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Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi (R) stops San Jose Sharks Ryane Clowe during Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference final hockey series in San Jose, California May 18, 2010. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi (R) stops San Jose Sharks Ryane Clowe during Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference final hockey series in San Jose, California May 18, 2010. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

NHL Playoffs

European goalies becoming the rule, not the exception Add to ...

It sure seems like Dominik Hasek started something.

After all, when The Dominator hit the NHL in the early 1990s, winning six Vezina Trophies in eight years, he was a true anomaly in the game - one of the first dominant Europeans at the position in the league.

Fast forward to this season, and there are more European starters than ever before - with three of them in the San Jose Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov, Chicago Blackhawks' Antti Niemi and Montreal Canadiens' Jaroslav Halak currently playing in the conference finals.

Finland, in particular, has become hockey's goalie hotspot, with scouts camped out in Helsinki searching for the next Miikka Kiprusoff or Tuukka Rask, but Switzerland, Sweden and a host of other countries are also producing great players at the position.

The trend toward Europeans in goal has meant Canadians have been pushed from the crease more and more every season. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of NHL goaltenders born in Canada has shrunk from about 85 per cent to less than 45 per cent, with this season marking an all-time low.

And while Europeans make up only a quarter of NHL players as a whole, this season they accounted for 42 per cent of goaltenders who appeared in 30 or more games.

To some, that shift is an indication it could be time to take a closer look at how other countries are producing elite talent.

"When you look at what they do in Finland, you think, well, it's working," said Edmonton Oilers goaltending coach Frédéric Chabot, a former consultant with Hockey Canada who played professionally overseas.

"A lot of goalies have come out of their program, they all play a similar style and they had enough success to reach the pro level. … Maybe we should look at it seriously and see what we can get out of it?"

Nine years ago, Nashville Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who coached Hasek for six years with the Buffalo Sabres, predicted in an article in the now defunct Hockey Digest magazine that "more and more European goalies" would be making an impact in the NHL.

Since then, a European netminder has won eight or more games in a playoff year and made the final four 12 times, something that had occurred only three times in NHL history before 2001.

Korn said this week he has a few theories as to why Europeans have made such huge inroads at the position in the past decade:

  • He questions if the best athletes are playing goal in North America or if financial concerns determine who the goalies are at a young age. In some European countries, Korn said the cost of goaltending equipment and training - as much as a couple thousand dollars a year - is shared by the teams and not placed as a burden on parents alone.
  • In Finland, the use of goaltending coaches starts early, as young as eight years old, and nearby countries such as Sweden have begun to mimic their strategy. "Those guys have had goalie coaches since the day they were born," Korn said of Finns in the NHL.
  • Another aspect in European players' favour is the fact they often play professionally at a younger age, and are drafted or signed out of those leagues. While Canadians generally play in junior until age 20 (and are not allowed to jump to the AHL until that point), Finns, Swedes and others are in their top leagues, gaining experience against men.
  • Korn adds that "things go in cycles." After Hasek dominated the NHL, and once scouts began to have success in Europe, more and more teams were willing to invest resources in looking for the next top prospects. "We were Quebec driven for a long time; before that Ontario driven," Korn said. "Now we're kind of European-slash-Finland driven."

The NHL's push for European netminders has been noticed overseas, too, as scouts are often asked to keep an eye on the latest prospects in goal.

Mats Hallin, the Blackhawks' European scout who helped the team land Niemi, said what makes his job easier than those scouting Canadians is that he is often watching older goaltenders who have rounded out their games.

Niemi was 24 in his last season in Finland, and Hallin said the organization had a better sense of what they were getting when he was offered a contract two years ago.

"It takes a long time to be a really good goaltender," Hallin said. "Often they get to be better when they're 26, 28, even up to 30 years old, they can improve. And that's what happened to Niemi. He's been improving every game."

According to Chabot, a movement is already under way in Quebec to get goaltending coaches on the same page and preaching the same technique, much as they do in Finland. Hockey Canada, meanwhile, began holding summer development camps with some of the country's top teenage goaltenders five years ago.

Because of how the development cycle works, however, changes made now will only be seen at the elite level years down the road - just as Finland's commitment to goaltending 20 years ago is showing in the NHL today.

In the meantime, Canada's old guard in goal - the likes of Martin Brodeur, Dwayne Roloson, Chris Osgood, Marty Turco, Chris Mason and Jose Theodore - are set to retire in the next five years.

Whether they'll be replaced by European starters remains to be seen - but it's a fear that's already being discussed by hockey minds south of the border.

"I know the U.S. has been very concerned, and it's created some programs to try and improve things," Korn said. "We really haven't produced in this country enough, either."

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