The Goalie Dilemma
by Andrew Podnieks|30 DEC 2022
If a goalie is having a tough time at the World Juniors, give him a break. He is more likely to become a star at the pro level than the goalie who wins U20 gold.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
It’s a statistical fact and a fact of life, an anomaly in hockey and a mystery to most. If you are a great goalie at the World Junior Championship, you are very unlikely to be a great goalie at the highest levels of professional play a few years later.

What, for instance, do these goalies have in common: Tomas Duba, Jeff Glass, Johan Gustafsson, Steve Mason, Tyler Parsons?

They all had perfect 5-0 records or better in a single U20 and led their teams to the gold medal. After which, they more or less vanished.

What do these goalies have in common: Peter Aslin, Philippe DeRouville, Lars Eriksson, Manny Fernandez, Norm Foster, Vladimir Gerasimov, Mike Lee, Andrei Medvedev, Maxim Mikhailovski, Mike Moffat, Al Montoya, Ildar Mukhometov, Sergei Mylnikov, Yuri Nikitin, Mika Noronen, Justin Pogge, Kari Rosenberg, Dmitri Saprykin, Zdenek Smid, Jamie Storr, Alexei Volkov, Jimmy Waite?

They all won gold at the World Juniors. And then mostly vanished.

Question: How many goalies have won gold at the World Juniors and followed later in their career with a Stanley Cup win?

The answer: two.

Nikolai Khabibulin went on to lead Tampa Bay to a Cup in 2004. Manny Legace won the Cup with Detroit in 2002. 

How many goalies have won gold at the World Juniors and followed with gold at the Olympics? The answer: one. Carey Price. 

How many goalies have won gold at the World Juniors and followed with gold at a senior IIHF event? The answer: four. Yevgeni Belosheikin of the Soviet Union went on to win World Championship gold in 1986; Canada’s Stephane Fiset won 1994 WM gold; Russian Konstantin Barulin won 2012 WM gold; and, Finn Veini Vehvilainen won WM gold in 2019.

What’s the moral of these stories? Goalies take much longer to develop than skaters. The exception to that rule are the goalies who peak at age 18 or 19 and then aren’t able to take their game to a higher level in the pro ranks later in their careers.

When a national team coach selects his goalies for the U20, he doesn’t care about the future. He doesn’t care about drafts or prospects or upside or tomorrow. He wants two goalies who are the best in his country today, right now. But historically, most great NHL goalies were not world-class when they were in their teens. They needed more time. And conversely, the top goalies as teens almost always have reached their prime and won’t get any better relative to the higher quality of play they aspire to after finishing junior hockey. 

Of course, these aforementioned names are limited only to gold and Stanley Cup, and there are many terrific goalies who fall somewhere in between. Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, Sean Burke, Miikka Kiprusoff all never won U20 gold and never won the Stanley Cup but still had wonderful careers. But there have been many examples of goalies who had weak or average U20 tournaments who went on to sensational careers. Just don’t expect them to do both. Marc-Andre Fleury muffed his chance for U20 gold but has had a Hall of Fame career in the NHL. Tuuka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, Pelle Lindbergh all never won U20 gold but developed into sensational goalies at the senior level. 

One last set of names: Jimmy Waite, Denis Godla, Marek Schwarz, Petr Mrazek, Oskar Dansk, Benjamin Conz, Felix Sandstrom. All were named U20 Directorate Best Goalie. After which...they fizzled.

Markus Ketterer, Oleg Bratash, John Gibson, Colton Point, and Niklas Backstrom are other goalies who won U20 gold and reached their peak as teens. Too, a goalie’s development is as much psychological as physical – just ask Mark Visentin. You don't develop that mental toughness over night or at one tournament. It takes many years. And the coordination and growth from boy to man takes more time and is more complicated because a goalie’s body has to do more than a skater’s, and do it with much heavier equipment in a more confined area. 

Bottom line. If you’re looking at the goalies in Halifax and Moncton and don’t think they’re playing well, those are the ones more likely to develop into world-class puckstoppers in a few years. And the goalie who has the best goals-against average or is named Directorate Best Goalie or wins the gold medal? Well, he isn’t as likely to have a spectacular pro career as one may think. That’s at least the empiric fact.