Drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft, Cannata’s development over the past couple of seasons has the Canucks, and many of the club’s fans excited. He checks in as the #10 prospect on our list.
Last season, Joe Cannata was one of the best goaltenders in college hockey. He started 36 games for Hockey East’s Merrimack Warriors and was basically unbeatable, posting a .925% save percentage behind a team that regularly got shelled. His performance earned him 2nd team All American honours, he was named Hockey East first team as well, and he nearly led the Warriors to the schools fsecond NCAA Tournament berth (they narrowly fell short in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Rhode Island).
Cannata was a senior last season, so he’s played his last game in NCAA division 1 hockey. He signed a professional contract with the Canucks shortly after Merrimack’s season ended, and he even started a game late in the regular season for the Chicago Wolves. Cannata leaves behind one hell of a legacy, he’ll graduate from Merrimack as the school’s all time leader in wins, minutes, saves, goals-against average and save percentage.
Before the NHL Draft, I exchanged e-mails with goaltending coach Brian Daccord of "Stop it Goaltending," who has worked closely with Joe Cannata over the past few seasons (he’s also worked with Cory Schneider). Brian in particular, raved about Cannata’s technique, and the efficiency with which he utilizes his wide-frame in the net:
"One of Joe’s attributes is his ability to fill the net. From the first time we got on the ice I was impressed with how square he gets to the puck. I remember looking at the net and asking myself how the puck was going to get by him. In today’s NHL, with so much traffic and the speed of the game, Joe’s girth will help him tremendously. [Cory Schneider] was a very athletic goalie with very little technique when I started with him. Joe has always had efficiency in his movement."
When I recently spoke with Justin Goldman (aka The Goalie Guild) he had a similar appraisal of Cannata’s skill-set:
"Cannata is wider than he is tall. He takes up a lot of the net post-to-post, as opposed to being a really tall lanky goaltender. The number one goal for a goalie is to square up to pucks and take up as much space as possible, and Joe plays big in the net despite not having the greatest size or the greatest athleticism.
When you have that, you have a guy who can be economical in his movements (and that may have been a factor in why he was able to be so durable for Merrimack). That’s one of the things I noticed about Cannata: he plays big for his size, he takes up a lot of space, he absorbs a lot of pucks, and if he gives up rebounds he doesn’t have to flail or dive around. Cannata finds a way to stay balanced, and stay in control of his body like a sponge in the net."
Cannata’s calm, steady style of play isn’t just an aesthetic, it’s reflective of his personality. Brian Daccord described Cannata as a guy with an exceptionally short memory (an invaluable asset for a goaltender). "Nothing really phases him," Brian told me, adding that "If [Cannata] was in a house on fire, he would probably stop in the kitchen to make himself a sandwich on his way out." Brian also told us that Cannata "is not a goalie that fluctuated in hot and cold games. Joe’s dependability will be an asset that a head coach will appreciate."
Justin Goldman, who described Cannata as "an under the radar prospect with NHL upside," echoed the sentiment that Cannata has all of the intangibles one looks for in a high-end goaltending prospect. He also thinks Cannata’s role at Merrimack, playing behind a team that really relied on his puck stopping ability to keep them in games, gives Cannata a leg up over other young goalies:
"In Cannata you have a goaltender who knows how to carry a team, and play essentially every single game. In Hockey East, he’s facing good talent, and for him moving forward – you saw it in his AHL debut (where he hung in there and had a great performance) – I see a guy who is probably going to surprise a lot of people this season in Chicago.
That’s what you want. When you have a guy with leadership qualities like Joe has the sky is really the limit. Skill can take you places, and you have to have it if you’re going to push to be an NHL goaltender. But for a goalie: having the mental toughness and the ability to handle the ups and downs and be a durable guy, that’s what really separates you from the pack. I really like what he can probably do here, in the next two or three years with Vancouver."
Going into this season (if the season ever happens), it’s hard to project where exactly Joe Cannata fits in. With Luongo still on the roster and Eddie Lack unsigned, there’s a lot of uncertainty between the pipes in the Canucks system. If Luongo is moved before the start of the upcoming (and probably delayed) campaign, it’s possible that Eddie Lack will backup Cory Schneider in Vancouver. In that scenario, Joe Cannata would have ample opportunity to battle with Matt Climie for starts in Chicago. At the very least he’d be in competition with recently signed Mathieu Corbeil-Theriault for the right to backup Climie.
Of course, if Luongo remains with the Canucks, it’s tough to see Cannata usurping Matt Climie or Eddie Lack with the Wolves. In that case, it seems probable that Cannata could spend a significant amount of time cutting his teeth in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings. For skaters, playing regular minutes in the ECHL is usually a very bad sign, but it’s a bit different for goaltenders (see Reimer, James). According to Justin Goldman, the ECHL may not be the worst place for Cannata to get his feet wet in professional hockey:
"For college goalies, you’re playing only two nights a week and then you’re just practicing for five days. College goalies, I think, benefit more from starting off in the ECHL because they get a better understanding of the demands of the pro-level, and what it’s like to practice every day and play every other day."
Based on the way Cannata performed last season, both with Merrimack and in his one game stint with the Wolves, he’s got an awful lot going for him. While Cannata will have a lot of competition for minutes in Chicago, that’s probably a good thing for his long-term development. And anyway, if Cannata can continue to build off of his lights-out performance last season, he shouldn’t have any trouble getting his share of starts.