Spencer Knight, US National Team Development Program (USHL)
Age on Draft Day: 18.2 Years Old
Height/Weight: 6’3, 197 pounds
2018-2019 Stats: 33 GP, 2.36 GAA, .913 Save Percentage
NHL Central Scouting (North America Goaltenders Only): 1st
Craig Button: 13th
Bob McKenzie: 15th
Future Considerations: 34th
Before I delve into an actual scouting report on Spencer Knight, let’s first discuss all of the reasons that drafting a goaltender in the first round is generally a terrible idea. It will serve as a Devil’s Advocate, but will also explain how evaluation of goaltending has changed and as well as highlight just how good I believe Knight to be that I’d rank him this high despite all the reasons I shouldn’t.
The biggest reason teams should be skeptical about drafting a goaltender in the first round is because it doesn’t tend to work out very well. Of the top-20 goaltenders in the NHL from 07-08 through 16-17 by goals saved above average, just six were first-round picks.
Compare that to this breakdown of draft slots for the top-30 point producing forwards in the NHL from 08-09 through 17-18.
Whereas it’s incredibly difficult to find high-end skater talent outside the first- and second-rounds, it’s comparatively a lot easier to do so with goaltenders. Pound-for-pound, skaters are a much more valuable investment than goaltenders are in the first round.
That, however, still does not tell the full story. Devan Dubnyk was a first-round pick who has gone on to have a great career, but not with the team that drafted him. Dubnyk’s success has come with the Minnesota Wild and not the Edmonton Oilers, who used the 14th overall selection to invest in Dubnyk back in 2004. The same holds true for Roberto Luongo, who has built a Hall-of-Fame career away from Long Island, the organization that made him the fourth overall pick in 1997.
The list of teams who have drafted a goaltender in the first round and have personally benefitted from that player’s success is incredibly small. Of the 39 goaltenders drafted with a top-31 selection between 1996 and 2015, only five have started at least 200 games with his drafting team. They are:
- Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh)
- Rick DiPietro (NY Islanders)
- Cam Ward (Carolina)
- Carey Price (Montreal)
- Andrei Vasilevsky (Tampa Bay)
There are numerous reasons that drafting goaltenders has been historically unreliable. The biggest is that NHL teams have not had any idea how to analyze goaltenders until very recently. The data has been limited even at the NHL level, let alone at lower levels of hockey, leading teams to rely heavily on team-based statistics like wins and goals against average. They also rely on platitudes that don’t really mean anything. “He makes timely saves” is a common one. “Powerful movement in the crease” is another.
Furthermore, the scouts tasked with evaluating goaltenders haven’t had the credentials to do just that. A former NHL winger will understand what to look for in a center or defenseman. Even if the positions are different, the skillsets are similar and translatable. However, goaltenders might as well be playing a different sport. It takes specialist with knowledge to really understand the nuances of what makes different goaltenders good, what parts of a goaltender’s technical game can be easily improved with coaching, and what red flags in their movements look like.
I was told a story several years ago of an NHL team drafting a goalie with a high pick. The prospect showed up at training camp and after only a few days the goalie coach and every other goalie in camp knew the teenager had no future in the NHL. An entire scouting staff had watched this kid for a year and thought he was worth a big investment, and yet the goalies knew immediately it was a wasted selection. And they were correct, as the goaltender never made it to the pro ranks. It shows the massive gap between what goaltenders actually know and what NHL teams think they know.
There are other issues as well. Goaltenders are prone to injuries that impact their abilities and often result in limited peak windows. Only one goaltender can be the starter, so teams are forced to invest in just one of them, whereas three high-end defensemen or wingers can coexist on the same roster. Lastly, they often take a long time to develop. Most skaters who make the NHL do so between 18 and 22 years old, but there have been a high quantity of goaltenders — Dubnyk, Rinne, Anderson and Talbot to name a few — who didn’t put it together until their late 20s.
In sum, goaltenders are an exceptionally volatile investment who, even when successful, can take a long time to see any return on that investment that might only last for a few years.
With all that said, I have Spencer Knight ranked sixth for the 2019 NHL Draft.
I mentioned that teams have not had the right personnel in place to evaluate goaltending, but luckily that is changing. Teams have put begun sending video to their goaltending coaches for evaluation, and almost every team now has a second goaltending coach who works at the minor league level, and many teams — including the Rangers included — have recently added someone specifically tasked with goaltender evaluation.
Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to be in agreement that Knight is one of the best teenage goaltenders they’ve ever seen, and that’s not a particularly recent revelation. When Knight was in his early teens, many people who run goaltending camps were practically fighting each other in hopes that they’d convince Knight to attend their camp. I don’t want to get into the politics too much, but let’s just say that some (but not all) hockey clinics know a marketing opportunity when they see one.
What stands out most to me about Knight is his lateral movement. He has the athleticism to get across the crease in a flash, but there’s more to it than that. There are many young goaltenders who have the physical ability to make lateral movements, but who lack the discipline to make the most of it. In fact, one of the biggest problems young goaltenders often face is over-exertion in their movements. Knight knows exactly when to challenge the puck carrier versus playing deeper in the crease to make cross-crease movements easier. Knight has the skating ability to get off his posts but the discipline to not overshoot his angles. A series such as this one demonstrates this well. It’s not just the first save, but how he does not take himself out of position by moving too far across his crease. Thus, he’s in great position for the rebound attempt.
As such, Knight is exceptionally good at saving the most dangerous types of shots in today’s NHL. That is, shots that come from low-to-high passes and shots that come from movement across the slot. It’s not only having the physical prowess to get across, but also having the timing and being able to react to the puck’s trajectory. Here are some more examples.
Knight’s game will quickly translate to the pro level. He’s not getting lucky on saves, sprawling around or throwing his arms in the way of pucks. His movements are clean and precise; the delicate balance of getting around the crease quickly while still tracking the puck and remaining on his edges. At 6’3, he has the ideal frame for an NHL goaltender. His ability to play the puck with his stick is incredible, and while that’s not a reason to draft a goaltender, it’s the cherry on top for a complete goaltender at this age as Knight is.
The US National Development Team put up historic offensive numbers this season and that’s largely a product of their talent. However, I do think Knight played in their success a role as well. Time-and-time again, Knight would extinguish fires on odd-man rushes and breakaways for the USNTDP. It’s a lot easier to play aggressively when there’s a goaltender at the other end who can bail the team out when mistakes are made.
But again, there are people in actual scouting roles not equipped to evaluate goaltenders, and neither am I. Admittedly, I am largely appealing to authority here, but there’s no reason — statistical or otherwise — to doubt that authority right now.
Drafting a goaltender with a high pick is not wise, but there are always exceptions. This is a perfect storm of circumstances that I believe justify that decision for an NHL team. After Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko there is a massive gap in talent in this draft. There are many good players, but no skaters who immediately provide tangible, elite upside. At the top of the draft, I want a player who has least has the potential to alter the course of the franchise. In fact, a previous draft of our rankings had Knight as high as third overall.
Those I’ve spoken to believe Knight is the best goaltender to come through the draft in ages. He has the upside to become a top-five goaltender in the NHL, and that caliber of goaltending could singlehandedly change the outlook of a franchise. There’s no doubt that Knight comes with incredible risk, and for a while the desire to rank him this high felt irresponsible and impulsive. Ultimately, though, if Knight becomes the kind of goaltender that many in the goaltending community believe he is capable of, then how many players in this draft truly hold more upside?
Where he actually gets drafted depends on a number of circumstances. Rather than drafting Knight at sixth overall, I’d probably sooner trade down. The sense at this stage seems to be that Knight will get drafted somewhere in the 10-15 range, which would make him the highest-drafted goaltender since Jack Campbell in 2011. That selection did not work out, and the same is true for many other goaltenders in similar spots. Bank on Spencer Knight being one of the few who does.
What Others Have Said
“Spencer Knight is the best goaltending athlete USA Hockey has ever seen.”
- USNTDP Head Coach John Wroblewski, via The Athletic
“I’ve worked with goalies for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid so physically and mentally ready for the next level than Spencer [Knight].”
- USNTDP Goaltending Coach Thomas Speer, via NHL.com