need to be made to kind of reign them in and get them to play with a little more positional awareness and a little more energy conservation."

That can take time.

New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was a 2004 first-round pick (No. 26) by the Vancouver Canucks, but after leaving Boston College he spent three seasons in the American Hockey League before graduating to the NHL full-time. Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot was an undrafted free agent signed by the New York Rangers out of the University of Alabama-Huntsville and spent three seasons in the AHL before sticking in the NHL. Each has talked about having to learn to play less aggressively and to rely less on backward flow as part of the transition from the NCAA to pro.

But Murray said he sees more goalies playing more of a pro style in college these days.

That may help explain how Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck, who didn't play as aggressively in his two seasons at UMass Lowell, had success this season, his second as a professional. It also may explain why Lyon, who also plays more of contained positional game, has so many NHL offers to choose from.

"Top college goalies are starting to play more a contained style and look more like prototypical pro goalies compared to five years ago," Murray said.

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