Second City Hockey’s 2019-20 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2019. The rankings are determined by a composite score from six SCH writers and more than 70 readers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. The six SCH writers will make their ballots public after the series is completed.
The Blackhawks are entering their twilight years with Corey Crawford, and the team has been steadily working to draft and sign new goaltending prospects in hopes of finding the next franchise starter.
One of those young goaltenders is German-born, Canadian-raised Alexis Gravel, who brings size and a desire to take steps forward with his game to the team’s group of recently-drafted netminders. The 19-year-old, fresh off a Memorial Cup tournament run and an appearance for Team Canada at the World Juniors Summer Showcase, will return to the QMJHL this fall in hopes of elevating his game once again in preparation of going pro in 2020.
Gravel was Chicago’s sixth-round pick in 2018, bringing even more size to their prospect pool after failing to use any of their nine draft selections in 2017 on a goalie. Standing at 6-foot-3 and around 220 pounds, he fits the mold for the way the team seems to have addressed goaltending development in the last handful of years; they’ve drafted bigger goaltenders (6-4 Wouter Peeters in 2016 and 6-6 Dominic Basse this year) while signing overlooked and “undersized” undrafted free agents like Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen after they’ve proven themselves in their respective development roles.
Thanks in large part to his size and his upbringing as the son of a professional goalie, Gravel plays a “big and calm” style teams tend to praise when looking at young players they can bring into their systems. He’s able to radiate a sense of confidence among his teammates by playing without extra movements, last-second stops and terrifying trips outside of his crease.
That size gives him a natural advantage when he does get into position, taking up more space in the crease and eliminating extra holes for shooters to take advantage of. Statistically, it seems like that worked in his favor in the QMJHL this past season; he posted a career-best .913 save percentage in 49 games for the Halifax Mooseheads, then went on to put up a .917 save percentage en route to the Memorial Cup tournament during his team’s 23-game playoff appearance in the spring.
The biggest concern when it comes to his game, though, is that his size trade-off is a lack of high-level agility. He doesn’t have the wide butterfly or elite-level lower-body mobility that some of his contemporaries are able to use to cover more of the bottom of their creases, and it can leave him with some vulnerable corners if he misreads plays. His recovery speed is a little bit behind those of smaller, more nimble prospects as well, which may end up leaving him with a sharp learning curve when he graduates to the pro game eventually.
The best-case scenario for Gravel is that he’s three or four years out from being tested at the NHL level, which certainly isn’t a problem for the Blackhawks. Their current depth chart has a two promising AHL players in Delia and Lankinen, who could provide strong options as NHL backups next year if either Robin Lehner or Corey Crawford move on in free agency during the summer of 2020. That gives Gravel a potential spot to slide in at the minor league level when he leaves the QMJHL, and enough established depth ahead of him that Chicago won’t need to rush his development at all.
At the moment, though, there’s still the concern his game doesn’t have the higher-gear reaction speed or lateral mobility to thrive in the faster, more relentless pro game — so while he remains their most promising of the three most recently drafted prospects, it’s still tough to project him as a sure thing.
Are you kidding me Alexis Gravel! @NHLBlackhawks prospect from @HFXMooseheads slides across and robs with the glove to represent the @QMJHL in this week’s #CIBCShowdown.— CanadianHockeyLeague (@CHLHockey) May 5, 2019
VOTE: https://t.co/fI3X1ciXjM pic.twitter.com/gbKrUx9EAd
#HighlightOfTheNight | @HFXMooseheads goaltender Alexis Gravel makes an unreal pad save to stop a @quebec_remparts 2-on-0! #QPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/ShlTOUGtFA— QMJHL (@QMJHL) March 27, 2019
Alexis Gravel right now = pic.twitter.com/DRYyDq9bGp— QMJHL (@QMJHL) May 19, 2019
#Blackhawks Alexis Gravel makes a few stops #WJSS pic.twitter.com/Q5ZcDXWc5F— Brandon (@brandonmcain) August 3, 2019
Gravel will return to Halifax, where he’ll play for his fourth head coach and goaltending coach in as many years. The Mooseheads will have J.J. Diagneault and Joey Perricone in those respective roles, with the latter having held the same position with Moncton (2017-19) and Rouyn-Noranda (2014-17).
Gravel will likely see Edmonton’s Olivier Rodrigue and Minnesota’s Hunter Jones as his stiffest competition on the Canadian national team this year at the World Juniors, and there’s no guarantee he’ll beat them out to give fans a glimpse of his abilities on the international level. But if he’s able to show a bit of conditioning and continued development with his tracking, depth and decision-making, Rockford fans can look forward to what he’ll bring to the table in just a year’s time.
Is Alexis Gravel ranked too low, just right or too high?
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Cat Silverman is a contributor for The Athletic Arizona, EliteProspects, InGoal Magazine and SB Nation. A goaltender and journalist, she has coached with the Arizona Coyotes Department of Hockey Development and USA Hockey. Her work has also been featured at NHL.com and Yahoo Sports. Follow her on Twitter at @catmsilverman.