Hockey News: Roundabout Route to the NHL
December 29, 2015
Connor Hellebuyck, now playing for the Winnipeg Jets, is one of many NAHL goalies in recent years who have developed into NHL talent.
The Straight Edge
By Ryan Kennedy, The Hockey News
Note: This story appeared in the December 7, 2015 edition of the Hockey News
Here is a fun game: Guess which league provided the 2015 NHL Draft with the most goalies. Gold star if you picked the North American Hockey League. The junior circuit had four netminders selected, the same number as the Czech Republic. Otherwise, the NAHL equaled the three CHL (major junior) leagues combined (two from the QMJHL and one each from the OHL and WHL) and had one more than the USHL, which is considered a step above. Why?
According to one NHL team exec, the NAHL has been smart about developing talent, giving 17-year-olds starter’s minutes. “Winning is so important in the USHL,” said the exec. “So you’re seeing a lot of older goalies there now.”
In the NAHL on the other hand, there’s more leeway – and a lot more opportunity for draft-eligible goalies to showcase themselves. Plus, the sprawling circuit has 22 teams to the USHL’s 17. The top netminder and 2016 draft prospect in the NAHL now is Jack LaFontaine of the Janesville Jets (who also recently committed to the University of Michigan). A Mississauga, Ontario product who played last season in the Ontario Jr. A League last season, LaFontaine tried out for the USHL’s Fargo Force, but was blocked by two older netminders. So he set out for Wisconsin, where the suburban Jets are based. “Everything happens for a reason,” LaFontaine said. “It was always been a goal to pursue the NCAA; then the question was how to get there.”
His early numbers accomplished that dream. Through 17 starts, the 6’3 rookie has three shutouts, a 1.77 goals against average and a 92.7% save percentage, all among the league leaders. Talent hawks see a lot to like in the kid, too. “Obviously there’s his size and positioning,” said the exec. “But it’s also his mental game; he’s in control. There’s no scrambling, he’s very much in position. Very smooth.”
LaFontaine wants to calm his game down and the 60-game schedule will give him plenty of reps. Same gooes for NHL hopefuls Tommy Nappier (Springfield Jr. Blues) and Tyler Johnson (Topeka RoadRunners).
The NAHL has produced some good goalies over the years, including Ryan Miller, but it’s now doing so more consistently. Philadelphia prospect Anthony Stolarz (Corpus Christi) and Connor Hellebuyck (Odessa) now with the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL, were important NAHL’ers in that regard. Like LaFontaine, the two got a chance to be No. 1 netminders and got on scouts’ radars early; Stolars for the Corpus Christi IceRays and Hellebuyck for the Odessa Jackalopes, where the big stopper told me he would show up at the rink in the morning in a hoodie and take it off when he left because it was too hot – in December.
But those perks don’t extend to every team in the NAHL, which has franchises from New Jersey to Alaska. LaFontaine was girding himself for Janesville’s first major trip when we spoke, a “two-week adventure” to Alaska, where the Jets played Fairbanks one weekend, stayed in Alaska for five days, then took on Kenai River for another two matches.