The conventional wisdom is that drafting goalies in the first round is a dangerous thing.
But there’s been pushback against this widely-accepted notion recently, prompted by a Conference Finals that featured four first-round pick starters: Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Semyon Varlamov.
For the San Jose Sharks, this is especially relevant. The Sharks have suffered from below-average goaltending for the last three seasons, they have the seventh pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, and top netminding prospect Jesper Wallstedt could be available to them at No. 7.
Is Wallstedt worth the risk for San Jose?
It’s worth noting that the San Jose Sharks have never selected a goalie higher than the 55th pick, the immortal Terry Friesen in 1996. So going with Wallstedt at No. 7 would be all kinds of history for the franchise.
If the Swedish wunderkind goes in the top-10, it would be the first time since Price went fifth to the Canadiens in 2005 that a netminder has been picked that high.
That’s 16 years ago, begging the larger question: Is it time to reconsider the groupthink against drafting a keeper in the first round?
To attempt to answer the question, I wanted to evaluate all first-round skaters and goalies in a standardized way, by games played.
The wrinkle? Skaters and goalies are obviously expected to play a different number of games in a given season, so a flat comparison of games played doesn’t make sense.
My solution: I tried to figure out the goaltending equivalent of a skater dressing 1,000 or more games. I chose this milestone because it’s pretty much equal opportunity for forwards and defensemen, unlike say points, and a good indicator of a high playing ability i.e. these aren’t busts. Pure fourth-line forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen aren’t likely to last that long in the league.
So what’s the goalie equivalent of 1,000 games?
Per NHL.com, 5.1 % of all inactive skaters, from 1917 to now have played 1,000 or more NHL games. I’m only evaluating inactives because actives are obviously still adding to their totals.
For goaltenders, 6.4 % of all inactive netminders have played 600 or more games.
So a goalie playing 600 games is the rough equivalent of a skater suiting up for 1,000.
Next, what percentage of first-round skaters play in 1,000-plus games? What percentage of first-round goalies play in 600-plus games?
Here’s what I found, from the inception of the draft in 1963:
- 14.9 % of inactive first-round skaters — 141 of 945 — dressed for 1,000 or more games
- 13.2 % of inactive first-round goalies — seven of 53 — played 600 or more games
- Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Olaf Kolzig, Cam Ward, and Kari Lehtonen are the inactive first-round netminders who played 600-plus games
Digging a little deeper:
- 14.3 % of inactive first-round forwards — 90 of 629 — dressed for 1,000 or more games
- 16.1 % of inactive first-round defensemen — 51 of 316 — dressed for 1,000 or more games
These findings don’t scream, “Don’t draft a goalie in the first round!” — though defensemen appear to be slightly safer picks.
So how many of these selections were top-10 picks?
- 30.0 % of inactive top-10 skaters — 88 of 293 — dressed for 1,000 or more games
- 19.0 % of inactive top-10 goalies — 4 of 21 — played in 600 or more games
- Luongo, Fuhr, Barrasso, and Lehtonen are the inactive top-10 netminders who played 600-plus games
It’s a small sample size, but this better supports the notion that drafting a keeper in the top-10 is riskier. That said, when Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price retire — they’re the only active top-10 goalies right now — that 19.0 % will jump up to 26.0.
Of course, 1,000 games is a lofty standard: Only 354 skaters have reached that milestone in NHL history. And if 600 games is the goaltending equivalent, just 52 netminders have achieved that bar. So let’s lower our expectations: What’s the goaltending equivalent of a skater’s 500 games?
Funny enough, 300 contests for a netminder looks like a solid proxy. 22.9 % of all inactive NHL skaters have dressed for 500-plus games, while 19.6 % of all inactive NHL goalies have appeared in 300-plus tilts.
That’s still a pretty good NHL career.
- 42.7 % of inactive first-round skaters — 404 of 945 — suited up for 500 or more games
- 39.6 % of inactive first-round goalies — 21 of 53 — played 300 or more games
And there’s still a bias for defensemen:
- 41.8 % of inactive first-round forwards — 263 of 629 — dressed for 500 or more games
- 44.6 % of inactive first-round defensemen — 141 of 316 — dressed for 500 or more games
Anyway, it’s hard to draw a conclusion for the San Jose Sharks or for the NHL at large here. But it does seem the bias against picking a goaltender in the first round of the NHL draft might be a little overstated?
The odds of getting a successful NHL’er — or a bust — in the first round seems fairly even whatever position you pick.
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