I have one word to sum up John Gibson’s performance in the 2013 World Junior Championships.
The Anaheim Ducks prospect led Team USA to a Gold Medal by stopping 193-of-202 shots in seven games, and posting a 1.36 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. He allowed just two goals in the medal round, shutting out the Czechs 7-0 in the quarterfinals, beating Canada 5-1 in the semifinals, and then limiting Sweden to just one goal in the finals. In those three games, he stopped 90-of-92 shots.
In my opinion, his statistical dominance wasn’t even the most impressive aspect of his play in the tourney. Instead, I was way more impressed with his mental toughness and relaxed demeanor. As the pressure rose with each and every game, he rarely ever appeared tense, rattled, or uncomfortable.
He was a pillar of poise in the medal round, and this helped him make timely save after timely save.
Technically speaking, there’s something special and different about the way Gibson stops the puck. He’s not the most polished or fluid skater, nor is he considered highly flexible and athletic. But behind sound positioning and pure strength (listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds), Gibson gave himself a chance to stop almost every shot he faced. He also played with a visibly high sense of urgency in each game; he was aggressive, he battled to find pucks in traffic, and he made desperation saves on a consistent basis.
I also thought Gibson was the antithesis for all of the talk I hear about North American goalies being too robotic. There’s really nothing “cookie-cutter” about him at all, and since he’s not overly technical or one of those goalies that always tries to look perfect, he moved and reacted in a simple and effective manner. He also did a good job of sealing the ice in different ways, some of which were unorthodox.
But with such a strong core and lower body, if he had time to get the pads down, pucks had no chance of slipping underneath him. This was especially apparent when he was asked to kill penalties.
It was so refreshing to see a “bigger” goalie play this way, and I considered it as a sure sign that he’ll only get better as time goes on. Those unpolished slides or slightly off-balance recoveries are areas of the position you can refine and teach, but the timeliness and the grittiness are often un-teachable.
Whether he was flashing out a pad to make a powerful kick save or showcasing his quick hands with a reaction glove save, even though it didn’t always look picture-perfect, Gibson had great focus and confidence under pressure.
Beyond all of this, I thought Gibson’s most impressive trait was his ability to instantly bounce back after allowing a goal. On at least six of the nine total goals he allowed, he quickly responded with a timely save, and some of those came on difficult odd-man rushes.
The World Juniors is a short tournament, so it’s often saturated with unimaginable pressure for a goalie under the age of 20. But Gibson was unfazed by the myriad of different pressures he faced, especially in the medal round. Big penalty kills, one-goal leads, momentum swings, or a hostile crowd in Ufa; whatever it was, he never seemed distracted or frustrated. He let the game come to him.
To display this type of mental toughness in the World Juniors may speaks volumes about Gibson’s long-term potential. He not only led all goalies in the tournament by playing 95.22% of his team’s minutes played, but he did this coming off a hip injury less than a month ago. Combined with all of the travel and the quick turnaround after a sloppy loss to Finland in the prelims, that’s some impressive durability.
His leadership traits were also a calming and motivating influence for his teammates.
Defenseman Seth Jones spoke highly of Gibson’s communication skills during a few intermission interviews on NHL Network, saying how John’s verbal cues alleviated some of the tough decisions he had to make when retrieving the puck deep in their own end.
Ultimately, in the seven games Gibson played in the WJC’s, I thought he displayed numerous traits you want to see in a future NHL starter. And although I’m merely predicting his path from that relatively small sample size, I see Gibson starting his pro career in the AHL next season.
From there, it should only be a few years until he is ready to fight for an NHL gig.
SUBBAN NOT TO BLAME, BUT I EXPECTED MORE
It’s hard to imagine the type of pressure Canada’s goalies felt in Russia. After Malcolm Subban and Jordan Binnington suffered defeats in the medal round, the ire and frustration vented by Canada’s passionate fan base boiled over into lewd and obnoxious commentary, some even racist at times.
As scary as that seems, it gets even scarier when you hear scouts everywhere saying that he wasn’t even to blame for the losses to Team USA and Team Russia. But regardless of where the observers elect to pin the blame, one vital lesson a goalie must learn is how to take blind accountability for their team’s woes.
So no, Subban is certainly not to blame for USA’s rout in the semifinals, nor does he deserve the harsh criticism he’s facing. But just like every player on Team Canada, I did think he could have been better.
Technically speaking, we saw that Subban is clearly a gifted athlete. He has telescopic legs, he’s very fluid with his lateral slides and pushes, and his flexibility allows him to utilize his fast-twitch muscle fibers whenever he chooses. He can clearly make the big saves, his glove hand was solid throughout the tourney, and his ability to scramble, kick out his feet at the last second and seal the ice, was impressive.
There’s also no denying that he was victimized on the first two goals Team USA scored in the semis, and because Gibson was at the top of his game, that’s all they needed to suffocate Canada. I thought he could have gained some depth and made himself bigger on Team USA’s third goal, and the fourth goal came on a shot that was very stoppable. He didn’t adjust to Jim Vesey coming off the wing with a left-handed shot, which exposed way too much space inside the far-side post.
One area of Subban’s game that concerned me in this tournament was his inability to fight harder for some sight lines when he was screened. He would square up to shots and make himself big when there was a body or two in front of him, but I thought he could have done a better job of moving his upper body and swiveling his head in order to see the puck around or through bodies. His sense of urgency in this area wasn’t the highest, and even though you couldn’t fault him for some of these goals through traffic, I thought he could have worked harder to track the puck into his body.
I also thought a lot of pucks came off his body and pads very hard. His ability to control rebounds was solid and his glove hand was strong, but while Gibson looked like he was a sponge throughout the medal round, I thought Subban was like a rubber band at times. There’s no knowing how much of this was due to the fact he was wearing a brand new set of pads, but either way, I noticed some long, uncontrolled rebounds that forced him to scramble, or kept the play going when Canada needed a whistle.
When I compare and contrast Subban and Gibson, I find myself realizing once again how important the mental side of the game is for goaltenders playing in a pressure-filled tournament like the World Juniors.
The ability to stay even-keeled and relaxed is paramount to success, otherwise things can unravel quickly. So much of goaltending at that stage is about focusing on what you can control, and while Subban seemed to get rattled on a few occasions where he gave up goals, that simply wasn’t the case with Gibson, and it made a significant difference throughout the tournament.
But can you blame Subban for Canada going home empty-handed? Not at all. In fact, with how much pressure he faced heading into the tournament, I would say he did a pretty good job overall. He’s a very gifted athlete, and as he continues to learn how to manage and handle the mental side of the game, he’ll look back and realize this was a tremendous learning experience.
Tough losses develop tougher skin, and that’s something Subban will need when his pro career begins.