When Central Scouting published their final season rankings in early-April, I was most surprised by the unexpected rise of 18-year-old goaltender Anthony Stolarz.
A prospect that very few people are familiar with, the 6-foot-5 native of Edison, NJ was listed 20th overall in Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings. By season’s end, however, he had re-surfaced as the fourth-ranked North American goaltender. That put him ahead of more notable and recognizable goaltenders like Chris Driedger, Francois Tremblay, Jon Gillies, and even Andrey Makarov.
As soon as my eyes hit his name on the computer screen, I was intrigued. How did Stolarz make such a massive leap in just a few short months? Did his game truly improve to the point this surge was actually warranted? How many scouts saw him for the first time during the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament back in February, and what impact did that have? Was this more or less just good timing?
Since very little public information exists online regarding NAHL goaltenders, I had some digging to do.
Something significant had to happen, but there was no way for me to know for sure. I could understand why a solid performance in a “showcase” tournament would warrant a rise — that happens all the time. But without knowing the true sample size, I knew this could also be a situation where his game simply experienced a rapid evolution during the second half of the season.
In my own personal experience, this is still pretty unique. A goalie that has just one year of experience in the Empire Junior Hockey League (EmJHL), and now one year in the NAHL, doesn’t rise 16 spots without showcasing elements of true potential at crucial moments in time.
Thus the plot thickened, and although no scout I’ve talked to lately considers this summer’s draft “deep” for goalies, I’ve learned over the past three years that labels are fleeting and faulty when gauging the value or potential of goaltenders. For a variety of reasons, it’s important to realize that you never really know what you might have until many years pass, and the goalies enter their prime (which I consider to be around ages 27-30).
To be honest, most of what transforms a draft prospect into a future stud comes down to pure opportunity, and there’s really no way to predict something like that.
Stolarz is 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, but I knew this rise wasn’t all due to his combination of size and athleticism. There are tons of large-framed, athletic goalies playing in the Canadian Hockey League right now, all of which face way better talent than an otherwise “unknown” NAHL prospect.
Being labeled an “unknown prospect” isn’t a bad thing, either. NAHL goalies are rarely regarded as top draft-eligible prospects, so if the “general consensus” says one thing, it’s my job to do the research and find out the “other” thing. The motivation to do this with Stolarz was easy to find — I had heard his name many times before.
You see, goalie coaches love to talk about certain prospects that they would otherwise pass over with non-goalie-centric scouts. But because I only scout goalies, I have actually been tracking his progress for the entire season. Why? At least two NHL goalie coaches had mentioned his name to me back in September, allowing me to quickly regard him as one of the true hidden gems in this year’s draft.
When those guys talk, I listen. But I’ll be honest; at first, Stolarz was just a name with a big frame.
As he continued to pop up in conversations, it became quite clear there was a lot more to this kid than meets the eye. By tracking his stats each month, I was finally confident enough to include him in my Top-150 Prospects Rankings for the first time in January. His debut on the list had him pop up at 144th overall, and since then he has slowly risen to 138th overall.
That’s not a significant rise by any means, but considering I’ve never seen him play before, and know very little about his style, it proves his reputation is growing. Reputation goes a long way in forming a goalie’s draft status, as “speculation and hearsay” is an inevitable and unavoidable dynamic that influences almost every goalie that strives to turn pro.
[Unfortunately, this is one of the major obstacles I have to overcome since I live in Colorado, where not even one junior hockey team can be found. Sometimes, I have to simply trust my instincts, focus on what I can control, and try to learn as much as possible from those around me. Word of mouth isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.]
So in order to learn more about Stolarz, I interviewed him using more authentic scouting questions, ones that reveal elements of his behavior, character, and most importantly, his understanding of the most vital element to a young goaltender’s success, mental toughness.
I also asked him to select 8-10 of his most prominent strengths using my Periodic Table of Goaltending Elements. Since I have never seen him play before, having him select the elements that make him unique was a real treat. Creating these Element Maps of junior goalies like Stolarz go a long way in helping me understand their game on a deeper level when I finally do get a chance to scout them live.
If you are not yet familiar with my Periodic Table of Goaltending Elements, please take a few minutes to read about it here. This will help you understand his Element Map below, and give you a better idea of how I break down and scout a goaltender. You will start to see many more of these Element Maps as time goes on.
INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY STOLARZ
JG: Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I know there’s a cool story about you being forced to wear pads that were way too small for you earlier this season. For readers that may not know you yet, can you quickly explain what happened?
AS: “After my season last year [in the EmJHL], I hit a growth spurt, and there wasn’t really time in the off-season for me to try and break in a larger pair of pads while attending local tryouts and tournaments. The added costs of going to Albany and Dallas for tryouts and main camp, and then also having to move to Corpus Christi three weeks later, it took a little longer for my parents to be able to get me new pads. So I played the beginning of the season with my smaller pads.”
JG: One of the most important elements of a goaltender’s identity is their mental toughness. How would you define that element in your own words?
AS: “My definition of mental toughness is being able to overcome adversity and having the capability to bounce back from a bad goal, or to keep your team in a game when you have a lot of shots. Having mental toughness is arguably one of the best attributes a goalie can have.”
JG: Team scouts always key in on a goalie’s short and long-term goals. What goals did you achieve that you set out to accomplish before the season began?
AS: “My goals I achieved for the season were to play 30 games as a rookie, eventually receive a scholarship to play Division I hockey, and attempt to continue to be on the radar for the NHL as best I could.”
[Stolarz played in 50 total games, committed to the University of Omaha-Nebraska, and is now one of the top-ranked North American goalies heading into the draft. Missions accomplished.]
JG: Real quickly, what areas of your game would you like to improve this off-season?
AS: “Over the summer I would like to improve my foot speed, quickness, and try to become more technically sound.”
JG: What will you do over the summer to improve in those areas?
AS: “I’ll work out off the ice, improving my strength, flexibility, and agility. On the ice I will just try to get on as much as possible and continue to work hard and improve my game.”
JG: A goaltender is forced to make many difficult life decisions at your age. What was one that you experienced this season?
AS: “One of the most difficult decisions I had to make this year was whether or not I was going to stay in Corpus Christi. Over the course of the year, I had offers from several different teams to go up and play with them in the USHL and OHL. However, I felt I had to be loyal to Corpus Christi because they took a chance on me when no one else did.”
JG: Many scouts, myself included, understand the importance of finding a team that “perfect fit” with a goalie. What type of team do you think fits you best?
AS: “I believe a team who gives up a lot of shots best fits me. That sounds strange coming from a goalie because goalies like to see as little shots as possible, but growing up playing youth hockey, and even in juniors this year, I have become accustomed to facing a plethora of shots in games.”
JG: Aside from your mission to become a pro goaltender, what is another career path you’d love to take?
AS: “I’d want to be a sports agent. I just like being involved with sports, and having the opportunity to meet famous athletes would be a benefit too.”
JG: Every goalie must reflect on what they learned during a season, and then apply those lessons in order to improve their mindset heading into next season. What lessons did you learn this year?
AS: “Keeping your composure and staying focused. This year I learned that no matter the score, your team can come back, so you must stay focused and keep them in the game. This also can be applied when your team is up and the other team is attempting to come back. Another lesson I learned is when you give up a soft goal, forget about it and just worry about the next shot because that is all you can control.”