MONTREAL- Wondering why NHL goalies are stopping more pucks than ever before? Better training and more advanced equipment has a lot to do with it, but as Peter Budaj’s background illustrates, there has been an even more critical shift in professional goaltending.
Up until the early 1990s, the vast majority of NHL teams sourced their netminders from a geographical area spanning from Penticton, BC to Moncton NB, and from Humboldt, SK to Cornwall, ON. Essentially, talented goalies outside of Canada were seldom given the opportunity to perform at hockey’s highest level. Americans Frank Brimsek and Tom Barrasso, who won the Vezina Trophy 42 years apart, were among the only non-Canadians to hold down an NHL starting job with much success up until the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, you could count the number of European goalies making the trek across the Atlantic to compete for a roster spot on a single hand. Czech defector Jiri Crha was among the first wave of European talent to break into the NHL, but he was nearly 30 years old and never managed to get more than 69 NHL games under his belt. The two most dominant international goalies at the time, all-time legends Vladislav Tretiak (USSR) and Vladimir Dzurilla (CZE) were forced to stay home and play out their careers in a Soviet-dominated system due to the prevailing political climate.
In 1982, the year Peter Budaj was born in Banska Bystrica, Czechoslovakia, no NHL goaltenders were of Eastern European descent.
A bigger pond
All this changed in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. That year, 26 year-old Dominik Hasek joined the Chicago Blackhawks, kicking off a 16-year NHL career that saw him win the Vezina Trophy six times between 1994 and 2001. The year 1994 also marked the first year that more than one Eastern European held down a number one job at the NHL level (Arturs Irbe in San Jose and Hasek in Buffalo).
Soon, teams began to understand that some of the best goaltenders in the world could hail from places such as Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic (Tomas Vokoun, 1994 Canadiens draft pick), Bratislava, Slovakia (Jaroslav Halak, 2003 Canadiens draft pick) or even Banska Bystrica, a town boasting fewer than 80,000 inhabitants and only one indoor ice facility. By the time Peter Budaj was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2001, five goaltenders hailing from the former Warsaw Pact countries had played more than half of their respective teams’ games in the previous season.
Out of the 82 goaltenders which have appeared in at least one NHL game in 2013-14, twelve of them, including Budaj, were born east of where the Berlin Wall once stood. Coupled with the rise of Scandinavian-born netminders, the proportion of Canadians manning the crease at the NHL level has gone from 81% in 1991 to just 39% today. Despite what pundits may say, the marked decrease has little to do with a dip in the level of instruction or competition in Canada. Instead, it simply indicates that young, elite puck-stoppers born in Canada are now battling for opportunities with qualified challengers from all over the world instead of merely competing amongst themselves.
A bigger, more international talent pool has had three main effects on the National Hockey League.
First, the average age of goaltenders has gone up from just over 25 in 2001, to nearly 30 in 2004. Organizations, finding themselves with a glut of young prospects, have began to develop them more slowly, giving them a long apprenticeship in the minor leagues before granting them the responsibility that comes with suiting up for an NHL club.
For his part, Peter Budaj starred for the AHL’s Hershey Bears for three seasons before earning his first National Hockey League start at the age of 23. After working as the Avs’ number one netminder for parts of six seasons, Budaj joined the Habs in the summer of 2011 and proceeded to establish himself as one of the most reliable veteran backups in the league. Since arriving in Montreal, he has compiled a 19-12-7 record and a .916 save percentage.
Second, the backlog of talented goalies, all of whom had earned their NHL call-ups with consistent play in various North American and European leagues over the course of several years, has markedly improved the overall level of goaltending at the NHL level, making goal-scorers’ jobs ever more difficult despite the advent of composite sticks and a crackdown on interference. Stopping 90% of all shots faced used to be the gold standard in the heydays of Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. Nowadays, playing for .900 over the course of a season would be a below-average performance.
Here’s a simple way of illustrating how much more difficult it is to score in the NHL since the mid-80s. Let’s say two average-quality teams employing average-quality starting netminders face off in 1985, and then again in 2014. If both teams combine for 60 shots, then we can assume that the red light will come on about 7.5 times during the course of a typical 1985 match-up. Today, with starting goaltenders averaging a .916 save percentage over the course of a season, the same 60 shots would yield only 5.1 goals. What used to be a 5-3 game is now, for all intents and purposes, a 3-2 decision.
It is also worth noting that, for the first time since the league began tracking save percentage in 1985, the performance of backup goaltenders (0.915 sv%) is roughly equivalent to that of starting netminders (0.916 sv%). This recent development has benefited the Habs, who have seen Carey Price turn aside 92.5% of all shots faced prior to the Olympic break. And Peter Budaj? This season, he’s clocking in at 92.6% in 14 appearances.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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