Pipe Dreams: How the Ducks continue to rule the crease

pipe dream

While this season’s Calder Trophy race has been highlighted by the phenomenal goal-scoring exploits of San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, and the incredible maturity and poise from Predators defenseman Seth Jones, one player that deserves some consideration is Ducks rookie netminder Frederik Andersen. Truthfully, Andersen is unlikely to win the Calder, considering that the Anaheim Ducks just sent him back down to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, after their starter Viktor Fasth returned from a lower body injury. But there is no denying that the first netminder from Denmark to play in the NHL has been sensational this season when called upon, winning his first six games and posting sparkling, video-game like numbers, with a GAA of 1.66 and a save percentage of .963 in seven games. Andersen was initially a draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes (187th) in 2010, but did not sign and re-entered the draft in 2012. That year, the Ducks chose him 87th. Last season with Norfolk, Andersen served notice to Ducks management that he was ready to take the next step, posting a .929 save percentage and 2.19 GAA in 47 appearances. This season, with Fasth injured in mid-October, Andersen’s play was so strong that the Ducks extended his contract last month by two years, until the end of the 2015/16 season. His brief appearance in the NHL this season demonstrated the complete wealth of talent the Ducks possess in goal, and over the last decade, their franchise has been the model for others when it comes to acquiring and developing quality netminders. No team comes close to what the Ducks have been able to accomplish.

During the last decade, Anaheim has continually turned relatively unproven (by NHL standards) and unheralded goalies into highly reliable, elite ones. Some of these goalies have been drafted in high positions (Ilya Bryzgalov in 2000 and John Gibson in 2011), but the Ducks have been shrewd at acquiring goalies through other means. As a result of good scouting and a deep network of contacts, one area that they have exploited better than others is the European market. They have discovered that there are many quality netminders in Europe, who can develop freely without the burdens of being drafted by an NHL team at a young age. These netminders can be nurtured in a professional environment until they have built an impressive curriculum vitae. Then, right when they are physically and mentally ready to jump to the NHL (after years of playing with grown men, on a large international ice surface that can be more difficult on goaltenders than the North American surface), they can be acquired relatively cheap by NHL teams, who do not have to give up any assets other than a modest contract. Over the years, Anaheim’s return on this type of investment has been astonishing.

Much of the success for the Ducks goaltending can be traced back to their former goaltending coach, Francois Allaire. Allaire is unquestionable the world’s most famous goalie coach, and remains best known for helping develop Patrick Roy into a multiple Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens. Roy’s butterfly style and ability to appear large in net were part of Allaire’s main doctrine. In 1996, Allaire left the Canadiens to join the Ducks. In 2000, the team acquired the much maligned goaltender Jean Sebastien Giguere from the Calgary Flames. Giguere was a first round draft pick with the Hartford Whalers, but struggled mightily in his early 20s trying to make the jump to professional hockey. Allaire refined Giguere’s style (and look, with massive equipment) and eventually Giguere mastered the Allaire method to take his heavily overmatched Ducks to within one game of the Stanley Cup in 2003. Giguere was quite simply sublime that spring, allowing only one goal in the Western Conference Final against Minnesota, and eventually captured the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, in a losing effort. Giguere would go on to be an integral piece in the Ducks Stanley Cup win in 2007. While Giguere was the centrepiece of the Ducks goaltenders, Allaire also had a hand in developing two others behind him.

Martin Gerber was an 8th round pick of the Ducks in 2001 at age 26, after playing many years in the top league in his native Switzerland. Gerber was a student of Allaire’s when he ran goaltending schools in Switzerland. Though history now looks unkindly on Gerber’s NHL career, he was highly regarded around the league while playing behind Giguere, and was poised to one day become an NHL starter. In 2002/03 he posted a .929 save percentage and 1.94 GAA in 22 games, and the following season, he had a .918 save percentage and 2.26 GAA in 32 games. Recognizing their goaltending surpluses, the Ducks eventually dealt Gerber to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2004 draft. After the lockout, in his first season with Carolina, Gerber was impressive winning 38 games and leading Carolina to a Southeast Division Championship. He eventually got outplayed in the playoffs and lost his job to Cam Ward, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Gerber’s career highlight came in 2006 when he made 49 saves to shutout Canada at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin. The win by Switzerland was arguably one of the biggest upsets in the history of international hockey.

The Ducks were forced to move Gerber, because they had highly rated Russian Ilya Bryzgalov waiting in the wings. Bryzgalov was a second round pick in 2000, and played well for the team’s farm team in Cincinnati. In 64 games in 2003/04, he recorded 27 wins and a .919 save percentage. He also got notice from the Russian National team, and was the number one goalie at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. During his time in Anaheim, Allaire worked hard with Bryzgalov and tried to enforce his system on him. Reports from that time though indicate that the two actually fell out, and Bryzgalov retains little of Allaire’s style of play. However, Bryzgalov was talented and during the 2006 playoffs, he briefly took Giguere’s starting job after a series of impressive performances. In the team’s first round series against Calgary, Bryzgalov was cool and made 22 stops in game seven, shutting out the Flames. In the following round against Colorado, he recorded shutouts in the first two games. The feat gave him the third longest shutout streak of all-time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, surpassing his teammate Giguere who had accomplished similar feats in 2003. During the 2006/07 Stanley Cup winning campaign, Bryzgalov continued to provide reliable netminding in the backup role. Like Gerber before him, Bryzgalov was viewed by many in the NHL as being starter quality.

During the 2007/08 season, the Ducks committed to their Stanley Cup winner Giguere by giving him a four year contract. The preceding offseason, they also signed Swiss free agent Jonas Hiller. The team was forced to move Bryzgalov. Due to a cooling goaltender market and a situation where other teams recognized the cap concerns that Anaheim had and the quandary they faced with three netminders, Bryzgalov was put on waivers where he was promptly claimed by the Phoenix Coyotes. Over his four seasons in Phoenix, Bryzgalov was exceptional, and was instrumental in the underdog Coyotes earning two playoff appearances. He parlayed his play in Phoenix in 2011 to a nine year, $51 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers (The remainder of his career unfortunately has been mired by controversy and off-ice distractions).

Thus from Giguere, Gerber and Bryzgalov emerges the current crop of Anaheim netminders. In the spring of 2007, Jonas Hiller was a 25 year old Swiss netminder playing for HC Davos. He was heralded by the hockey media as being the best goaltender outside of Europe, and received praise from the likes of Joe Thornton and Rick Nash, who had played with him during the 2004/05 NHL lockout. At the time of his decision to join the NHL, Hiller had a total of 16 NHL teams pursuing him, with many offering him a greater opportunity to start than Anaheim did. Yet, despite Anaheim’s relative wealth in goal at the time, he opted to sign with the Ducks. He cited his familiarity with Allaire, the two having spent six previous summers training together. He was also heartened to see the development of his countryman Martin Gerber within the Anaheim structure. Despite Giguere’s experience, Stanley Cup pedigree and star status in Anaheim, Hiller gradually took over his job. In his first three seasons in the NHL, Hiller never posted a save percentage under .918 and progressively saw the number of games increase. In January 2010, Hiller signed a four year extension with the Ducks and became the team’s official number one goaltender. Realizing this, the Ducks traded Giguere the following day to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the following two seasons, Hiller proved to be one of the best finds in the NHL. He made the league all-star team in 2011, but suffered from vertigo shortly after, which derailed him for the remainder of the season. That small slip created the opportunity for the Ducks to scout for other options.

Hiller’s story of 2007 was repeated in 2012, when 29 year old Viktor Fasth became identified as one of the most coveted goalie talents outside of the NHL. Hailing from Sweden, Fasth had come off two straight Swedish Elite League goaltender of the year titles with AIK Stockholm, the first to do so since Henrik Lundqvist, and held an impressive club and international record. Again, despite many suitors, Fasth chose the Ducks despite the presence of Hiller and 2011 draftee, John Gibson. Upon signing, he said “The Ducks showed a real big interest. I had the feeling that they wanted to give me this chance and they believe in me. That is very important for me.” By this point, the Ducks had developed a culture of giving European netminders an opportunity, and this may have been a selling point for the Swede. Within Fasth’s first month in the NHL in 2013, he jumped out to a 8-0-0 start, and immediately signed a two year extension worth $5.8 million dollars. By the end of the season, Fasth was 15-6-2 and helped the Ducks capture the Pacific Division championship and finish second in the Western Conference.

So, at present, the Ducks are flush with goaltending talent and are the envy of the league. They have two goalies at the NHL level that they did not draft, in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. Their AHL team in Norfolk features Frederik Andersen and highly touted American netminder John Gibson, who last year helped the United States win the IIHF World Juniors, where he was named the Most Valuable Player. Their system also features Russian Igor Bobkov, a third round pick in 2009, who was the MVP of that year’s IIHF U18 and a gold medalist at the World Juniors in 2011. No other NHL team can come close to having that wealth of talent at one position. Though Francois Allaire left the club in 2009 to join Brian Burke with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the legacy that his involvement with the Ducks has left is unparalleled. It has allowed the Ducks to remain competitive, despite losing the likes of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in recent years, and fielding young players throughout the lineup. Through open minded scouting and a philosophy to embrace, nurture and develop European talent, the Ducks have built a culture of excellence in goal, which will continue to bear fruit in the years ahead.

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

3 responses to “Pipe Dreams: How the Ducks continue to rule the crease

  1. Pingback: National Hockey League Rookie Ladder November 2013 | Hockeyland Canada·

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