Any goaltender who makes it to the Memorial Cup deserves a round of applause; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the majority of players who make it and a memory that few get the honor of making.
Still, there’s always a goaltender or two at the Memorial Cup who gets heralded as the player to watch. And with Prince Albert’s Ian Scott — a Maple Leafs super prospect — and draft-eligible Nicolas Daws of the Guelph Storm headlining their respective clubs, the host club’s starting netminder isn’t quite the same marquee draw as some of the others set to start the tournament.
Alexis Gravel has picked up a bit of attention for incredibly respectable numbers in a tough-to-survive QMJHL as a starter for the Halifax Mooseheads. His .913 save percentage in all situations ranked 10th among all goaltenders with at least one game played and fifth among starters, earning him Goaltender of the Month honors for the league twice during the regular season. He was one of the five standouts at the end of the season, falling just short of the top honors for goaltenders (behind fellow Memorial Cup competitor Samuel Harvey of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies), and set a franchise shutout record for Halifax with 195:59 of consecutive goalless action.
Still, he remains far from one of the top standouts ahead of the CHL’s top tournament. Already drafted and continuing to boast some minor size and agility concerns, he’s just as much the high-risk, high-reward option he was when Chicago selected him 162nd overall at the draft in Dallas this past summer.
It sounds like a knock against Gravel, but that’s far from the truth. In reality, he’s going to draw less attention than the other goaltenders entering the tournament — but should be an enjoyable prospect to watch for Blackhawks fans no matter what.
Pros to his game
Ahead of the draft, one of the biggest strengths that Gravel managed to display was his calm, collected demeanor and insightful, intelligent ability to evaluate his own game. His interviews were devoid of the superficial, canned answers insisting he’s just trying to play the game the right way and he likes to be active, instead favoring candid responses with thought-out analysis of his strengths and weaknesses along with confidence-inspiring confessions revealing his goaltending idols and styles he hoped to imitate.
His size can be as much of a strength as it is a weakness, too. He’s knocked for looking like a listed 219 pounds could be generously low, but he lets the criticisms roll off him and uses a naturally bigger stature to his advantage. When he’s in position, it’s tough to get past him — and he seems smart enough to understand how to get into position when he needs to be.
He’s also made up for a slower lower body reaction speed with some of the quickest hands in junior hockey. Take a look at this save from December:
To the point where he almost seems to use his hands more than necessary, Gravel has fine-tuned his upper-body movement enough to make the desperation saves and last minute reaches that a delayed lower-body movement would require. He won’t make the same lateral push like Sergei Bobrovsky or Jonathan Quick can to get back into position after overcommitting to a shooter, but he can reach back and launch himself at the puck well enough that between his talented hands and his tracking development, he’s able to make the stops anyway.
Some goaltenders throughout the years have made careers out of being quick, fast, and flexible — but others have managed to carve out spots for themselves in the pros by ignoring critics and playing to their own strengths. Gravel’s size is only a hindrance if he lets it be — and by all accounts, he’s set out to play up to his strengths instead. In a world where the critics can forget to be kind (and that prospects are still kids), he deserves a round of applause for forging a path that works well for him.
Improvements to watch for
Gravel’s over-reliance on his glove hand can be easy enough to overlook, but at times it seems to cost him. The ‘highlight-reel’ save shown above does a good job of showing off his strength, but it also shows some of his still-needed areas of improvement, too.
Ahead of the save, two skaters from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles approached the offensive zone along their respective sides of the ice, with the right wing carrying the puck and the left wing awaiting a potential pass.
Gravel stays out of the blue paint even after the forward enters the offensive zone, playing with a level of aggression that a player of his height simply doesn’t need to — and then stays squared to the puck-carrier even as the Cape Bretoner telegraphs with both his stick and his head that he’s planning to make a pass.
By the time the puck is headed across the slot line, Gravel is wildly out of position and needs to reach out his glove to make a massive last-second save — and doesn’t have the lower-body agility to do so without losing his feet entirely, falling to the ice. If he’d failed to firmly hold on to the puck, it would have been an easy rebound and an easier goal.
That depth, and that reliance on his glove hand to save the day when there’s no hope of a lateral recovery or reversed direction, could start to cause problems as he moves to higher levels. It could also cause some problems in the most desperation-driven tournament in junior hockey, where the plays will be faster and the shots will be taken with more vigor to live on a prayer.
Ultimately, though, Gravel and the Mooseheads are in the Memorial Cup on host’s honors. It’s a ride that they’re along for by virtue of luck, not placement — and that’s perfectly OK.
It means extra time for Blackhawks fans to keep an eye on one of their newer prospects, though, and could make for a few highlight-reel saves to tuck away for the long doldrums of the summer.
Memorial Cup schedule
May 17: Prince Albert vs. Halifax, 6 p.m.
May 18: Rouyn-Noranda vs. Guelph, 2:30 p.m.
May 19: Halifax vs. Guelph, 6 p.m.
May 20: Rouyn-Noranda vs. Prince Albert, 6 p.m.
May 21: Guelph vs. Prince Albert, 6 p.m.
May 22: Halifax vs. Rouyn-Noranda, 6 p.m.
May 23: *Tiebreaker, 6 p.m.
May 24: Semifinal, 6 p.m.
May 26: Championship, 6 p.m.
All times Central
All games will be broadcasted on NHL Network.
Cat Silverman is a contributor for SB Nation and The Athletic Arizona. A goaltender and journalist, she has coached with the Arizona Coyotes Department of Hockey Development and USA Hockey, and is a regular contributor at InGoal Magazine. Her work has also been featured at NHL.com and Yahoo Sports. Follow her on Twitter at @catmsilverman.