In 2013, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the overarching body in major junior hockey that governs the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL), and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), decided to ban teams from drafting European goalies. The CHL holds an annual Import Draft in which all 60 teams across the three leagues are given two chances to draft foreign talent in an attempt to fill their two import slots on the roster for the following season. Sometimes the players who are drafted come over and other times they don’t. However, five years ago, CHL president David Branch and company decided to no longer take the risk of bringing in foreign keeper who could then in turn block young North American goalies by not allowing teams to select them in the import draft. While the idea was to protect the development and value of homegrown products, the result was a weaker product across the CHL and a more difficult time for their business partners in the NHL to evaluate foreign goalies.
In fairness, the decision was made after a stretch of dominant play by European keepers at the major junior level. In 2010-11, the top save percentage in both the OHL and QMJHL belonged to imports: Petr Mrazek and Christopher Gibson. Not long before, Michal Neuvirth was one of the OHL’s best as well. In the mid-2000’s, Ondrej Pavelec controlled the QMJHL, leading the league in goals against average in back-to-back seasons among other accomplishments, and is arguably still the league’s best goaltender in history.
This isn’t to say that Canadian and American goalies didn’t also flourish at that time as well, which calls the decision back into question. This was always a concern of quality over quantity, as the vast majority of teams still employed a North American starter and often a local backup or two as well. The CHL may have been concerned with the talent of some foreign prospects overshadowing Canada’s best, but they could never have honestly argued there was a lack of opportunity due to imported players. Top 2018 draft-eligible CHL prospects Andrei Svechnikov and Filip Zadina are both imports, yet they would never ban forwards.
Nevertheless, the CHL made a decision which clearly hurt their own competition level by excluding some of the top junior-level goaltending talent in the world without any evidence that it was truly hurting their domestic counterparts. Now, years later, the league is rethinking that decision. John Matisz of the Toronto Sun reports that the league is considering lifting the ban on foreign goalies, and for good reason. The ban has simply made it harder for NHL team to evaluate European keepers – with foreign leagues often dominated by older, experienced players, while the top young skaters come overseas – but hasn’t stopped them from being drafted into the pros at the same rate as CHL goalies. Meanwhile, top prospects such as Ukko-Pekka Luukonen (Buffalo), Filip Gustavsson (Ottawa), and 2018-eligible Jakub Skarek still reside overseas, but could surely benefit nearly any team in the CHL. The major juniors face little risk that a reversal would harm them in any way.
Interesting enough though, it may still be in European goalies’ best interests to remain in Europe and for NHL teams to focus on those who stay and face older, professional talent. The list of foreign goaltenders who played major junior in Canada and remain in the NHL – Mrazek, Neuvirth, Pavelec, Peter Budaj, Philipp Grubauer, Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin, Marek Langhamer, Robin Lehner, and the most recent CHL import star, Oscar Dansk – all have one thing in common: they aren’t bona fide starters. Meanwhile, the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask, and Andrei Vasilevskiy avoided North America until turning pro, and it worked out much better for them. With a new class of European goalies likely to join the CHL sooner rather than later, we’ll see if that trend continues.