Goalie Greatness?

The 2019 finalists for the Frank Brimsek Award, which goes to the top senior boys’ goalie in Minnesota in each season, came out this past week. In a welcome change, the committee added a third finalist instead of the traditional two, and the three it selected (Charlie Glockner of Minnetonka, Ben Fritsinger of Andover, and Brennan Boynton of Champlin Park) aren’t particularly controversial. That is a break from some past years in which there were just two finalists, and some seemed like they made the list more by virtue of the team in front of them than anything specific to their performance.

This feeds into a debate on the merits of goaltenders’ performances with great teams in front of them versus those who face an onslaught of shots night in and night out. We touched on this on a recent YHH podcast, when Danny, Tony, and I went back and forth between those who play tough schedules but also have great defenses (such Glockner and Fritsinger) versus those who play weak schedules but often have to carry their teams (i.e., Boynton or Nathan Mueller of Buffalo, who was the odd man out among the finalists). Later, I heard from a person near the Duluth East program who noted that East hasn’t produced a D-I goaltender since Adam Coole graduated in 1998, and wondered if something was amiss in the program’s goalie development. That made me wonder whether an elite program going 20 years without a D-I goalie was in some way unique.

Fortunately, I have access to a heap of data that can provide some perspective on the situation. I’ve been slowly amassing a spreadsheet of players’ post-high school careers from most prominent Minnesota programs, and while there are inevitable gaps and it tends to break down as records get thin prior to the 1990s, we certainly have good grounds for comparison here. In short, the East experience is not at all out of line with that of its peers: the state’s best high school teams produce very few D-I goalies, period.

Take Edina, arguably the best team in the state over that 20-year stretch. In that time, I find one Hornet D-I goalie: Connor Girard, who played ten games at the Air Force Academy as a freshman before transferring to D-III Amherst College. It’s a similar story at Hill-Murray, where Joe Phillippi’s two games at St. Cloud State are all the Pioneers have to offer over that time period. Eden Prairie and St. Thomas Academy produced D-I goaltenders only if we count players who left after their sophomore years for the National Training and Development Program; the Cadets also have David Zevnik, who is on St. Cloud State’s roster, but has yet to appear in a game. Similarly, Holy Angels, which for a healthy stretch of the past 20 years was a premier program, sent a kid to NTDP and also had a D-I goalie who graduated in 1999 and went to Quinnipiac in Justin Eddy, but that’s it. Hermantown has produced zero, as has Bloomington Jefferson; that remains true if we extend the timeline backward to include the Jaguars’ early 90s dynasty. I didn’t track Wayzata or Centennial until recent years excepting their single Tourney berths in the decade of the 00s, but I’m not seeing anything there, either.

We can find a few more if we really get into the weeds. Elk River’s Brent Solei got in a single game with the Gophers, but is all the Elks have to offer. White Bear Lake had a 2003 graduate who played a couple of seasons at UConn and gave up a lot of goals, and Blaine’s Justin Johnson graduated in 1999 and had a four-year Gopher career. The highly ranked Roseville teams of the early 00s sent Jerad Kaufmann to Nebraska-Omaha, too. But the fact that I’m digging that deep for examples shows how few good ones there are. Since 2005 or so, it’s a barren field.

The front-line Minnesota programs really have just two D-I four-year players in the past twenty years. One, Moorhead’s Michael Bitzer, was arguably the top high school goalie over that whole stretch, and went on to a solid career at Bemidji State. The other, Minnetonka’s Jim Kruger, had a good run at Dartmouth. Benilde got a few years at Quinnipiac out of Jacob Meyers, and if Ryan Bischel ends up at Notre Dame as planned, the Red Knights will be the closest thing we have to an exception to the rule. On paper Lakeville North has the most D-I goalies of anyone, but a couple of those were one-year rentals during their two trips to the title game this past decade that they can hardly claim as products of their system. They also spat out St. Cloud State’s Charlie Lindgren, but he came along before they were much of any good, as did 2003 unified Lakeville grad B.J. O’Brien, who also got a cup of coffee with the Huskies.

That success in Lakeville’s earlier, weaker days may actually be a sign of something. The most fertile ground for high school goalie development seems not to be the elite programs that win year in and year out, but instead those who are maybe a step behind whose goalies face far more pressure. Grand Rapids produced Hunter Shepard, and has a couple others in the pipeline; Roseau and Cloquet, frequently relevant but only occasionally dominant since the turn of the century, have produced two each. Even in years when they had strong teams in front of them, Shepard and Roseau’s Mike Lee and Cloquet’s Reid Ellingson had to face a few more shots than the average East or Edina goalie (with the possible exception of Roseau’s undefeated regular season in 07-08). And there are also success stories like Alex Lyon, who came out of Lake of the Woods to play at Yale and has gotten a taste of the NHL. Another kid from the northwest, Zane (Gothberg) McIntyre, starred at North Dakota and made the show from his roots in Thief River Falls. Even Moorhead in Bitzer’s days didn’t have quite the level of skating talent the Spuds had produced in years before or after his time there, and he had to carry the load.

There’s a northern theme to that list, but it’s not just those programs: Rochester Mayo put out a D-I goalie in the early 00s, as did Century with future Gopher Alex Kangas in 2005. Eastview gave us Zach Driscoll (an early departure, but only for one year). This may just be where my record-keeping breaks down, but the Metro is surprisingly devoid of D-I goalies, even from the middling programs that would face a ton of shots; perhaps this is where the Metro’s proliferation of private schools and or even easy public transfer options shakes that up and provides out valves for goalies who might be saddled with being the man in a small Greater Minnesota town. From a development perspective, however, this evidence makes one wonder if chasing those greener pastures may not be all that great an idea.

To answer the curious East fan, the Hounds’ development record is basically on par with that of their peers. While there have a handful of rough playoff performances by goalies down the years, those have been counterbalanced by great runs out of the more unheralded JoJo Jeanettas and Gunnar Howgs and Chris Salls of the world, and the more regrettable playoff losses of the Randolph era have had more to do with a lack of offense than any issues in goal. The best goalie they’ve had since the turn of the century, Ben Leis, settled for a solid D-III career at St. Olaf rather than playing out the string in multiple seasons of juniors in search of an elusive scholarship. And the evidence here would, on the whole, suggest that the Brimsek committee should take a longer look at players like Boynton and Mueller when weighing future finalists.

In the end, the data back up what we’ve long known: goalie development in Minnesota is hard. (For that matter, it’s hard for a lot of places that aren’t Quebec.) Doing it against a short high school schedule is also hard, and that appears to be exacerbated when goalies play for strong teams that don’t let them see a ton of quality shots. It’s much easier for the Mike Randolphs and Curt Gileses of the world to ask their goalies to go out there and just not lose games for them; with only a handful of D-I goalies on state champions over the past two decades, high-end talent there is clearly not a prerequisite for a title (though, as the Hornets and mid-00s Moorhead can attest, bad mistakes there can certainly cost a team one). Perhaps it should give us Minnesotans some pause about our whole goalie evaluation system, too. But in the end, there’s no more challenging position to develop, and the very nature of the position leads to cutthroat competition, limited playing time, and excessive blame when things go wrong. Any children of mine who play hockey will not be allowed anywhere near a goalie’s stick or pads, thank you very much.

Snowbound Hounds

Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.

At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.

The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.

The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.

Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.

We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.

7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.

Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?

Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.