It’s been a busy off-season for Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche, at least in the area of goaltending. There are a few good reasons though why Sakic was so busy and it comes down to the Avalanche 2017/18 season ending depth chart:
Semyon Varlamov (UFA 2019)
Jonathan Bernier (UFA 2018)
Andrew Hammond (UFA 2018)
Spencer Martin (RFA 2018)
Joe Cannata (UFA 2018)
Adam Werner (Unsigned Prospect)
Petr Kvaca (Unsigned Prospect)
There were not only a lot of potential holes opening up in the depth chart with three pending UFA’s and a pending RFA there was also the fact there was no long term contract at the goaltending position. For Sakic this meant there were a lot of questions to be answered at the goaltending position. Who do you bring back? What do you do with Varlamov? Is this the off-season that you bring over Werner or Kvaca? Is there a long-term plan in net? Do the Avs take a goalie in the draft and if yes who do they target?
Looking back now with training camp close to start we can firmly say that Sakic deserves full marks for answering nearly every single question possible regarding Avalanche goaltending. We got the answer to who will Sakic bring back, the answer being Spencer Martin and Joe Cannata. Was this the off-season where Sakic was going to bring over Werner or Kvaca? No, both are going to stay in Europe for at least one more season which is a smart move to take full advantage of being able to wait longer on European goalie prospects compared to CHL ones.
Sakic got the ball rolling early into the off-season as he signed KHL Goalie of the Year Pavel Francouz to a 1-year deal. For long term goaltending Sakic got a bit creative in his acquisition of Philipp Grubauer only paying a 2nd round pick when the price was higher. Days later Grubauer was signed to a 3-year deal, the longest goalie contract currently on the books for the Avalanche. When it came to the draft Sakic decided that not only did the Avalanche need a top goalie prospect by taking Justus Annunen in the 3rd round and then in the 7th round decided having one more goalie prospect couldn’t hurt by taking Shamil Shmakov. In all this season Sakic added four new goalies to the Avalanche goalie depth chart leaving the depth chart looking something like this:
As this is a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” write-up the focus is going to be on two of the more unknown additions to the team in Pavel Francouz and Shamil Shmakov as Grubauer/Annunen have already been covered this off-season to a good enough extent that one more article on any of those two would be just beating you over the head. So if you want to learn more about Philipp Grubauer Catherine Silverman (goalie extraordinaire) did a write-up on him and for Justus Annunen you can see the full write-up on him at this link which is a PDF page from the 2018 Crease Giants Goalie Guide. Now onto the main course…
And to start this off we’ll look at the Avs newest 7th round pick, Shamil Shmakov. For nearly everyone this pick was a surprise. Not because the pick was a Russian or a draft overager goalie, rather because it was the 2nd goalie the Avs took in the 2018 NHL Draft. The Avs haven’t taken two goalies in the same draft since 2010 when they took Calvin Pickard followed by Sami Aittokallio. On the stat sheet Shmakov certainly earned himself the eyes of scouts at the very least posting a 0.932 SV% in 51 MHL games. Only one other goalie hit the +50 GP mark in the MHL and that was Flyers 2017 draft pick Kirill Ustimenko. Shmakov’s 0.932 SV% ranked 6th in the MHL this past year with all the goalies in front of him playing less than 40 games and only one goalie hitting the +30 GP mark. Coming into this season expect to see Shmakov play most, if not all, of his games in the MHL this year with the VHL being the next step for Shmakov’s DY+3 season.
On the ice if you were to look up “project goalie” in the hockey dictionary there’s a very high chance you’ll see Shmakov’s picture. On the one hand you can see why the Avalanche decided to draft him. He does well in tracking the puck and he’s above average in his physical skill set even for a big framed goalie making him decently quick around the crease. Everything else about Shmakov is raw. There’s a lot to work in his game. Shmakov is the most raw in the technical part of the game. Part of that is because he needs to fill out more. When you’re 6’ 6” but still a U20 goalie there’s a high chance you haven’t filled out your frame out enough to lean heavy into a technical style of play. So for now Shmakov is mostly focused on just making the save which is where his tracking comes in. It obviously works now but as the level of play gets higher the technical holes in his game will be exploited more often.
The other big hole that Shmakov will have to work on improving is learning how to use his size properly. He’s a 6’ 6” goalie that plays like 6’ 0” Michael DiPietro. It’s not uncommon for Shmakov to be seen a foot or so outside of his crease. It works now but as the level of play gets higher the more exposed he’ll be to cross ice passes or quick drives to the net. He’s quick but his recoveries are uncontrolled putting him in situations where he’s wildly out of position when he doesn’t need to be. Will also need to watch that he avoids his happy feet as much as possible which will definitely be a work in progress. Current Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov didn’t lose his happy feet habit until Francois Allaire coached it out of him at the age of 26.
Overall it could be a long time before we see Shmakov make a permanent trip to North America to play hockey in the Avalanche organization. This is good though as his rights don’t expire until he hits the NHL free agency age of 27 and he needs the time to develop anyways. He’s essentially the long-game goalie drafting strategy to the extreme.
At the other end of the spectrum is Pavel Francouz and it’s going to be really hard to keep my own personal hype in check on him. On the stats sheet Francouz was just a monster this past season and he definitely helped fuel his own hype train. Among KHL goalies with +1000 Minutes Played Francouz is far and away tops in SV% with a 0.946 with the next closest being a 0.939 SV%. Francouz’s goalie partner Vasily Demchenko only posted a 0.931 SV% himself which was obviously above the KHL average SV% of 0.923 but pales in comparison to Francouz. In the Quality Starts % category Francouz once again reigns over his partner with a 0.793 QS% compared to Demchenko’s 0.667 QS%. A promising look into Francouz’s mindset is looking how he performs in bounce back situations. After having a bad or worse start statistically Francouz has bounced back with an overall 0.750 QS% and 0.952 SV% in four of these situations. Lastly taking one last look into how Francouz stacked up against the rest of the KHL he was the only goalie to hit the +20 Goals Saved Above Average mark with a 24.699 GSAA and the only KHL goalie to hit the +0.500 GSAA/30 mark with a 0.682 GSAA/30. No matter how you slice the season Francouz had he more than earned KHL Top Goalie honours and the NHL contract he’s on.
None of this statistical dominance though would be possible if Francouz wasn’t good on the ice and yes he is very good on the ice. If you want the short version then Francouz is a smaller, slightly less calmer and slightly less controlled version of Semyon Varlamov. The long version is as follows. The most noticeable aspect of Francouz is the guy is just quick in everything he does. He’s quick to react to plays, he has quick reactions in close, and of course he’s quick in moving around the crease. And he essentially has to be as quick as he is because of his size disadvantage. The amount of control he has over his edges is very important to his level of play. He gets into position quickly and doesn’t over shoot where he’s aiming to end up. His footwork is equally as good allowing him to stay on top of his feet for as long as he needs to allowing him to often take away the option of a clear shot over the shoulder.
A part of his game that could be considered an underrated part of his success is how well he adjusts his depth to the situations presented to him. Francouz knows he’s at a size disadvantage but he also knows how dangerous passes can be to a goalie. In order to combat this he’s always aware of his depth and what profile he’s presenting to the puck carrier. Another part of his game that quietly ensured his KHL success is how adept he is at the technical part of goaltending. His form when moving doesn’t loosen up or break apart. For a large part of the game Francouz presents the same solid, tight profile to every shooter. No matter what you do it’s hard to get him to open up and put the puck through him. You only scored on Francouz in the KHL on near perfect plays whether they be passes that cross the royal road or the perfect shot off the rush.
If he does have a weakness it’s on screens. Despite being 5’ 11” Francouz likes to try and look over screens rather than through them. He’s relatively successful at this as he’s able to track the puck around the ice and see the shot happen. What happens after the shot leaves the stick though is where Francouz gets into trouble. He drops down hoping the puck stays on the same trajectory that it was when it left the stick so any redirection leaves him more vulnerable than the average goalie and even if he makes the save there is the issue of a dangerous rebound being created. What to keep an eye out for during training camp and his first few weeks in the AHL is how Francouz adjusts to North American ice. For a goalie that moves around as quickly as Francouz does it’s going to be important to nail down his positioning. It’s not something that should affect him for long, just something to keep an eye on if he does struggle in his first few weeks.
Lastly when it comes to puck handling he’s essentially a no-impact, safe puck playing goalie. If he sees an opportunity to throw the puck up the ice he’ll do so as long as there’s little-to-no pressure on him. Otherwise he’ll prevent further greying of coaches and players hair.
Looking forward to next season what we’ll see from Francouz at the very least is someone that makes the Colorado Eagles competitive all on his own and considering the Colorado Avalanche AHL affiliate history that’s a rather big accomplishment for anyone. There’s a high chance Francouz will have one of the best AHL seasons the Avalanche have seen from one of their goalies. In the NHL Francouz has a solid chance at not only being a NHL back-up but a good one as well. Will he be a NHL starter? That’s tough to say without seeing how he reacts to the jump in skill in the NHL but for right now Sakic did well in identifying a goalie that can help solidify the back-up position for a few years. It’s not a guarantee that Francouz works out but if you’re going to give a goalie a chance Francouz is one that deserves it.