Prospect Ramblings: Goaltenders and Height Biases in NHL Drafting

Hadi Kalakeche

2022-01-11

Welcome to my ramblings, where I’ll be writing down my thoughts on NHL and draft-eligible prospects once a week. I’ll be using the ramblings to keep you posted on the week’s events, or let you in on some questions I ask myself often regarding prospects, amateur scouting and player development.

This week, I had a question on my mind that just wouldn’t let go, to the point that I needed to sit down and write about it.

Does size matter?

I mean for goalies, of course. 5-foot-11 netminder Juuse Saros’ performances so far this season for Nashville (2.21 GAA, .929 sv%) have caused me to wonder about the fact that sub-6-foot goaltenders very rarely get selected in higher rounds at the NHL draft, and how opportunities to draft prospects with promising tools and impressive numbers have been missed by many teams due to size biases, often in favor of picking a tall player and chiseling away at him until an NHLer appears.

Saros was a fourth-round pick, and the ninth goaltender selected back in 2013. Of the eight netminders picked before him, none have played more games than his 184 so far. Other than Tristan Jarry, none have been able to establish themselves as regular NHL netminders.

On the prospects’ side, the current NCAA leader in save percentage with a .958,  20-year-old Devon Levi, is 6 feet tall and was the 212th-overall pick of the Panthers in 2020. Dustin Wolf, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound netminder currently dominating the AHL, was the 214th pick of the Flames the year before.

Teams have been cited saying that they draft goaltenders for size first then work outwards from there, but is the baseline advantage of being taller really all that quintessential? I’ll be letting you in on my scouting philosophy when evaluating short goaltenders, and why they should be considered top-end prospects when they’ve learned the right things to compensate for their lack of size.

 

First Priority: Adaptive Skills — Reactiveness, Aggressiveness, Recovery Speed

For young goaltenders on the shorter side who feel boxed out of the NHL Draft due to something that’s outside of their control: use Juuse Saros as a blueprint. Watching him play, it’s abundantly clear that he’s adapted his game to his size, and without that, nothing works. A short goaltender who plays the exact style of a Carey Price or Ben Bishop will simply not stop pucks at a decent enough rate to make a significant, NHL-projectable difference. Both those goaltenders are fairly conservative in terms of their tendency to leave their paint and challenge shooters, relying on their sound reflexes and large coverage area to deflect pucks wide.

If you’re 5-foot-11, the first issue you’ll face is on high shots from the butterfly position. Lower shoulders means less of the top shelf being covered. The compensation required to adjust to NHL shooters is to 1) be conservative with butterfly usage and 2) be more aggressive on shooters, using your mobility as a shorter goalie to get to cross-ice passes when challenged shooters opt for it.

Case in point:

If we’re looking at prospects, Devon Levi’s profile is more or less the same. Explosive lateral movements, high-end focus in scramble situations, added mobility from the smaller frame and almost robotic positional play allow both goalies to get their chests square to pucks as often as a 6-foot-5 netminder can.

Levi also challenges shooters hard, especially off the rush when there isn’t a back-door option, but the key learning in his case wi