If there’s any part of the Toronto Maple Leafs depth chart that still needs work, I think we can all agree: it’s in net.
The Leafs are heading into the upcoming 2015-16 season with, well, pretty much no one outside of Garret Sparks especially guaranteed in the depth chart. Antoine Bibeau likely still needs more AHL work, there’s no promise that Jonathan Bernier has a future with the club, and James Reimer may want to return – but that’s all just hypothetical stuff. The ECHL affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears, has a promising prospect in Ryan Massa, but he’s not Toronto property (yet).
That makes free agent Alex Lyon a hugely attractive option for Toronto.
My Opinion of Lyon
Lyon is your perfect NCAA-developed goaltender.
The Minnesota native doesn’t have too much international experience, but he did get some time in for Team USA during an exhibition game at the 2015 World Championships at the team’s third netminder – and he looked calm and poised against players twice his age and twice as experienced.
From what I’ve seen of Lyon, I like his tracking game first and foremost – but that’s not to say that he doesn’t have a well-rounded game in net outside of tracking and trajectory. He follows the puck into his glove well and is cognizant of his own rebounds, although he’d likely need some time to develop stronger rebound control at the pro level.
Still, he’s a calm and effective netminder, and he’s a huge part of the success that Yale has seen over the last few years. His numbers are excellent, but his technical game is as sound as the stats suggest; while he could be a project, he won’t be a major one.
The Pros of NCAA Talent
I’m a big fan of NCAA-developed netminders, because college is a great middle ground for goaltending development.
The OHL doesn’t have the defensive structure for optimum development, the QMJHL sometimes lacks the quality of competition necessary to familiarize oneself with shot quality and game speed, the WHL sees a huge amount of disparity from one team to the next. The USHL, like the QMJHL, lacks the quality of competition necessary to comfortably transition to the pros, and North American goaltenders don’t often get the chance to develop overseas – so they miss out on the benefits of playing pro in a lower tier league like the SHL, SM-liiga, HockeyAllsvenskan, or the KHL.
The NCAA, though, is a perfect middle ground between junior and pro hockey; it provides good shot quality and defensive structure, good speed, and offers older competition for young goaltenders to help them acclimate better to playing against men. For a goaltender, playing in the NCAA is about as strong a path as you can find in North America.
NCAA talent usually still needs some time to develop in the minors before they hit the pros, so Alex Lyon won’t be a free agent pickup for the NHL level; he’ll likely be an AHL addition, if not the team’s ECHL starter next year to provide stronger depth in the system.
It’s important to remember, though, that it’s absolutely crucial for teams to have a solid prospect starting in the NHL, AHL, and ECHL at any given time; there are too few goaltenders in each league at any given time to neglect one affiliate more than the other. I still really like Massa, and I have since he took the University of Nebraska-Omaha to their first-ever Frozen Four appearance a few years ago – but he isn’t a guarantee to even be in Toronto’s system by next year.
That means that the Leafs still have much, much more with their goaltending depth – and if they’re hoping for a homegrown starter sometime soon, Lyon isn’t a bad option to have waiting in the wings behind Sparks. I think he has more upside than Bibeau, he’s got some consistency to his numbers, and there’s very little downside to picking him up; if Toronto can make this happen, they absolutely should.