Teams are too impatient to wait for their first-round goaltending picks to develop
Moments after the Thrashers selected him with the second pick in last Saturday's draft, Kari Lehtonen, an 18-year-old goaltender for Jokerit Helsinki in Finland's Division 1, was asked to evaluate his chances of cracking Atlanta's roster next fall. "I think I have a chance," Lehtonen said. "That's my goal, to play next year in the NHL" Rosy views of the future are de rigueur for high draftees. However, if history is a guide, not only will Lehtonen not become an NHL regular next season, but he also won't be with the Thrashers when (and if) he ever does.
Even as netminders' draft-day prominence has increased recently—over the last six drafts four times goalies have been among the first six selections; the only other time a goalie had been picked that high was in 1983—the likelihood of a keeper's standing in the crease for the club that chose him has declined. The combination of a goalie's lengthy developmental process and teams' win-now approach has made homegrown netminders rare. Last season only seven of the league's 32 starters (two teams had goalies share the No. 1 job) had been a regular with the club that drafted them, and goalies playing for their draft teams accounted for just 29% of all minutes in net.
"If you don't come around fast, general managers grow impatient because they're not sure if they're going to be around themselves," says Canucks G.M. Brian Burke, whose four goalies last season—Dan Cloutier, Peter Skudra, Alexander Auld and Martin Brochu—were acquired from other teams. "It becomes, 'We've got to win today'. Everybody talks about rebuilding and giving guys a chance, but most teams [don't have the time] to rebuild."
Because the NHL readiness of keepers depends largely on technical mastery, their development is slow. Raw attributes such as size and speed, which can provide shortcuts for position players, aren't as helpful to netminders, who need exposure to different shots and shooters and to work with pro goalie coaches. What's more, because players are rarely eligible to join NHL-affiliated minor league teams until they're 20, the two years following the draft are usually spent in junior leagues, where honing keepers' skills is not a priority.
The average age at which last season's NHL starters in goal became regular roster members (that is, played at least 25 games in a season) was 23 years, eight months. Typically, only teams that already possess goaltending depth can wait those five-plus years for a netminder to mature. If Atlanta can wait, the highly touted Lehtonen may evolve into an All-Star, but circumstances could force the Thrashers (19-47-11-5 last season) to move their prize. As with many teams trying to develop goalies, time isn't on their side.
First-Round Draft Picks
Not Even a 50-50 Proposition
Team executives are downplaying the importance of a first-round draft choice—"The value of a pick has gone the way of the stock market," says Islanders G.M. Mike Milbury—and not without justification. Even given at least a five-year window for development, recent first-round picks have more often than not failed to become NHL regulars (by our definition, position players who appeared in 65 games last season and goalies who were in 25), let alone stars. Of the 154 first-round picks from 1992 through '97, just 71, or 46.1%, were regulars in 2001-02.
Hurry-up Face-off Rule
Good Fourth Line More Important
The league's decision last Thursday to institute hurry-up face-offs, similar to those used at the Salt Lake City Olympics, was made to decrease the length of games and pick up the flow of action. Under the new protocol, dead time during stoppages (save for the final two minutes of regulation and overtime) will last no longer than 18 seconds—five seconds for the visiting team to change lines, eight for the home team to change and five for the linesman to drop the puck—which should shorten matches by eight to 14 minutes.
Until now no time limit had been imposed. Henceforth, stoppage time will be kept by linesmen, who have been instructed to drop the puck after 18 seconds whether both teams are ready for the face-off or not.