It’s unfortunate that Michael DiPietro had to make his NHL debut in the middle of one of the busiest seasons of his life – and behind a Vancouver team that was, for yet another year, struggling to stay afloat.
DiPietro allowed a whopping seven goals during a game in which he was given no chance to exit the contest, posting a .708 save percentage and making just 17 saves when all was said and done.
Just as the summation of Roberto Luongo’s career won’t be judged by a single Game 7, though, DiPietro’s status as one of Vancouver’s most promising prospects outside of the NHL is hardly challenged by a tough (and heavily premature) outing for the now-20-year-old goaltender. Fresh off a year with both OHL and NHL action, a deep playoff run, and an unbelievable World Juniors performance, he’s still primed to be one of Vancouver’s likely challengers for the future of their depth chart as they look ahead to what will be the peak years of the Elias Pettersson era.
DiPietro is headed for the AHL this season, where he’ll likely get a chance to ease into his pro career with a bit more moderation than when he was briefly thrust into the NHL spotlight last season. And he’ll need the time to properly adjust – but if all goes well, the Canucks will have a safety net in the instance that Thatcher Demko struggles (or Jacob Markström regresses after his solid step forward this past season).
I wrote quite a bit about DiPietro last season when he was traded from the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires to the Ottawa 67’s to make a deep Memorial Cup run.
The biggest observation made about DiPietro is typically how, to put it lightly, he’s not all that big himself. The Windsor native stands just under 6 feet tall, providing a stark contrast to the looming Demko in the team’s positional pipeline.
Where teams have been somewhat skittish on smaller-framed goaltenders, though, DiPietro has managed to shove aside the fears many have by showing how positional precision can overcome a lack of size. He’s smooth on his feet and quick with his movements, willing to come out a bit farther than a bigger goaltender might need to in order to gain some extra perceived bulk against a shooter while still working to maintain good depth.
One of the biggest stand-outs in DiPietro’s game is how accurate and controlled he tends to be. He’s developed phenomenal crease awareness, making it easy to move around and know where he is relative to both his goal line and his posts – and he’s rarely caught playing without good form, keeping his arms close and his stance narrow to avoid wasted movement or unnecessary opened holes.
Those areas of his game are all that keep him from getting peppered with ‘easy’ goals at his size, so it’s easy to write them off as simple survival instincts. After all, he wouldn’t be where he is now if he wasn’t able to use those extra technical advantages to do things like stay on his feet longer (which eliminates that space up high for shooters to pick) and make quick movements back to his post on sharp-angle plays (which allows him to seal his posts more effectively).
In theory, though, every smaller goaltender would be thriving at the NHL level if it was as easy as just learning these ‘survival skills’. The fact that DiPietro has figured it out at the major junior and international level is promising – and not something that deserves the brush-off.
His biggest weakness, though, may be size-related as well. Although he’s capable of playing successfully with moderate depth, DiPietro sometimes has a bad habit of playing more aggressively than he needs to – which leads to open back door spaces and extra ground for him to cover when the defense collapses. There’s something to be said for having enough pad reach to get across the crease on a nasty cross-ice pass when the defense fails to do its job, and the fact that DiPietro doesn’t quite have the same advantage as Markström or Demko means that he has to work especially hard to remain in an ideal position. Every time he gets caught too far out, he leaves himself vulnerable; he’ll have to continue working on that at the AHL level before he’ll be ready to truly hit the ice with Vancouver.