June 24th, 2011, St. Paul, Minnesota. Bryan Murray and his staff make their way toward the stage at the Excel Energy Center during the NHL Entry Draft. From the Anaheim Ducks draft table Bob Murray observes his Ottawa counterpart shake hands with the commissioner while holding a Senators sweater that he will soon hand to a teenager whose life will change forever. They hold the 21st overall draft pick, one ahead of Anaheim. Months of preparation from the scouting staff is about to come to fruition. Many names have been crossed off their list and the teenager they covet is finally within their grasp. That is if Ottawa’s assistant general manager Tim Murray doesn’t call the name they have circled.
“The Ottawa Senators select Stefan Noesen.”
Nevermind. With Anaheim now on the clock Bob Murray has a decision to make. He can either take one of a number of kids still on the board his staff feel are pretty interchangeable or he can trade down and acquire an additional pick to further deepen his prospect pool. He works the phones to let his fellow GMs know he wants to move down. His old boss Brian Burke just so happens to have his eye on a kid that he doesn’t think will be there when his Leafs pick at 30. So, he offers up that pick and 39th overall so he can make Tyler Biggs a Toronto Maple Leaf. Murray accepts and now has to wait another hour to make Rickard Rakell the last player taken in the first round. A seemingly innocuous trade at the time, that transaction could go down as one of the biggest in Ducks history.
The next day Murray’s staff selected whom many believed to have been the best goaltender in the draft, John Gibson, with the 39th selection. Hockey fans and pundits alike knew immediately that the Ducks just picked up a really good player. This writer is not sure that anyone predicted just how good he was going to be over the next three years. The six-foot-three Pittsburgh native had impressed scouts while tending goal for the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was slated to join the University of Michigan that fall but the allure to test his skills in the best junior league in the world was too strong. Gibson spent the next two seasons stopping pucks for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. His stellar play earned him a spot on the 2013 U.S. World Junior team where he led the Americans to just their third title while capturing best goalie and tournament MVP honors. Four months later Gibson found himself as Ben Bishop’s backup for team USA at the men’s championship in Scandinavia. Halfway through the tournament Gibson was tapped to go in for a struggling Bishop and nearly carried the team on his back to the gold. The team settled for bronze but the hockey world was on notice that John Gibson was no ordinary prospect.
Many people were eager to see Gibson in a Ducks uniform in the 2013-2014 season. But goaltending depth was a luxury for coach Bruce Boudreau who had Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth manning the nets for the Ducks. Fellow promising rookie Frederik Andersen was also waiting in the wings having come off a very strong new in Norfolk of the American Hockey League. So, Gibson would have to bide his time and learn to be a pro down in the minors. Early into the season Viktor Fasth suffered an abdominal injury that would end up costing him most of the season. Andersen was called up and Gibson suddenly became the starter in Norfolk. Like every situation prior, he dominated posting a 21-17-4 record with a .919 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.
A minor injury to Andersen late in the season lead to Gibson finally getting the call. With just a handful of games left and a division title still to win, Boudreau decided he wanted to see if this kid was as good as advertised. On April 7th, John Gibson made his NHL debut in Vancouver against the Canucks. Everyone wanted to see what the 20-year-old could do at this level and he didn’t disappoint posting an 18-save shutout in his very first game. Not to be outdone he followed that up with a 36-save effort against the Sharks to help the Ducks secure their second consecutive Pacific Division title. Gibson finished off his brief stint in the NHL with a 3-0 record, 1.33 goals-against average and .954 save percentage. A small sample size sure but an impressive debut nonetheless.
It wasn’t long into the spring when Gibson would be called upon again. While the Ducks battled the hated Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau made a bold move. After Andersen was felled by a knee injury in Game 3, rather than go with veteran Hiller he chose to throw young Gibson into the fire for a must-win game for the Ducks. Down 2-1 in the series, a loss would have all but shut the door on their season. Gibson had to be perfect and he was. He faced 28 shots and made 28 saves. The series was tied and all the hockey world could talk about was John Gibson. He backstopped the Ducks to a 4-3 in Game 5 with a 42 save effort that propelled them to a 3-2 lead in the series. Unfortunately the offense for the Ducks dried up in Game 6 and the Kings brought an onslaught in a crushing Game 7 defeat on home ice. It was a disappointing ending to an incredible season. But one thing was clear: John Gibson had arrived in a big way.
Going into the offseason, Bob Murray had a big decision to make: Does he go with Gibson and Andersen as his goaltending tandem or does he go after a veteran goalie and allow Gibson to continue to grow in the minors? Viktor Fasth had been dealt to Edmonton at the deadline and Hiller was headed for free agency. Rumors of Ryan Miller wanting to play on the West Coast have persisted for several seasons now. But as free agency came and went and the likes of Hiller and Miller found new homes up in Western Canada, it became abundantly clear that Murray was going with the two kids. You can hardly blame him after the season Andersen had and the brilliance Gibson displayed in the playoffs. But going with a couple of goalies aged 25 and 21 with a combined 42 games of NHL experience is gutsy, especially for a team that has their sights set on the Stanley Cup.
However, can Gibson live up to the hype? Stepping in a clutch situation and riding that adrenalin is one thing. Carrying your team over six months in the regular season while dealing with typical rookie growing pains is quite another. His calm demeanor stood out most during his performance in the playoffs, so you’d have to imagine the lessened pressure of the regular season should be a piece of cake for him. But he has a huge target on his back. He’s not some anonymous rookie teams don’t have a book on. Everyone knows this young man is the next one in goal and they’ll be doing everything they can to get in his head. Luckily, if the going gets tough, the alternative is Frederik Andersen who will be everything he can to be the man between the pipes.
What should expect from Gibson this year? If he plays to his abilities and is given the confidence to play the lion’s share of the games than he could have a Calder-type season, maybe even Vezina. But we’ve seen all too often rookie goalies unable to set into that role especially at his age. But every once in a while a Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur comes along and lets the world know a Hall of Fame career has begun. Is Gibson the next great goalie? Maybe. You can’t measure greatness until it’s smirking and winking at you. We’ll have to wait and see. But if that lanky youngster who almost single-handedly changed a playoff series back in May is the same kid manning the pipes this season, then we just might be seeing the start of something very special.