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CHL import goaltender crisis overblown, by the numbers

Christopher Gibson of Finland played with Chicoutimi in the QMJHL (CP Images)

The Ontario Hockey League reportedly sent out an email to its member clubs saying that in goaltenders could be selected in the import draft next month. The idea that perhaps the Canadian Hockey League and its member leagues ought to be angling to get more domestic talent between the pipes in major junior has been circulating for a couple of weeks now.

Last week, it was suggested that the CHL cut off the supply of import goaltenders flowing into the Western, Ontario, and Québec leagues in an effort to force teams to play more domestic talent. The idea, it would appear, would be less about developing the game and advertising the CHL as a top developmental league but rather one focused on developing exclusively Canadian and American players.

Philosophically, it's easy to disagree with the premise. A post from Neate Sager on Buzzing the Net from last Thursday not only suggested that the idea was "protectionism" but that the success of European goaltenders in the NHL influences the development of goaltenders abroad.

It's no secret that headed into Olympic competition, Team Canada is thin between the pipes. While Sweden, Finland and the U.S. each had multiple elite goaltenders at the NHL-level this season, Canada's options appear to be minimal. Roberto Luongo was a back-up this season (although ought to be the clear favourite for the job) while Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled for four consecutive seasons, Carey Price for two, and James Reimer, Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby are all quite young, inexperienced, and despite their success this season are not yet household names in Canada.

Damien Cox wrote about this last week and Don Cherry emphasized some points on Coach's Corner Saturday. The theme of both arguments seems to be that the number of European goaltenders in the CHL is taking away ice-time from Canadian goaltenders, who are more deserving of the time on ice.

"What happens is the OHL or the Western teams they draft a European goalie. An old one. An older one. And he comes over and they pay $3,000 to get him over, and he plays. Our younger guys… we come up and we sit on the bench and when this older guy gets too old, they bring over another European."

Unfortunately for Don, the data just doesn't bear that out. (Shocker, I know! — Ed.) Each league filters its goalie statistics page to only include regulars. Across the CHL leagues, there were 11 imported goaltenders out of 68. Two were also overages, Christopher Gibson in Chicoutimi and Mathias Niederberger in Barrie.

Marek Langhamer (CP)If imported goaltenders are taking away spots from younger Canadian goalies, then so are overage domestic goaltenders. There are 12 of those nationwide (counting Gibson and Niederberger).

As for American goaltenders, would you believe that just three of the league's 22 goaltenders that met a games played eligibility were American-born, and only one of those (Garret Sparks) played for a Canadian team?

Ron MacLean, to set Cherry up on his rant, mentioned Tuukka Rask and Tomas Vokoun, European goaltenders in the Pittsburgh-Boston game CBC aired Saturday night. Neither Rask nor Vokoun were trained by a CHL club. The number of domestic goaltenders from the CHL has been dropping over the last ten years or so, but the spike of European goaltenders is from, well, Europe, and it's quite rare that an NHL-drafted European goaltender will take a starting job on a CHL club the next fall. Oscar Dansk and Marek Langhamer were the only such case this past season.

Here is the evidence Damien Cox uses that suggests that Canadian goaltenders are not getting their fair shot:

Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks was the only Canadian to start among the eight NHL teams that made the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Henrik Lundqvist, meanwhile, was the only Swedish goaltender. There were no Russians, no Swiss and no Slovakian goaltenders. Perhaps Swedes, Russians, Swiss and Slovaks aren't prominent enough in their nations' domestic leagues?

Meanwhile, in the third round? One Canadian, one Finn, one Czech and one American. Who has the advantage?

The three finalists for the Vezina Trophy this season are all Europeans: New York’s Henrik Lundqvist (Sweden), Antti Niemi (Finland) of the San Jose Sharks and Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky (Russia).

Again, neither of them were trained in Canada and taking a spot from a Canadian goaltender.

The top CHL major junior goalie this season played in Red Deer, Alta., and was from the Czech Republic.

That's Patrik Bartosak. To counter this, we could either say that the OHL's top goaltender meanwhile was Jordan Binnington, a good Canadian kid that appeared for Canada at the IIHF U-20s. We could also say that the starting goaltender for the WHL champion Portland Winterhawks was Mac Carruth, both an American and an overager, but there's no suggestion to stop overage players from competing at the CHL level to make space.

It’s been five years since a Canadian goalie was selected first at his position in the NHL draft. For years, less than half of all goalies drafted have been from Canada.

So what? The only import goaltender selected in the first two rounds of the draft in the time period described by Cox is Christopher Gibson, who went un-signed by the Los Angeles Kings. Only two goaltenders in the Top 25 North Americans ranked by NHL Central Scouting are CHL imports: Bartosak (eighth) and Swift Current's Eetu Laurikainen (23rd).

The top goalie at last week’s Memorial Cup tournament was Russian netminder Andrei Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades.

Makarov went undrafted last season in the NHL, just like he was by every QMJHL team in the Lewiston MAINEiacs dispersal draft. It's not like Q teams were champing at the bit to select a goaltender that would allow them to not play a Canadian.

What David Branch, Cox, and all need to realize is that the successes of goaltenders developing abroad isn't affected by the CHL. The CHL hasn't been creating absurd opportunities for young European goaltenders. Just five imports in the last ten years (and probably more, but I only went back to 2003) have been selected in the first seven rounds of the NHL draft. Those goaltenders have combined for just four NHL games.

The reality of the situation is that Canada, not just in goaltending, is no longer the dominant force in the world in hockey. National organizations have come close to catching up to Hockey Canada in quality of coaching, quality of infrastructure and level of interest. The U.S. and Sweden have become forces on the U-20 and U-18 circuits and this isn't thanks only to the available spots in the CHL. Two of the six Americans selected in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft chose the NCAA over the CHL.

The CHL is still a top developmental league that's overwhelmingly made up of Canadian players and has opened itself up to American players as a way of "competing" against the NCAA for star U.S. talent. There's not so much sabre-rattling when Seth Jones or Cam Fowler ditches the United States to play for the CHL as if a spot is being taken from a young Canadian skater. The QMJHL requires teams to select two American-born players at its draft in an effort to increase the visibility of the league in the northeastern United States.

The fact that other countries are now good at hockey doesn't mean Canada needs to apply protectionist rules to its league.

Cam Charron is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Follow him on Twitter @camcharron

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