The NHL is a copycat league.
With the Montreal Canadiens going on a shocking Cinderella Run to the Stanley Cup Final, there’s no doubt that other teams around the league are going to look at them and wonder “how can we do that?”
Different people will draw different conclusions about the Habs. Some will write them off as a lucky fluke, some will say their success has been the result of having a forward group loaded with quality depth players, some will say it’s about playing an old-school, lockdown system, and others will say it’s about heart and intangibles.
The Lightning are different because they’ve been one of the NHL’s model franchises for a few years now. They’ve been a legit contender for nearly a decade and they finally got over the hump and won the Stanley Cup last summer. There’s plenty to learn from this organization, especially when it comes to identifying high-quality talent in later rounds of the draft, such as Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. But that’s obviously easier said than done.
In my mind, the easiest conclusion to draw about both the Habs and the Lightning is the importance of excellent goaltending.
Now, this is far from a bold take. Everybody knows you need good goaltending to be successful in the playoffs. But the Habs and the Lightning, two wildly different teams who exist on opposite ends of the league’s spectrum in terms of being labelled true contenders, have that in common.
Both of these teams used first-round picks to acquire the goaltenders who have led them to where they are. The Lightning drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy with the No. 19 overall pick in 2012 and he’s posted a .936 save percentage so far in the playoffs. The Habs drafted Carey Price No. 5 overall in 2005 and his .934 playoff save percentage on a team that consistently gets outshot is one of the most impressive runs by a goaltender we’ve seen in quite some time.
With that in mind, 2021 might be the year for the Oilers to use a first-round pick in order to try to find that ace who can take them on runs.
It’s been a long time since the Oilers drafted and developed a goalie internally.
Devan Dubnyk, the No. 14 overall pick from the 2004 draft, was the last one to become a starting goalie in the NHL, and he didn’t really find his groove until he left the organization. To find the last goalie drafted and developed by the Oilers who became a good starting goalie for the organization, you have to go all the way back to the early-1980s, Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr.
The Oilers didn’t draft a goalie in 2020 but did so in back-to-back-to-back years between 2017 and 2019. They took Stuart Skinner, who had a very good AHL season this year, in the third round of the 2017 draft. They traded up in order to select Olivier Rodrigue in the second round in 2018 and they drafted Ilya Konovalov, an over-ager from the KHL, in the third round in 2019.
That’s a solid trio, the most promising we’ve seen in this organization in quite some time, but it’s difficult to say if any of those three truly have top-level NHL goaltender upside.
In this year’s draft, there are a pair of goalies who are slated to go in the first round. The first is Jesper Wallstedt of Luela in the Swedish Hockey League, who will surely be off the board before Edmonton picks at No. 19. After him, there’s Sebastian Cossa, a big and talented goaltender who’s playing right in the team’s backyard. He’s ranked as high as No. 10 for the upcoming draft but also as low as No. 43.
In 2019-20, his first season in the WHL, Cossa posted a very impressive .921 save percentage over 33 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings. In 19 games in 2020-21, he put together a 17-1-1 record with an insane .941 save percentage. Here’s what Corey Pronman had to say about him in his final 2021 draft rankings at The Athletic…
Cossa has been as good as you could have asked him to be in the WHL, dominating the league for the last two seasons. His athletic toolkit is very intriguing as a 6-foot-6 goalie who can move very well for that size. He covers a lot of net with his length. He has some quick twitch in his frame in how he moves around the net, and gets in and out of his butterfly. Cossa’s reads are typically great. He loses track of some pucks and can be a bit busy in the net but usually anticipates the play very well. I love his selective aggressiveness with his positioning, and how he takes away angles with his size as well as how well he uses his stick to break up a lot of plays. In a sentence, Cossa projects as a quality NHL starting goaltender with the potential to become an upper-echelon goalie.
I’m generally averse to using first-round picks on goaltenders because they’re so difficult to project. It’s more prudent to take flyers on goalies on the second day of the draft or find guys on the trade market who are trapped behind an ace, such as Cam Talbot was with Henrik Lundqvist.
But this is a different year than any other. This summer’s draft is going to be a total crapshoot because so many prospects around the world didn’t play a full, normal season. So, in sum, if virtually every prospect is more difficult to project than normal, it isn’t quite as much of a risk to go with a goaltender in the first round than it normally would be.
The Oilers select at No. 19 and we have no idea who’s going to be there when Ken Holland walks up to the podium. If Cossa is available, it would be worthwhile for the Oilers to pull the trigger. This organization needs an ace goaltender of the future.