Examining Top Goalie Prospect Debuts


With 20 year old Spencer Knight about to start his first professional hockey game, I decided I would take a look at some of the top goaltender prospects during the 2010s and see how they performed in their debuts.

When players make their NHL debuts, their team’s fanbase usually has all eyes glued on them. This causes these young rookies to face extreme scrutiny, as mistakes are magnified, which causes worry on to whether or not said player is a bust. Goaltender is the most important position in hockey, and are also notoriously difficult to predict their development. Since Knight is a goalie, as well as being one of the highest goalies drafted in over half a decade, Knight faces extra scrutiny. When Knight struggled in his first game of the World Juniors and got pulled against Russia, many were labeling him a bust. A couple of weeks later, and Knight was wearing a gold medal after shutting out one of the best WJC teams in recent memory, and just a few months later found himself in South Florida. If Knight has a good game or a bad game tonight, it shouldn’t matter. The Panthers organization wants to see what they have in their future netminder. He’s only twenty years old. If he’s not old enough to drink, he isn’t old enough to judge what his NHL future holds in my opinion.

Since Knight is so highly touted, I decided to look at five other high touted prospect goalies, their NHL debuts and where they are now:

Jack Campbell

The Dallas Stars selected who they thought was their goalie of the future in the 2010 NHL Draft, when they selected Jack Campbell 11th overall. The American goalie went to the OHL and struggled in his time with the Windsor Spitfires, after spending his draft year with the USNTDP. Campbell was signed and went to the AHL, and played relatively well. On October 20th, 2013, the 21 year old netminder made his NHL debut and it was ugly. The Stars defense did no favors for the rookie netminder, as the Anaheim Ducks lit him up for 47 shots, six of which found the back of the net. The Ducks quickly pressured the Stars zone, and drew a penalty. After fending off 4 shots in just two minutes, Campbell let in his first goal to NHL legend Teemu Selanne on the 5th shot faced.

Unfortunately, Campbell did not see the net again in Dallas. Injuries and mental health issues plagued him over the next couple of seasons, as the once promising goaltender found himself toiling in the ECHL. After a change of scenery to the LA Kings, Campbell revived his career, and managed to crack the LA Kings roster as their backup netminder during the 2018-19 season. Campbell struggled in the 2019-20 season, but a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs has helped him, as Campbell has had a strong season, with an eleven game win streak for the Maple Leafs. Campbell will likely never be what the Dallas Stars hoped he would become, but his career revival is very inspiring.

Verdict: Despite his resurgence, Campbell is ultimately a bust, and combined with Mark Visentin, would start a trend of teams avoiding drafting goalies in the first round.

Andrei Vasilevskiy

At the 2012 NHL Draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is on his way to becoming one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL History. Taking a gamble with drafting the Russian netminder 19th overall, the young goalie made his NHL debut at 20 1/2 years old, making 23 saves on 24 shots against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 16, 2014. Vasilevskiy had an extremely stellar rookie season, as the 20 year old would play in 16 games for the Bolts, with a .918 save percentage in his rookie season.

Benefiting his development was the fact that Vasy developed in the KHL against professionals. Thus, Vasy was well prepared for his NHL Debut. Spencer Knight did not have the luxury of facing professional competition in smaller leagues before his NHL Debut tonight. Vasilevskiy has been a finalist for the Veznia on several occasions, winning it in 2018-19 and capturing the Stanley Cup last season. He is the runaway favorite for the Veznia trophy this year.

Verdict: Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goalie, if not the best player in the NHL right now. If Spencer Knight can live up to half of what Vasilevskiy has been, the Panthers have an extremely solid goaltender.

Malcolm Subban

The 2012 NHL Draft was notoriously weak in many aspects, but it had one of the strongest goaltender classes in NHL History. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Frederik Anderson, Matt Murray, Connor Hellebyuck, Joonas Korpisalo, Chris Driedger and Linus Ullmark are all graduates of that class, and each is a starting caliber netminder. It is no surprise that Vasilevskiy was the first of these netminders to go in the draft, but it may be surprising that only two netminders in the draft went in Round #1. The later of these first rounders was Malcolm Subban, and Subban has not lived up to the bill that the other netminders have in his class.

With the departure of Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins found themselves in a goalie limbo. They had a goalie named Tuukka Rask, who had been a solid backup for Thomas, but it was unsure whether or not Rask could be that long term goalie the Bruins needed to replace the mustached man. The Bruins decided to take what they thought was their goalie of the future in Malcolm Subban.

The younger brother of PK Subban had a solid draft year with the Belleville Bulls, but the emergence of Tuukka Rask left the netminder in limbo. After a couple of excellent seasons in the AHL, Subban made his NHL debut at 21 on February 20, 2015 against the St Louis Blues. Subban did not face a shot on goal until 12 minutes into his NHL debut when he turned away an Alex Pietrangelo shot. The Blues would only muster three shots in Subban’s first NHL frame, but Subban would collapse in the second period, as he allowed three shots in a row behind him, seeing him replaced by Tuukka Rask halfway through the period.

Subban did not see NHL ice again until the 2016-17 season, and was selected in the expansion draft as the Vegas Golden Knights possible future goalie. After a couple of solid seasons backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, Subban found himself in Chicago. Today Subban is backup to rookie netminder Kevin Lankinen.

Verdict: Subban is a bust.

Ilya Samsonov

Another Russian product, the 2015 first round pick of the Washington Capitals did not make his NHL debut until the 2019-20 season, making 24 saves on 25 shots against the New York Islanders. Samsonov had a solid rookie season, and the Capitals would eventually let long-time netminder Braden Holtby walk in favor of the young Russian.

Samsonov has struggled this year, missing time to COVID and injuries, and it seems that another rookie goaltender-Vitek Vanecek has stolen Samsonov’s thunder. Vanececk has had a solid season, as he has become the defacto starter due to Samsonov’s time missed, and is outplaying Samsonov.

Verdict: It is too early

Carter Hart

Probably the best comparison to Spencer Knight is Carter Hart. A second round pick in 2016, Hart quickly climbed many prospect boards, and would make his NHL debut at the age of 20 on December 18th, 2018. Hart led the Flyers to a victory, stopping 20 of 22 shots in his NHL debut.

Hart would take over as the starting goalie on a Flyers team that could not find a starter at age 20. Hart’s first two years showed a lot of promise as he looked like the next best goalie in the NHL. However, calling his current season a disaster would not be enough to describe the absolute trainwreck of a season the 22 year old is having, as Hart is struggling.

Verdict: This season is very concerning for Hart, but I think it is just part of his development. Too early to make a judgement.

Conclusion

Spencer Knight makes his first career NHL start tonight. Of course goalies are extremely different, so this probably doesn’t apply at all. Let’s see what the kid can do. I’m rooting for him. I think he will do well, but it isn’t the end of the world if he struggles tonight.

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