What do the World Junior careers of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, Cam Ward, Bill Ranford, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have in common?
The answer is, none of these elite Canadian netminders played a single game in the U20 tournament.
That seems shocking. After all, we’re talking about a group of goalies who were available to play in the period from 1982 onward, when Hockey Canada began picking all-star U20 teams via its Program of Excellence instead of relying on individual major junior clubs.
After their junior years, each of the seven aforementioned men went on to win at least one Olympics, IIHF World Championship, or Stanley Cup. Each has also, at various times, been widely considered one of the world’s top Canadian goalies.
How could they all have been overlooked?
The omission seems even more unusual when you consider that in most cases where Canada has captured the gold medal, its fortunes have rested on the shoulders of netminders who went on to respectable journeyman careers as pros. Typical examples include Craig Billington (1985), Trevor Kidd (1990, 1991), and Marc Denis (1996, 1997). Some shining lights were never able to establish themselves in the NHL, like Jimmy Waite (1988) and Justin Pogge (2006).
This trend has held true even in the two previous NHL lockout years when Canada had unfettered access to all its junior talent. The 1995 duo consisted of Jamie Storr, who went on to play 219 NHL games, and Dan Cloutier, who logged 351. As for the 2005 tandem, while Jeff Glass has established himself as a KHL regular with Barys Astana and now Sibir Novosibirsk, neither he nor his U20 backup, Rejean Beauchemin, has ever played an NHL game.
It demonstrates that suiting up between Canada’s U20 pipes is not a reliable predictor of future international or NHL stardom. Why so?
Three reasons stand out.
First, Canada has a larger pool of netminding prospects than any other country, increasing the odds that someone worthy will be denied a spot each year.
Second, goalies in general take longer to mature. A kingpin at age 19 may be a journeyman by age 29 – or vice versa.
Third, there’s a general tendency to select a good goalie from a defensively tight team over a guy who’s shining despite facing 50 shots a night but constantly losing. (Patrick Roy, for instance, recorded GAA’s of 6.26, 4.44, and 5.55 in his three seasons from 1982-83 to 1984-85 with the lackluster QMJHL Granby Bisons. By contrast, Jeff Glass boasted a 1.32 GAA with a .932 save percentage and eight shutouts in 2004-05 with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice.)
So who are the post-1982 Canadian goalies that bucked the trend and went on to win at least one Olympics, World Championship, or Stanley Cup after playing at the World Juniors?
Mike Vernon (1983: Stanley Cup 1989, 1997)
Sean Burke (1986: Worlds 1997, 2003)
Stephane Fiset (1989, 1990: Worlds 1994)
Manny Legace (1993: Stanley Cup 2002)
Roberto Luongo (1998, 1999: Worlds 2003, 2004, Olympics 2010)
Marc-Andre Fleury (2003, 2004: Stanley Cup 2009, Olympics 2010 but did not play).
Out of this group, however, only Vernon, Burke, Luongo, and Fleury have ever been ranked among the world’s best Canadian goalies. In particular, Luongo and Fleury have been lightning rods for criticism for erratic performances at times.
Four other golden Canadian World Junior alumni deserve mention here, despite not achieving team success in their post-U20 days. Felix Potvin (1991) was a legitimate star with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1990’s. Jose Theodore (1996) won the Hart and Vezina Trophies with the Montreal Canadiens in 2002 before his numbers began to slide. Carey Price (2007), another Habs backstop, is still in the mix as a potential 2014 Canadian Olympic team member. Steve Mason (2008) was stellar in his Calder Trophy-winning rookie campaign of 2009 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but his game has eroded.
In fairness, Canada isn’t the only nation that doesn’t always recognize future stars in their U20 days. Finland, known as a goaltending factory, never gave Pekka Rinne or Antti Niemi a shot at the World Juniors. And the entire 2010 American Olympic goaltending trio of Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, and Jonathan Quick never saw one minute of World Junior action.
But for Canada, the urgency to find the right goalie has seldom been greater than for the 2013 tournament in Ufa, Russia. Canada hasn’t won the World Juniors since 2009, and goaltending has frequently been fingered as a culprit.