The only thing missing was the USA Hockey logo on the top of the pads; it was covered up. That didn’t diminish the significance of his debut for those associated with developing United States-born goalies.
Knight, who turned 20 the day before, made 33 saves in a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He became the first goalie born in the 2000s to appear in an NHL game, and the youngest in Panthers history to win one.
His performance was the latest evidence that an emphasis on developing top-tier goalies by USA Hockey is continuing to pay dividends since its implementation in 2007, when it added a full-time goalie coach to the United States National Team Development Program and began creating other programs and initiatives to strengthen the position.
In 2007-08, there were 11 U.S.-born goalies to make a regular-season NHL appearance; four played in at least 20 games. This season, 20 U.S.-born goalies have made at least one appearance, down from a high of 28 last season. But 10 of those goalies in 2019-20 made more than 20 appearances, with nine on pace to do it this season.
“It’s great to see more and more American guys breaking into the League,” Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko said. “There’s a good bunch of us that are still getting better and on the rise.”
The 25-year-old, who became the No. 1 goalie for the Canucks this season, worked with Knight in 2016 and 2017 at the Warren Strelow National Team Goaltending Camp, a development program run each offseason by USA Hockey.
Demko was also one of a dozen current and former NHL goalies who gathered on a Zoom call on New Year’s Eve to discuss goaltending and watch Knight help the United States defeat Sweden 4-0 in World Juniors pool play in Edmonton.
The call was organized by USA Hockey to continue building a sense of family among U.S.-born goalies. Thirty were on the call, including current members of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, as well as retired NHL goalies Robert Esche, Brian Boucher, Mike Richter and Jimmy Howard. Among the active NHL goalies were Demko, Ben Bishop and Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars, Cory Schneider of the New York Islanders, and Ryan Miller of the Anaheim Ducks, who leads U.S.-born goalies with 390 NHL wins.
“I’m happy to see so many Americans entering the position,” said Miller, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2010 as the best goalie in the NHL and a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “[It] really shows how the game has grown in the USA.”
Building a bond and a sense of community among the goalie fraternity in the United States is an important element of the growth at top levels, said Steve Thompson, American Development Model goaltending manager for USA Hockey. He says it is also vital to USA Hockey’s goal of having U.S.-born goalies playing 51 percent of the minutes in the NHL by 2030.
The New Year’s Eve call included Jack McCartan, who won a gold medal with the United States at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Jim Craig, who did the same at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, said he was inspired by McCartan. Richter, who helped the United States win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, talked about being inspired by Craig. Bishop talked about getting motivation early in his career from watching Richter.
“That was a big moment for us,” Thompson said, “everybody recognizing the 51-in-’30 initiative and really being proud of what’s to come for USA goaltending.”
Knight being the central figure in the World Juniors game watched during that online gathering isn’t the only reason his NHL debut resonated.
“It feels like it’s been a long time coming for those who have been a part of the grassroots projects we’ve been working on since 2016,” Thompson said. “Spencer has worked with many of the people [who] laid the foundation down for the changes we’ve made. I think this is kind of that first curve, where we’re starting to see some of these young goalies come through with a different development environment than those previously.”
The young U.S.-born goalies making their way to the NHL will have experienced the changing environment, which includes launching a formal goaltending coach education and certification program in 2018. Knight, who played for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program before playing two seasons at Boston College, benefited from another change: the decision to move the Warren Strelow Camp from May to early August, in part to increase the mentorship component by bringing in professional goalies.
Howard and Demko are among the NHL goalies who have taken part and shared in the process of getting to know the next generation of goalies and exchanging ideas.
“We still text back and forth,” Demko said of Knight and himself. “Mostly me congratulating him on all of his accomplishments. Really proud of him.”
Knight also appears destined to be a big part of achieving that minutes goal in 2030. USA Hockey uses 2007 as its starting point because that was the year it added a full-time goaltending coach to the NTDP.
During 2007-08, U.S.-born goalies played 11.45 percent of NHL minutes. That number peaked in 2017-18 at 23.54 percent. It dropped to 17.96 percent last season, in part because traditional starters such as Howard (Detroit Red Wings), Miller, Schneider (then with the New Jersey Devils) and Craig Anderson (then with the Ottawa Senators) each saw his role reduced.
This season, that number is at 17.75 percent entering games Friday. Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner, leads the way with 37 starts.
Demko, Oettinger, 22; John Gibson, 27, of the Ducks; Alex Nedeljkovic, 25, of the Carolina Hurricanes; and Calvin Petersen, 26, of the Los Angeles Kings, are among the U.S.-born goalies making headlines this season in the NHL. Knight and Jeremy Swayman, 22, a rookie with the Boston Bruins, have added to the enthusiasm surrounding this crop of players at the position. Swayman, 22, is 5-1-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in his first six NHL starts.
“It’s an awesome time for young American goalies,” Petersen said.