The Vancouver Giants go with a sixteen-year-old goalie


Payton Lee had played pretty big in his two games with the Giants so far this season.
(Photo: Patrick Johnston)

It could take a sixteen-year-old netminder to save the Vancouver Giants’ season. At 5-12, the Giants are quickly spiralling into oblivion. Tyler Liston, anointed as starter after a good training camp, has nose-dived, putting up a .827 save percentage. His back-up, Tyler Fuhr, hasn’t fared much better. In front of the goalies, the defence has been all over the place, yielding turnovers at the rate of an industrial bakery. Even Don Hay has expressed frustration at times, admitting that the goalies haven’t come up with the big save when the team really needed one.

And then along came Payton. Read on past the jump!

Payton Lee, a 16-year-old Junior B goalie for the Richmond Sockeyes, drafted last year in the bantam draft, played two games at the end of last month, stopping 90.5 per cent of the shots fired at him, a remarkable number for a major junior goalie. That’s just two games of course, but he did ok last year as well, posting at .885 clip in three games. Of course, then he was just 15. 

Giants general manager Scott Bonner told The Province’s Steve Ewen that the Giants are happy with Lee but also don’t want to upset the cart yet.

Giants general manager Scott Bonner wouldn’t rule out Lee flying in to join the club on this jaunt if something goes awry, but, for now, the plan is to give Liston (0-5, 4.68 goals against, .802 save percentage) and Fuhr (2-3, 3.37, .846) chances to re-establish themselves.

Bonner did say that the Giants aren’t about to yo-yo Lee (1-1, 2.02, .905) between the WHL and the PIJHL’s Richmond Sockeyes for any extended period, so the next time he comes up, it’ll likely be for good. Right now, he’s on an affiliate player card, so they need Richmond’s permission to use him.

As for the goalie situation, Bonner said Saturday morning: "We’re sorting it out, as we speak. I think by the time the trip concludes we should be set."

So how succesful can such a young goalie be? 

Last year, powerhouse Portland used 16-year-old Brendan Burke as their back-up, giving him 18 games in relief. This year, he was expected to become the starter, but the picture in the Winterhawks crease has been pretty cloudy so far. But last season was a success for the young goalie, making spot starts and getting lots of practice time to hone his technique.

Interestingly enough, Cam Lanigan, who had spent some time in Portland to start the year, also filled a back-up role at age 16, playing 20 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2008-09. He’s patched together an up-and-down WHL career, but clearly he’s been seen as ‘good enough’ to spend five seasons in major junior.

Last year, the Giants ran Jackson Whistle out for 21 games. He stopped 87.3 percent of the shots fired his way. Now he’s backing up in Kelowna.

Here’s another 16-year-old: Tristan Jarry, who minded the Oil Kings’ net for 18 games last year. Starting to spot a trend? 16-year-olds rarely find themselves as the starting goalie.

What happens after that 16-year-old season is indicative of something else. Teams rarely give much icetime to young goalies, but when they do, there are clearly other signs of talent.

Looking at the save percentages of goalies who have been drafted by NHL teams in the last six years – and who played reasonable minutes in the WHL at age 16 – it seemed obvious to expand that pool and look at current WHL goalies who are and started at the same age as Lee is now. 

The chart below shows those goalies’ save percentages by age.

You can see there’s a trend upwards here – almost every single goalie has improved from one year to the next. It should be noted that Whistler, Jarry, Comrie, Moodie and Lotz are all currently in their age-17 seasons; Moodie is an exception and has had an awful start to the year, playing just two games. Nonetheless, these small sample-size guys fit the pattern.

Also intriguing to note is the physical maturity argument – except for Chet Pickard (drafted in 2008), every goalie in both groups was born in the first half of the year.

So we see two things – 16-year-olds never get leaned on to be the number one guy, but putting up solid numbers at age 16, even in limited numbers, suggests plenty for the goalie’s future development.

So, back to Payton Lee. He played ok in camp, but Tyler Fuhr’s surprising performance meant the Giants felt comfortable enough with the netminding situation to send Lee back to Richmond. But with Fuhr’s struggles, on top of Liston’s, Lee’s chance emerged.

"I feel a lot more comfortable here than I did at the start of the year," Lee said after Saturday’s win. He’s been working with Giants goalie coach Paul Fricker to improve his butterfly technique. Lee said the lone goal he allowed on against the Royals was because he wasn’t quick enough getting into his butterfly.

Keeping a higher level of focus is another area of concentration for him. He was tested in that department in his second game on the recent recall, facing only 13 shots in the game – and none in the first period. That’s a challenge for any goalie, but Lee was philosophical: "If they’re not going to shoot, thank ’em," he said. "Last year in Seattle it was the same thing, no shots in the first period."

It’s about keeping yourself loose and ready, said Giants head coach Don Hay. "The challenge for a young goalie is not do too much when he’s not getting much action. If it’s ‘freeze the puck,’ then freeze the puck," said Hay. "It was good to see the young goalie play solid, get a win." 

As for keeping himself prepped for what might be another recall, Lee said he would keep what he’d done in the past week in mind. "[In Junior B] I can’t play down, I’ve got to play at this pace, try to outwork everybody," he said.