Jeff Deslauriers, the Oilers’ backup goaltender, is frequently described as something of a mystery. He’s had a long journey since being drafted, and it hasn’t been an easy one. Let’s take a look.
Deslauriers made his QMJHL debut in 2001-02, his draft year. Here are the goaltending numbers from Chicoutimi:
- Deslauriers: 51GP – 28W – 20L – 1T, 3.51 GAA, .900 SV%
- Eric Bourbeau: 27GP – 12W – 11L – 0T, 3.77 GAA, .876 SV%
Deslauriers was well ahead of the older Bourbeau at this point, and a good thing too: Bourbeau would play one more season in the QMJHL with similar results before going to the BCHL. By 2004-05, he wasn’t playing high-level hockey.
In February, Red Line Report listed him as a rising prospect (ranked 18th overall):
For a guy who wasn’t even on our pre-season list, he’s been the season’s biggest revelation. That kind of movement and confidence in a goalie his size means nothing but trouble for shooters.
Deslauriers was rising up the charts quickly, although a rough playoff (4GP, 0-3-0, 6.09 GAA, .844 SV%) likely scared some teams off. Red Line (correctly) felt that four games on a poor team weren’t worth worrying about, because they ranked him second among goaltenders in their draft preview:
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, the biggest surprise of the top-enders, is as big as an octopus and takes up virtually the entire net with his 6-4 frame. In addition, he moves extremely well for a huge man. He has great intangibles with very positive body language and an alert attitude that gives teammates confidence. His rapid rise from nowhere this year gives the impression that he’s got a huge upside if he can continue to make the same type of quantum leap from season-to-season.
Deslauriers slipped to fourth on draft-day, behind Kari Lehtonen, Cam Ward and Hannu Toivonen. The Oilers moved Jochen Hecht to Buffalo for two picks (31st and 36th overall), and drafted Deslauriers with the 31st pick.
Unfortunately, Chicoutimi took a step backward in 2002-03, and Jeff Deslauriers (and his goaltending partners) got shelled:
- Jean-Michel Perron: 11GP, 3-6-0, 3.66 GAA, .894 SV%
- Deslauriers: 49GP, 18-24-1, 3.81 GAA, .888 SV%
- Simon Daoust: 26GP, 7-13-0, 4.40 GAA, .862 SV%
The poor quality of the team in Chicoutimi makes it difficult to judge how much (if at all) Deslauriers progressed or regressed. In December, he was good enough to make a serious run at a spot on the World Junior team, being the last goalie cut in favour of Marc-Andre Fleury and David LeNeveau. Deslauriers had this to say about being cut:
“I respect their decision, but I’m disappointed,” said Drouin-Deslauriers. “I’m satisfied with my camp. I did a lot of great things. Now I have to work harder if I want to come back next year.”
Deslauriers had a relatively strong playoffs for Chicoutimi, but once again failed to win a single game (4GP, 0-4-0, 3.75GAA, .904 SV%).
2003-04 started poorly for Chicoutimi (9-14-2-3), but the hiring of coach Richard Martel turned things around for the team, who finished the season with a 23-13-5-1 run. The goaltending numbers improved dramatically:
- Deslauriers: 50GP, 21-20-6, 2.87 GAA, .916 SV%
- Alexandre Vincent: 34GP, 11-11-1, 3.14 GAA, .909 SV%
There was quite a bit of reason for optimism in Deslauriers at this point (although there also was room for optimism in the younger Vincent, who went on to be a very fine goaltender for the Odessa Jackalopes of the Central Hockey League).
Still, there were some warning signs. Deslauriers was once again among the final cuts for the World Junior team, with Josh Harding (drafted after Deslauriers in 2002) staying on to backup Marc-Andre Fleury. Additionally, Deslauriers’ spectacular regular season didn’t carry over to the playoffs; he went 2-4 with a 4.88 GAA and .872 SV% to finish off the season with a first-round exit for the third time in three years.
With Deslauriers turning pro in 2004-05, and with the Oilers not playing due to the NHL lockout, there was a surprising amount of media coverage of his season. OilersNation’s Robin Brownlee alone had two articles within a week of each other in September. On the 10th, Brownlee hinted that Deslauriers was tagged as the AHL starter for the coming year. It was on the 14th, however, that we get a picture of how highly the organization viewed Deslauriers:
Hands up, everybody who remembers a time when the Oilers had two prospects between the pipes packing the potential of Drouin-Deslauriers and Dubnyk, the team’s first pick, 14th overall, at the Entry Draft last June.
“You have to go back to when we took Grant Fuhr, when you could be that confident with a young goaltender,” chief scout Kevin Prendergast said. “Now, we have two.”
Without even one legit prospect three years ago, when depth in the crease started and ended with Tommy Salo – in the days when he could still stop pucks – Prendergast and the Oilers brass just watched the new duo stare each other down from opposite ends of the rink.
Drouin-Deslauriers, 20, taken 31st overall from Chicoutimi in the 2002 Entry Draft, will be the first to arrive. He’ll be the top stopper with the Edmonton Road Runners this season.
I feel pretty confident saying that Brownlee wasn’t guessing when he wrote that Deslauriers was to be the starter; he was relaying what he’d heard from the organization. And as Kevin Prendergast (insanely) showed, the organization was very high on the young goaltender.
By February, Deslauriers had only played in thirteen games, and then he injured his shin in practice. He would finish the year splitting time between the AHL and ECHL. Here’s a look at the goaltending numbers from both teams:
- Mike Morrison: 14GP, 2-5-5, 1.73 GAA, .939 SV%
- Tyler Moss: 50GP, 24-19-4, 2.63 GAA, .906 SV%
- Deslauriers: 22GP, 6-13-2, 2.96 GAA, .888 SV%
- Deslauriers: 11GP, 7-3-1, 2.32 GAA, .940 SV%
- Mike Brodeur: 35GP, 19-15-1, 2.68 GAA, .927 SV%
- Mike Morrison: 26GP, 13-10-2, 2.74 GAA, .924 SV%
Every goaltender did very well in Greenville (ECHL), and Deslauriers was no exception, posting stellar numbers over a short time period. His play in the AHL, however, was well back of both Tyler Moss and Mike Morrison.
The Oilers suspended the Roadrunners operations that summer, and both Scott Howson and Kevin Prendergast warned that AHL time might be difficult for Deslauriers to get. Ever the optimist, Prendergast phrased it this way:
“Every team has a high-end goaltender that they’re trying to develop and for us to throw him in and try to say that we want at least 40 games, I don’t know if we’ll get that. From a mental standpoint that’s something Jeff will have to work on and if they get into the playoffs he might be the guy they use,” he said. “That’s how it happened for Ty (Conklin) once we got into the playoffs. If it gets to the point where we’re really unhappy with the playing time Jeff’s getting we’ll just send him to the ECHL and make sure he plays every game while he’s there.”
2005-06 was a disaster for Jeff Deslauriers. He played far less than anyone in the organization (publicly) thought he would. Deslauriers ended up playing in Hamilton, where Montreal fans were already mocking him as early as October:
Jeers go out to:
– G Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, even though he’s yet to play a game. The reason? The former highly touted 1st rounder was supposed to have a strangle hold on the starter’s role heading into the season, but lost it to Olivier Michaud, who struggled as a backup last season…in the ECHL. Yipes.
Deslauriers wound up in the ECHL when the Oilers needed to get Ty Conklin into some AHL games, and then he blew his knee out late in the year. Let’s look at the goaltending numbers in both the AHL and ECHL:
- Jaroslav Halak: 13GP, 7-6-0, 2.29 GAA, .927 SV%
- Ty Conklin: 3GP, 1-2-0, 3.17 GAA, .907 SV%
- Yann Danis: 39GP, 17-17-3, 2.97 GAA, .902 SV%
- Deslauriers: 13GP, 4-7-0, 3.15 GAA, .897 SV%
- Olivier Michaud: 14GP, 6-5-1, 3.29 GAA, .893 SV%
- Cristobal Huet: 4GP, 0-4-0, 3.79 GAA, .862 SV%
- Mike Morrison: 9GP, 7-2-0, 2.19 GAA, .922 SV%
- Mike Brodeur: 24GP, 14-8-2, 2.58 GAA, .916 SV%
- Cam Ellsworth: 34GP, 22-10-1, 2.82 GAA, .902 SV%
- Deslauriers: 6GP, 2-4-0, 3.05 GAA, .899 SV%
“The worst part was when I was in Hamilton and I deserved to play more games and they didn’t give it to me. That was hard because when they gave me the call I was doing my best, 100 percent each night and sometimes that wasn’t enough. Not playing like that is just hard.”
I’d guess that Deslauriers meant early in the season, when the Canadiens pushed Olivier Michaud into games despite lacklustre performances. That said, Deslaurier’s own numbers weren’t the kind that forced the coach to play him, in either the AHL or ECHL.
2006-07 was a rebound year for Deslauriers, who finally showed that he could compete for a starting role in the AHL. The Oilers still didn’t have their own farm team, but Deslauriers was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to play for the Baby Penguins, and the 22-year old finally got 40 games in at the AHL level and bypassed the ECHL entirely. The numbers:
- Nolan Schaefer: 15GP, 9-5-0, 2.24 GAA, .914 SV%
- Deslauriers: 40GP, 22-12-3, 2.47 GAA, .908 SV%
- Andrew Penner: 28GP, 18-7-1, 2.91 GAA, .891 SV%
- Devan Dubnyk: 4GP, 2-1-0, 2.94 GAA, .855 SV%
Nolan Schaefer, a 27 year old journeyman, was brought in at the trade deadline, and Deslauriers found himself on the bench for the entire playoffs
2007-08 marked another positive year for Jeff Deslauriers. The Oilers finally had their own farm team in Springfield, and Deslauriers for the first time was a legitimate number one goaltender in the AHL and wouldn’t have to worry about being passed by a journeyman goaltender since the Oilers were by this point committed to his development.
Unfortunately, Springfield wasn’t an overly good team, although coach Kelly Buchberger did his best to get around that by emphasizing defensive play. The goaltending numbers:
- Deslauriers: 57GP, 26-23-5, 2.90 GAA, .912 SV%
- Devan Dubnyk: 33GP, 9-17-0, 3.12 GAA, .904 SV%
Deslauriers’ numbers weren’t great, but they were good enough to be a top-twenty starter in the AHL (although he couldn’t crack the top ten in save percentage). The Oilers remained very high on the prospect, and in the summer there were persistent rumours that rather than risk exposing the now 24-year old Deslauriers to waivers the team would keep three goaltenders (Deslauriers, Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson) out of training camp. Garon was the expected starter, and the Oilers were thought to be looking to trade Roloson so that Deslauriers could serve as the team’s backup.
The Oilers did indeed break training camp with three goaltenders, and Dwayne Roloson battled with Mathieu Garon for playing time until the latter was traded to Pittsburgh mid-season. In a life or death race for the playoffs, coach Craig MacTavish understandably put development on the back-burner and played Roloson constantly; as a result, Deslauriers played only ten NHL games. He saw five games in the AHL while on a conditioning stint. The numbers:
- Dwayne Roloson: 63GP, 28-24-9, 2.77 GAA, .915 SV%
- Deslauriers: 10GP, 4-3-0, 3.34 GAA, .901 SV%
- Mathieu Garon: 15GP, 6-8-0, 3.17 GAA, .895 SV%
- Devan Dubnyk: 62GP, 18-41-2, 2.97 GAA, .906 SV%
- Deslauriers: 5GP, 1-4-0, 2.73 GAA, .906 SV%
- Dany Sabourin: 13GP, 5-6-2, 3.17 GAA, .904 SV%
- Glenn Fisher: 3GP, 0-1-0, 3.00 GAA, .900 SV%
Deslauriers had some strong performances, and some weak performances, and certainly showed enough raw talent to stay in the conversation. It’s difficult to get a read on this past season; while his NHL results were mediocre and he also failed to stand out at the AHL level, he also played sparingly and on nearly all occasions had wide spurts of inactivity between starts. So far this summer, the Oilers have been hinting that Deslauriers will receive between 25 and 30 games as Nikolai Khabibulin’s backup.
It’s a pivotal year for Deslauriers: a strong performance will solidify his place in the Oilers’ plans, and justify their faith in him. It would also be a testament to Deslauriers’ mental strength after being developed in such a slip-shod fashion.
On the other hand, a weak performance by the 25-year old will likely end his time in Edmonton, and possibly pigeon-hole him as being nothing more than a #3 goalie. Devan Dubnyk is waiting in the wings, and with the benefit of a much smoother development path, he’s well ahead of where Deslauriers was at the same age.
Fortunately for Deslauriers, whatever the odds say (and make no mistake – they aren’t in his favour) about a goaltender with his track record turning into a starter, it will all come down to what he does on the ice: and just being where he is today means that he’s beaten the odds before. I’m not crazy about his chances, but I can’t help but pull for the guy.