Drafting goalies still risky business

Based on his charisma alone you would think Michigan goaltender Al Montoya would be the drop-dead certain first pick among goaltenders eligible for this weekend's NHL entry draft.

Throw in a gold medal performance for the United States at the World Junior Championship in Finland last winter and a .917 save percentage for the Wolverines, en route to a 26-12-2 record there, and there's little reason to doubt that the likable, articulate and poised 6-foot-1, 190-pound young man deserves his Central Scouting ranking of No. 1 among North American goaltending prospects.

But that doesn't mean he's a lock to go No.1 at the position.

Czech native Marek Schwarz, No. 1 in the international rankings and probably the best goalie you've probably never heard of, could own the honor if some talent scouts have their way.

Devan Dubnyk of the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers is also considered first-round material, as is U.S. prep schooler Cory Schneider out of Phillips Andover. Still, some argue it could be the Mississauga Ice Dogs' David Shantz, who is ranked third among North American players, or Gabriel Bouthillette, the top rookie goaltender in the Quebec Major Junior League, a breeding ground for top NHL prospects.

Where goaltenders are selected and in what order often is dictated by league economics and the strange rules the NHL has regarding where players are drafted from. Though all are highly regarded, and Montoya and Schwarz are said to be a notch above the rest, even the goalie deemed to be the best could be selected anywhere from as high as the No. 3 spot to perhaps as low as 15.

"Yes and yes," Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said when asked if goaltending is still the most important position and if teams still don't quite know where to make such an important selection.

"Certainly you can't win without outstanding goaltending; we've all seen that," he added. "But where you pick and when ... it often comes down to need combined with patience."

The Sabres have been heavily invested in young goaltending from all points on the map. They have a still-developing veteran from the QMHL in Martin Biron. His backup/challenger is the still-developing Mikka Noronen, a native of Finland, which is fast becoming Europe's version of the QMHL. Then there's prospect Ryan Miller, a Michigan State product who has played most of the last two seasons in the American Hockey League.

Biron, a first-round pick in 1995, and Noronen, a first-rounder in 1997, both won minor league pro player of the year honors before they graduated to the NHL. Miller, a seventh-round pick, has the 2001 Hobey Baker Memorial Award on his resume and was tapped a "can't-miss" prospect by numerous hockey publications. While none of them have established themselves as clear No. 1's in the NHL, Biron is anointed with the title in the organization basically because he makes more money than the other two combined.

The Sabres had to sign Biron earlier than the other two in order to retain his rights. Major junior players must be signed within two years or they re-enter the draft, while U.S. college players and Europeans remain property of NHL teams longer. As a result, the Sabres could allow Noronen and Miller more time to develop in their respective amateur programs before signing them to their first contracts.

That could happen for Montoya, who still has two years of eligibility remaining at Michigan, and for Schwarz, who could continue to develop in the highly regarded Czech system and a prospect some scouts liken to Dominik Hasek.

"It's a tricky proposition," Regier said. "You can see their talent, but you also know it takes a long time. You're always looking to speed it up, but some of it is just learning and experiencing things and that can't be rushed. The difficult thing is after the fourth year you have to qualify them or they are subject to waiver claims. It's why you see a lot of goalies playing in this league with a team other than the one that drafted them."

GMs take that into consideration at the draft table. Many teams will select a forward or defenseman higher up and hope the goalie they want is still there in the later going. The thinking is the forward and defenseman will get to the NHL faster, while the goalie, even the most talented ones, may not get there at all.

Historically, it can take up to five professional seasons before a goalie starts making a significant contribution. It takes longer still to emerge as an accomplished veteran, and even longer for one to reach his prime, which is about 30 years old.

There are exceptions, of course, but no matter how talented the prospect, rare is the goalie who moves directly from high school or a junior program to the NHL.

Despite that fact, goalies continue to move up in the selection process largely because they are better athletes and receive better training than in the past. However, teams still don't expect them to play in the NHL right away.

In the five drafts prior to 1997, 10 goaltenders were taken in the first round. From 1997 to 2001, 14 were selected.

The benchmark in 1997 was Roberto Luongo, who went fourth overall to the New York Islanders and has now emerged as a standout for the Florida Panthers. In 2001, the Islanders again traded up and turned Rick DiPietro into the first goalie ever taken with the first overall pick. It was touted as a daring move at the time, but GMs began to look at goaltenders with the same regard as other coveted prospects. In 2002, the Atlanta Thrashers took Finland's Kari Lehtonen with the No. 2 pick, and the following year QMHL goalie Marc-Andre Fleury went first overall to Pittsburgh.

Montoya and Schwarz aren't considered to be quite as good as Fleury and Lehtonen were at the same stage in their development, but that doesn't mean much. They could easily end up better. They could be worse.

After all, of the 16 goalies that stepped out onto the ice for the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, only three -- DiPietro, Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils and Dan Cloutier of the Vancouver Canucks -- were drafted in the first round. Miikka Kiprusoff of the Stanley Cup runner-up Calgary Flames was taken in the fifth round. Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the Stanley Cup champion, was taken in the eighth.

And neither was playing for the team that originally drafted him.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.