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VHL 30 in 30 #24: The Guardian

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The Guardian

The position of goaltender has been largely overlooked in VHL history. It may have been due to a lack of members willing to stick it out for a full-length career in goaltending, it may have been due to an obsession with pure offence in the early days, or it may have been, and likely was, a mixture of both. Prior to Season 20, there was one real great goaltender in VHL history: that was Davos' Benoit Devereux. The only non-goalie award a netminder had a solid chance at winning was the Howe Trophy as playoff MVP, though this happened just four times before S19 (and seven since). Devereux made history by winning the Christian Stolzschweiger Trophy in S10 and then Jonas Markstrom snatched the Brett Slobodzian Trophy as player-voted MVP from Grimm Jonsson's hands in S16, but that was it. Rest assured, the past decade has forever changed the league's stance on goaltending.

Before I engulf in the treasures of the third decade's goaltending, a brief overview of what happened in the previous 20 seasons is needed. As mentioned, Devereux was the consensus best goaltender ever by the time he retired in S16. He played for seven seasons in the league, which only three others, Alex Gegeny, Dominik Stryker, and Marek Van Urho, had done previously. As you can see, there wasn't really that much competition for being the career best goalie and so with three Tretiak Trophies in his first five seasons (though he probably should have had four), Devereux quickly jumped over all his predecessors and likely would have had the trophy renamed after him if anyone got around to doing that in S20 or so. That's not to say there were no bright spots in goaltending before, as Gegeny, Stryker and their contemporary Anton Nygard put up very impressive save percentage numbers, and legends like Matthew Pogge and Maxim Desny were dominant in the post-season. They all were on the top for just a brief amount of time though and Devereux became a pioneer with comparatively long-term success and managing to tone down overall scoring for a brief amount of time too.

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The former top dog: Benoit Devereux

The Season 18 VHL Entry Draft would be the beginning of the end of Devereux's goaltending legacy though. That draft was a key part of the ensuing decade and a big reason was because it produced Daisuke Kanou first overall, Aidan Shaw in the second round, and Joey Clarence in the third, as well as Jakob Kjeldsen as Helsinki GM Joey Kendrick's client. The quartet didn't make an impact straight away (all but Kanou spent another season in the VHLM) and the years S18-S20 were very much about scoring (especially Season 20) but slowly and surely these four goaltenders and their four teams (Toronto, Davos, Seattle, and Helsinki) began to take over the league. The Legion and the Dynamo, the eventual dynasties, would have the advantage with the top two Tretiak Trophy candidates Kanou and Shaw, while Kjeldsen was putting up solid stats himself on a non-playoff team, including a Top Rookie performance in Season 19, which left Clarence behind. Nevertheless, most considered him an elite goalie, and the teams that had those elite goalies were far and away better than the bottom half of the leagues.

"It was polarizing knowing that no matter how well I did, I couldn't be any better than third best in the league. Hell, for most of my career I didn't even figure myself to be better than Kjeldsen. It was a tough time to be a young goalie in the VHL, but I've no regrets." - Joey Clarence

"I think there was an excellent rivalry between me and Shaw, had a lot of fun playing against him and he always pushed me to be better. At the end of the day I don't think its my job to determine who is better at the position, but I think we both competed to the best of our abilities and received our rewards for such and subsequently it shows with me and Shaw going into the HOF together." - Daisuke Kanou

Shaw won his second Tretiak Trophy in Season 21, the first season where goaltending dominance really showed in the league. His counterpart Kanou almost single-handedly brought Davos to the playoffs and was crowned MVP for his efforts, before falling to Shaw's Howe Trophy-winning performance in the finals. Clarence helped Seattle to Game 7 of the conference finals against Toronto while Kjeldsen and the Titans just fell short of the Dynamo in the standings based on a tie-breaker. Apart from Riga's inactive Ma'a Nonu, there was no competition for these four and they started to make their mark on the league, as despite a weaker bottom half of goaltenders (sub .900 save percentages), there were just 14 players hitting the century mark in points in Season 21, and the champions' leading scorer, Lars Berger, just cracked 100 points.

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Aidan Shaw won the Tretiak Trophy in S20... and then three more times in four seasons

This continued to be the trend as the four goalies only continued into their prime in Seasons 22 and 23. Clarence moved on to Calgary as the Bears rebuilt and Kjeldsen's Titans finally broke into the playoffs and won the cup, which secured the top four VHL teams for another couple seasons. The scoring went down to its lowest in Season 22 with just five players hitting the 100-point mark, as Shaw came the closest to goaltending records set back in the days of Gegeny, Stryker, Nygard, and LaFramboise, with the other three goalies right behind him. This changed just slightly in the ensuing seasons with eight, nine, and then ten such scorers in S25, when Clarence and Kjeldsen had retired and Shaw and Kanou were on their last legs. To summarise, the six seasons from S20 to S25 were dominated by these four and the four teams that won the cup in this span were indeed backstopped by one of them. Clarence ended his career with just a cup to bag about but was still quite pleased with his career, even though he and Kjeldsen, a Tretiak Trophy winner in S23, are unlikely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. After all, he was part of the most goaltender-dominated era up until then and it was probably the time of the most consistency among the top teams in the league. As mentioned in the previous 30 in 30 article, the Davos and Toronto dynasties were a large part of that consistency and obviously it couldn't have been done without Kanou and Shaw.

"Obviously, both of the teams were built very strongly through and through, but these two goalies did what they needed to do to push the team up to the highest level. There was a year where Kanou and Davos won a cup with, I think, around six or seven skaters on their roster. If that's not showing of Kanou's contribution to this team, I don't know what is." - Joey Clarence

"Can't have a dynasty with just a goaltender and a team can't have one without a goalie. I need them and they need me and its the combination of both in order to create a dynasty. I had excellent teammates during my tenure and the dynasty is just as much theirs as it was mine." - Daisuke Kanou

Kanou also became the first goaltender ever to play eight VHL seasons, while Shaw joined some aforementioned elite company with seven seasons, in four of which he was crowned the league's top goaltender. As a result, he got the Tretiak Trophy named after him instead of Devereux, but Kanou had his own triumph as being a three-time playoff MVP warranted a Howe Trophy renaming. Alongside Clarence and Kjeldsen, these two dominated the league headlines for several years, with of course the debate of “who's the better goalie” at the front. At their retirements, it's safe to say most VHL members would have said that they were the two best goalies ever, which is pretty impressive considering they didn't actually set that many statistical records. That's no shot at them of course because consistency and the drop in league scoring speak for themselves.

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Daisuke Kanou got more cups; does that make him the best?

"It's actually pretty hard to say. For the most part, I feel like Shaw and Kanou were THE cornerstones of their respective franchises, particularly with Kanou with Davos.  The Dynamo weren't as skilled as Toronto a lot of those seasons, and you don't just win three Howe Trophies by luck.  With Shaw, it's a little harder to tell.  I think if you would have swapped him with say, Joey Clarence, Toronto as a team would have had similar, if not identical PLAYOFF success.  I don't think they would have dominated the regular season as much as they did though.  In that same hypothetical situation, I'm sure Shaw would have won just as many Tretiaks as he did on Toronto.  So I would say neither goalie's stats and successes were a product of their team, but in the case of Shaw, I may be as bold to say that he was "replaceable" for Toronto as far as championship success goes." - Jardy Bunclewirth

"Edge goes to Kanou, in my opinion, who I also feel is the greatest player in VHL history. Kanou won more cups (and yes, I know that shouldn't be a measuring stick for success for any player) with some less depth filled rosters, and overall, when you look at the two rosters throughout their times of success, Kanou's Davos performed just a bit closer to as strongly as they should have than Shaw's Toronto did." - Joey Clarence

Once Kanou and Shaw retired alongside the rest of the S18 draft class, many fans of high-octane scoring finally made a sigh of relief as it was expected that the “good ol'” scoring days would be restored without any heirs to the goaltending throne. Pavel Koradek would become the first sign of this assumption being true, as in his MVP-winning season of Season 25, he put up a lovely 135 points, the highest total since S20. Season 26 was also promising in terms of offense, with some huge numbers put up by the likes of Leeroy Jenkins, David Walcott, and many others, including again, the highest number of 100-point players since S20. This was the calm before a new goaltending storm though as the next generation was on the way without giving everyone else as much as a breather. Benjamin Glover shared the Christian Stolzschweiger Trophy in S24, before winning the Tretiak Trophy in S25, with Shaw and Kanou still in the league. That season Claudio Martucci was crowned top rookie and in S26 it was CAL G's turn. An older goalie in Vasteras, Andreas Bjorkman, won the Tretiak Trophy in S26 and this was the new generation about to take over. Some expected great careers to match the S18 goalies, others just wanted to be good, and as usual, they've fallen somewhere in the middle.

"My expectation going into my VHL career was simply to be "good enough".  As long as I was capable enough a goaltender to play on a contending team and give them a shot to win a Continental Cup, I would be happy.  I knew I needed to be at least a top four goalie in my generation to do that, so that was my expectation." - CAL G

"I had high expectations. I was thinking I'd be one of the best goalies ever, and although I do think I'm still Hall of Fame-worthy, I don't know if I've quite lived up to what I wanted. One thing that's certainly a part of that is my lack of championships. I though that being a goalie who was, skill-wise, heads above the competition, I would be able to carry a roster, even if our group of skaters is maybe slightly worse than another team, to a championship or two. I just haven't played as well as I expected in the playoffs. Even in the regular seasons I've had some poor years that I didn't count on happening." - Benjamin Glover


From S24 until today, Benjamin Glover has aimed high

The Scotty Campbell Trophy winners of S27, S28, and S29 have been Bjorkman, Glover, and G, respectively, to go along with their Tretiak Trophy wins at the same awards ceremonies. In the eyes of many members of the league, the goaltenders have yet again risen to become the league's best and possibly even better. After all, in Season 27 CAL G set the single-season record for most shutout and lowest goals-against-average, while also being the all-time leader in the latter and very close (just behind Glover) for the former. Glover, though unhappy with his performance in relation to his expectations and his practice hours, will become the second goalie ever to play a full eight-season career and an all-time win record isn't out of the question, though that may too go to G who is one season younger and has played for a slightly more successful dynasty. However, while G and Glover, being part of the Seattle/New York rivalry, have received the most attention, their slightly older and now retired counterparts Bjorkman and Martucci were no less impressive and at their peak in Season 27, scoring went back down overall (ignoring the ridiculous output from Tukka Reikkinen and Lasse Milo), with only ten again hitting the century mark. Though Bjorkman and Martucci retired, this has continued to be the trend thanks to the rise of younger goalies like Alexander Labatte, Marius Henchoz, and Satan, and over the past two seasons just eight players have gotten at least 100 points (Ansgar Snijider doing so twice, both times at exactly one hundred).

Given the overall weakness of the defencemen in recent years (hence the dominance of Daniel Braxton in the Labatte Trophy votes, and even on Brett Slobodzian ballots, only rivalled by Mitch Higgins), it's hard to attribute this new fall of scoring to anything else but superb goaltending. These are numbers even lower than those put up during the days of Shaw, Kanou, and company, and the likes of G and Glover deserve the credit for it. These two rivals are also now on the back ends of their careers and so it is around this time that people start looking back at their careers and deciding who was better. Back in S25 no one would have thought that there would be a duo to rival Shaw and Kanou in the historical sense, but that has happened, and though perhaps a guy like Glover expected more, his performance over the years, even ignoring a lack of championship, will undoubtedly vault him into the Hall of Fame.

"If I get lucky enough to win another Tretiak this season, then maybe, but I don't really think I will, so no, I still think Glover's better.  He's worked a lot harder than I ever have, he just has a little less to show for it, and that's just bad luck.  He's got another strong year ahead of him after this season, and I'm not so sure I do.  But I guess we'll see once we're both retired." - CAL G

"No disrespect to my former teammate Bjorkman, who obviously won me a cup, but Benjamin Glover is the best of the three. He may not have won himself a cup, but he had one of the toughest rivals in VHL history and has put up gaudy, Hall-of-Fame numbers that I overall don't feel that Bjorkman and G have." - Tukka Reikkinen

"It pains me to say that I'm not even the best goalie of my generation, but I think CAL G has had the best career so far. I do think it's between the two of us, though Andreas Bjorkman is a Hall of Famer in my eyes. G contributed greatly to a championship, splitting the Daisuke Kanou Trophy in Season 28. I've struggled in the playoffs, for the most part and certainly compared to what I was expecting. We've both done great, and if I can manage to match his championship and have a great final season, I could be seen as better, but it's been a great competition, as frustrating as it is to see him do better than me. You can say that the makeup of Seattle's roster or their style of play has been better for his stats, but the bottom line is he has had better stats and more success. Undeniably, I am more talented, but that's not always going to be considered when measuring someone's career." - Benjamin Glover

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Statistically, CAL G may well be the best goalie ever

Like with Shaw and Kanou, G and Glover have led their teams to some solid playoff runs. The New York Americans join the Toronto and Davos dynasties, along with an older successful run in Riga, as a team with seven straight playoff appearances. Four, possibly five of those, have ended up in the finals, so even without a Continental Cup, this will be an era to remember for a team near the bottom of the VHL's food chain for decades. G's arrival prompted the Bears to go on their own longest consecutive playoff streak with now five post-seasons in a row, and on the way they have won another championship and their first two Victory Cups since Season 6. Of course, back in Vasteras in Bjorkman's days, they ended a long slump out of the playoffs and Martucci helped Helsinki not fall further than fifth place after they were presumed dead after Season 24. Furthermore, we can't really expect a fall from grace in VHL goaltending after G and Glover retire, because that will be when Henchoz, Satan, and Labatte will be in their prime. Rest assured, the VHL's third decade has opened a lot of peoples' eyes on the importance of goaltending.

"The VHL has never seen this kind of quality AND depth of goaltending over such a stretch of time as we are now.  There's usually just a few good goaltenders per generation, with the odd great one sprinkled in there (Gegeny, Devereux).  Starting from around S18 though, goalies have been getting really good; Hall of Fame worthy.  We had the four S18 guys, then Bjorkman and Martucci, and now the guys playing today.  It's very competitive." - CAL G

"The era of Bjorkman, Glover and G has been a very interesting one, in my opinion. Once it started to tail off, there were really very few elite defensemen, and some strong goalies, but looking at the quality of forwards one would think the league was going to be dominated by offense. Yet, that wasn't the case. I think that these goalies did a good job in keeping the scoring so low, but I also feel that they were helped by the best era for two-way forwards in league history." - Tukka Reikkinen

"I think part of it can be attributed to these three. Though, if we are looking relative to the previous era where scoring seemed to be up despite Aidan Shaw, Daisuke Kanou, Jakob Kjeldsen, and Joey Clarence, you have to look further at the lower goalies.  Back then, we had starters like Fernando Garcia Jr., Zach Henning, and Wu Tang Fan. Vince Stephan was decent, maybe close to as good as Pekka Svenson is now. During the present era, though, the worst goalies we've had are guys like Matthieu VanCoughnett, Svenson, Jehovah, and Carlos Vasquez. Garcia Jr. started a bit, but not too frequently. Anyway, these guys are better than what has been there in the past, so overall they contribute to the relatively low-scoring seasons. And then you can look at the forwards. It seems like the best crop of players came around while G and I were already established players, so now they are taking on younger forwards, whereas the previous era had the forwards growing alongside the goalies. Looking at the fact that I am now the career leader in shutouts and G will probably surpass the record, we have to be considered a part of it. G is the only goalie with a career goals against average under two, and I'm second on the career list for that stat." - Benjamin Glover

We have been fortunate to see the league's best goaltenders ever play against each other over the past decade and it will be great to see it continue. Those in favour of an offensive league need not fear this netminding invasion, as there will be many scoring highs and lows in the future. Even during the days of Shaw, Kanou, Kjeldsen, Clarence, Bjorkman, Martucci, G, Glover, and all their contemporaries, we have see many player rise to prominence due to their scoring, from Tarik Saeijs, Anton Brekker, Markus Strauss, Lars Berger, and others in the early 20s to Leeroy Jenkins, Tukka Reikkinen, Lasse Milo, Ansgar Snijider, and many more today. It wouldn't be far-fetched to say that for the vast majority of the league, this “goaltending” decade has been their favourite in VHL history, even if they didn't benefit from it.

End of Part 24
Special thanks to Jardy Bunclewirth/CAL G, Joey Clarence/Tukka Reikkinen, Daisuke Kanou, and Benjamin Glover

 

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