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The wrath of Grapes Add to ...

Well, there's a first for everything.

Here is Don Cherry's not-so-cogent criticism last night on Hockey Night in Canada of my story on how Europeans are dominating NHL creases these days (1:30 mark of the video):



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So... where to start with all that?

The best thing about Grapes getting so worked up about this particular article is that the evidence I relied on is pretty indisputable. The numbers show exactly the shift that's occurred the past 30 years, where even as the number of teams have grown from 21 to 30, the number of Canadian starters has gone down consistently.

Here's the chart we ran with the story, but with the American figures worked in for completeness sake:

So, to Grapes' point, as unrelated as it was to the story: Are great goal scorers and defencemen produced in this country? Absolutely, and I think there's a very sound argument there to say Canada has the best talent (especially in terms of depth) at those positions.

In goal, that just isn't as clear anymore. Of the last 15 Vezina Trophy winners, only five have been Canadian, four of which were Martin Brodeur, who is nearing retirement. In international competitions, meanwhile, it seems every year we're talking about a Henrik Lundqvist, Jaroslav Halak or Ryan Miller as opposed to who Canada has in goal.

The real basis for the trend in my mind, however, is that Europeans have tackled the position really seriously the past 20 years (especially in Finland). You talk to any goaltending expert in North America or overseas (and I called quite a few this week) and they'll all tell you something similar.

Mitch Korn, the Predators goaltending coach, said there used to be a stigma around Europeans in goal, but that's quickly disappeared the past 10 years.

"It was the Hardy Astrom syndrome -- they brought him over, and it failed miserably," Korn said of the Colorado Rockies' experiment in the early '80s with one of the first ever Europeans in goal. (At the time, Cherry was their coach and still calls Astrom the Swedish Sieve to this day.)

"Then there was an apprehension about European goalies -- they played deep, they couldn't handle the puck -- those are stereotypes that I've got to believe somebody, or a group of somebodies, changed. That had to do with the sharing of information... and it's a world market now."

Oilers goalie coach Frederic Chabot said he's seen the way Finland operates, and he's pretty impressed with their system.

"The coaching for goaltending is the same, from top to bottom," Chabot said. "Good coaching, make sure guys at the top, everyone down the line, teaches the same way and teaches the same thing. That's why I think we're seeing a lot of goalies from Finland the last 10 years."

Another thing Chabot saw when he played in Germany and Austria is the willingness to play teenagers in the pro leagues.

"If the kid's good enough, they push him and get him in the program and give him some ice time," Chabot said. "It makes a difference. Sometimes you get a guy over here from Europe, he's 24 years old, and he's played five or six years pro already. He's more mature, maybe his game is a little better because he's faced tougher competition. A little more ready for the NHL. That sure makes a difference."

Korn added that North American goaltenders should be playing in the AHL as soon as they've shown the ability to excel at that level. The Canadian junior leagues currently don't allow players to play minor pro until they're 20 years old.

"I believe strongly that 18- and 19-year-olds after being drafted should be allowed to go to the AHL instead of it being the NHL or the CHL and those being the only two options," Korn said. "We're losing those two years of development in goal."

Cherry made it sound on Hockey Night in Canada like the story was solely Europeans crowing about their success, but the majority of those I talked to in the goaltending world this week were North Americans talking about what Finland, Sweden and other countries are doing so well.

They've taken note -- and rather than burying their heads in the sand, are in favour of proactively working to get better.

Grapes? He's still ripping on poor ol' Hardy Astrom, all these years later.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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