Leaving aside from the approximately one in five members of the Nation who would love to see the Tri-City Storm’s goaltender coach suit up as Nikolai Khabibulin’s backup this season, the poll on the right shows a more than 3:1 lead for Devan Dubnyk as backup goaltender over Jeff Deslauriers.
I agree that Dubnyk is the better choice, but I’m surprised to see things so lopsided and I think it would be a mistake to suggest that Dubnyk is a vastly superior prospect to last season’s de facto starter.
A look back over the developmental years of the two goaltenders is an interesting exercise, simply because there is so little to separate them. Deslauriers is almost exactly two years older than Dubnyk, and so for a fair comparison we need to compare earlier seasons of his with those of Dubnyk – for example, Dubnyk’s 2009-10 season would correspond to Deslauriers’ 2007-08 season, as both goaltenders were 23 at the time.
As a 23-year old, Dubnyk was a strong AHL goaltender on a bad team – as witnessed by his 0.915 SV% and the way he towered over the other goaltenders – but a little over his head in the NHL, where his numbers were not very good. As it happens, at 23 Jeff Deslauriers didn’t get an opportunity to play NHL hockey, but like Dubnyk he was a strong AHL goaltender on a bad team – as witnessed by his 0.912 SV% and the way he towered over the other goaltenders on the team.
At 22, the similarities continue. Both goaltenders got their first chance to be the starters in the AHL. The numbers – 0.908 SV% vs. 0.906 SV% – give Deslauriers a slight edge, but I’d suggest Dubnyk was slightly better, since Deslauriers’ team was quite capable while Dubnyk’s was abysmal. Even so, it would be difficult to definitively put one goaltender ahead of the other, given their respective performances.
The trends continue, year by year. From the ages of 20 to 21, both goaltenders split time between the ECHL and AHL. Both were strong ECHL goaltenders, and both struggled in the AHL. Prior to that, each spent their draft year and the two subsequent seasons in junior: Dubnyk in the WHL, and Deslauriers in the QMJHL. Dubnyk was consistently good, year over year, for an at best middling Kamloops team, while Deslauriers had a brilliant draft year and a brilliant third year to bookend a lousy second season in the QMJHL. Again, not much to choose between the two.
Both goaltenders were highly regarded in their draft years; Deslauriers was generally the consensus “best goaltender” in pre-draft publications but slipped on draft day, while Dubnyk went ahead of at least one goaltender (Marek Schwarz) who was viewed as a better prospect by most draft followers.
With all of that said, I would choose Dubnyk over Deslauriers based on what we know now, simply because Dubnyk is younger. Jeff Deslauriers has had two seasons to develop from an AHL starter to an NHL backup, and he hasn’t been able to get a firm grip on the latter job. A number of things could still happen: Deslauriers could be a late-bloomer who suddenly emerges as a viable NHL goalie, Dubnyk’s development could stall, injuries could play a role, etc. Goaltending career paths are ugly things to predict, and all the expertise of NHL teams hasn’t kept unknowns like Tim Thomas from winning the Vezina while can’t-miss prospects like Al Montoya have shuffled off to obscurity.
Here though, at least for me, the crux of the argument is this: while Deslauriers and Dubnyk have similar career curves, there’s a greater likelihood of development from Dubnyk because he’s younger. Both goaltenders hope to make the jump from AHL starter to NHL backup, but time is still on Dubnyk’s side and that simply isn’t the case for Jeff Deslauriers.