When you think of NHL goaltenders, the first thought immediately slides to French-Canadian products from the Quebec Major Junior system. They have seemingly dominated the goalie market for the past two-plus decades with the likes of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, JS Giguere, Roberto Luongo … it's a long and distinguished list. In this year's playoffs there are five QMJHL products starting for their respective teams.
However, there's another emerging corridor for goaltenders. The U.S. College system, without nearly the fanfare of Europe – particularly the Scandinavian countries – or the three Canadian Junior leagues, has quietly produced a steady stable of NHL netminders. In fact three teams will be opening their playoff series with NCAA products between the pipes: Boston with Tim Thomas (University of Vermont), Dallas with Marty Turco (University of Michigan), and your Preds with Dan Ellis (University of Nebraska-Omaha).
And the Pittsburgh Penguins owe a huge thank you to another college product, Ty Conklin (University of New Hampshire), who salvaged their season after Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined with a long-term injury. Conklin went on to post a 18-8-5 record with a 2.51 goals against average and .923 save percentage. In fact, Ellis, Conklin, and Thomas finished first, second, and fourth in the league in save percentage this season.
So while the NCAA has three alumni starting in the NHL playoffs, the WHL has one (Montreal's Carey Price) and the OHL may end up with none (Ottawa's Ray Emery is closest). European countries have produced six of the 16 starters in this year's playoffs, but no country has more than two (Finland with Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild and Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames).
"College hockey is really a developmental league," Predators Goaltending Coach Mitch Korn said. "They practice a lot more than they play. In college you're only playing around 32 games a season before the playoffs and just two games a week. As a result, the average college practice, during the middle of the week, is around two hours. In other junior leagues or in pro, when you're playing more games, practices are usually around one hour. That gives extra time for more coaching, and you have a lot of good coaches in the college game. And a lot of schools have their own goalie coaches. Junior teams don't usually have their own goalie coach."
Success for U.S. College goaltenders is not a new phenomenon. Dwayne Roloson, who led the Edmonton Oilers on a run to the Cup Finals in 2006, developed his game at UMass-Lowell. University of North Dakota product Ed Belfour took Dallas to back-to-back Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000, winning it all in '99. When the NY Rangers won in 1994, University of Wisconsin alumnus Mike Richter was the hero in net. And going further back, the Montreal Canadiens powerhouse squads in the '70s were backstopped by a Cornell product: Ken Dryden.
The Predators even have their own history with U.S. College goalies. Mike Dunham, the team's netminder in the franchise's first game, was a University of Maine product. A fan favorite throughout his tenure in Nashville, Dunham played in 217 games over five seasons for the Preds, including picking up the first win in team history.
Yet, the U.S. College game still often gets overlooked on draft day. Of the three NCAA alumni starting in this year's playoffs, only Ellis was selected in the first 100 picks (tabbed No. 60 in the 2000 Entry Draft). Turco went 124th overall in the 1994 draft. Thomas was selected 93 picks later (217th in 1994) and had to spend four seasons in Finland and Sweden before getting his first serious NHL look with the Boston Bruins in 2002-03.
Former Michigan State standout Ryan Miller led the Buffalo Sabres to the Eastern Conference Finals in both 2006 and 2007. Miller, now a perennial NHL All-Star, was selected 138th overall in the 1999 Entry Draft.
Korn, who has also worked at Miami University in Ohio, explained, "The average college goalie starts school at 19 or 20 and the average college team is not going to start a freshman. The ideal set up for a college team is to bring in a new freshman when your returning guy is a junior, so usually the freshman will watch more than he plays in his first two years. College goalies then, usually, are not playing regularly until their junior year of school. The last year North Americans are eligible for the draft is when they are 20. By that time most U.S. college guys are finally starting to play, they are too old to be eligible for the NHL Entry Draft. So that's why you see so many undrafted or late drafted guys go to college, maybe he's a late bloomer, really comes on strong at the end of his college career, and then gets a look (by NHL teams)."
The Predators also believe they may have found one of those "late bloomers" in Colgate goaltender Mark Dekanich, who Nashville selected in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. This past season Dekanich matured into one of the top netmiders in college hockey, leading the NCAA with six shutouts, while placing among the leaders in goals against average and save percentage.
Rick DiPietro, who backstopped the Islanders into last year's playoffs, is one of the few exceptions. The Boston University product, who led the Terriers into the NCAA Tournament as freshman, was selected first overall in the 2000 Entry Draft … and then promptly turned pro before his sophomore season.
"I think at the end of the day, it just shows you that good goalies come from everywhere," Korn said.