With Zach Fucale’s strong play against Team USA on Tuesday, minds are turning back to how close he came to being part of the Edmonton Oilers organization in the draft last summer. Crying over spilled milk is always a little silly, but if it deserves to be done over goalies nearly acquired last summer Fucale shouldn’t be the focus.
Antti Raanta should be.
There are lots of problems with drafting goalies, especially early.
For one, goaltender development is unpredictable and the scouts don’t do nearly as good a job in net as they do elsewhere. There are tons of examples.
2010 11th overall pick Jack Campbell did a lot more at the World Juniors than Fucale has. He has plenty of time but he flopped in the OHL and 58 games into his professional career he’s been an awfully middling AHL goalie. Draft a goalie early and you’re as like to get Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya or Brian Finley as Roberto Luongo or Carey Price or even Marc-Andre Fleury.
Another problem is the timeline. Jonathan Bernier was an early pick and turned out well but he was drafted in 2006 and is finally getting a starting gig only now – and the team that drafted him didn’t exactly get a King’s ransom in trade. Devan Dubnyk, drafted 14th overall in 2004, took years to get to the majors and still isn’t an established starter; ditto for 26th overall pick Cory Schneider (though the latter should be).
Draft a goalie early and maybe, five years down the road, he’ll be something useful. Maybe he’ll even be useful for the team that drafted him. Bernier’s a good example of a case where everything went right with the guy who was supposed to be a franchise goalie – but it didn’t matter because a third-round pick nobody believed in came in and locked up the starting gig before Bernier even had a chance to fight for it (and now that same third round pick is injured and not being missed because two guys who were never even drafted are playing better than he has all year).
Fucale’s still an unknown quantity years away from mattering to the team that drafted him. He’s a nice guy to have in the system and maybe someday the Oilers will regret not drafting him but if they do it won’t be for years and there’s a decent chance they never miss him. He would probably have been a fine pick at 37th overall if he had landed there, but it’s really not a big deal.
But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with grabbing a free agent European goalie for nothing but money, and reportedly the Oilers came pretty close to doing so with Antti Raanta, before he understandably chose to sign with Chicago instead.
Raanta was always way closer to being a sure thing than a guy like Fucale. Raanta was the best goalie, the regular season MVP and the playoff MVP in a top professional league a year ago. When we compared him in the summer to former top goalies in the Finnish league, he was behind only Tim Thomas in save percentage and ahead of guys like Niklas Backstrom and Tomas Vokoun. That’s an awfully good track record.
He’s come to North America, done a quick stint in the minors and in his first season on a new continent and since then stepped into the Blackhawks’ net and provided the team with the best goaltending it’s seen all season. Better goaltending than the club was getting from $6 million man Corey Crawford.
He’s a guy playing well in the NHL today, not a guy who might play well in the NHL five years from now if everything breaks right. The Oilers doubtless went after him as hard as they could, and it was the right idea.
Young goalies are hard to predict and the expected payoff is years down the road. That’s why the best approach to drafting them isn’t to grab them high. It’s to take them in quantity, snagging one every year or so and hoping to hit big with a low-risk gamble. It didn’t pay off with guys like Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz, but the Islanders, Stars and Coyotes haven’t done a lot better with guys like Mikko Koskinen, Jack Campbell and Mark Visentin.
Another item is that the league is full of guys who were great in Europe or in college or even in junior who never cost a draft pick. Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens lead the league in save percentage; neither was drafted. Ditto for Antti Niemi and Jonas Hiller and plenty of others.
The final thing is that it’s generally pretty easy to land goalies in trade or via free agency. It isn’t like that at other positions; centres and defencemen and even wingers cost a ton of money or a pile of assets. Goalies don’t generally. A guy like Bernier goes for a pretty middling package, as does a guy like Jaroslav Halak. Dwayne Roloson cost Edmonton a high pick at the deadline; Tommy Salo years earlier didn’t cost even that much. When the Oilers ran into goalie problems earlier this year they were able to grab Ilya Bryzgalov for cash and could have snagged a guy like Jose Theodore too if they had wanted.
The Oilers last used high picks on Devan Dubnyk in 2004 and Jeff Deslauriers in 2002. They’ve been sharp enough to avoid it since then. It’s one of the few things the organization has done right over the last decade.