Sometimes numbers don’t tell the entire story, and that’s certainly the case with Montreal Canadiens seventh-round pick Joe Vrbetic. The goaltender’s stat sheet won’t wow you, but he has the size you look for in the new generation of goaltenders.
Birthplace: Dunvegan, Ontario
Date of birth: October 24, 2002
Weight: 190 lbs.
Team: North Bay Battalion (OHL)
Vrbetic has only played one full OHL season, and his Major Junior career only has 43 games over two years. Like so many 2021 Draft prospects, he did not play this past season as the Ontario Hockey League could not get going due to the pandemic.
There are no two ways about it: the stat line does not scream “NHL prospect.” But, on the other hand, there have been many goaltenders with great stat lines that were not able to make the jump to the next level.
The main context for the stats Vrbetic put up was the team he played for. The Battalion were ... in a rebuild, to put it mildly. As bad as Vrbetic’s 14-25-1 record looks, other North Bay goaltenders combined for a record of 3-16-3 in 2019-20. None of the three other goaltenders had a goals-against average better than 5.62 (in 16 games) or save percentage higher than .837 (in seven games).
What Vrbetic has is a mix of size and athleticism that makes scouts very interested, and more than makes him worthy of a seventh-round selection. The clip below shows aspects of both, as well as a glimpse of the defence he was working behind.
Vrbetic was ranked consistently by outlets. Bob McKenzie had him as an honourable mention just outside of his top 96. Hockey Prospect and The Hockey News also both had him in their top 100. NHL Central Scouting had him as the sixth goaltender in North America. He ranked at 131 in our consensus rankings.
Hockey Prospect’s Black Book had a long look at his strengths.
He’s coordinated, semi reflexive, dexterous, and agile, especially when taking his age (he was 17 in our viewings) into consideration. He uses his physical gifts and advantages to transfer between different techniques fluidly. When dealing with high danger shot attempts, Joe relies more on his frame and extensions than he does his reads, situational awareness or anticipation of the play. His set stance allows him to maintain a proper blocker and glove seal, but he does wide track in his stance a lot; which means he can’t use his outside edge as well to push off laterally. He also maintains a compact butterfly which allow him to break into his extensions at a quicker rate. He’s excellent at contorting his frame and elevating his shoulders to absorb high shots labelled for the higher parts of the net, and if a shot is suddenly redirected, he can rely on his decent reflexes to kick out a pad or sprawl out in front of the puck. His limbs are long and his chest is large enough that pucks that normally would result in rebounds, get absorbed instead. When he’s reading the play well and gets set before the initial shot comes, shooters don’t have a lot of options in terms of recognizing an open seam. He’s one of the few goalies that rarely has to fight through screens and his height allows helps him evaluate positioning as long as the play stays in front of him.
The last line is telling. It is good that he rarely has to fight through screens because one aspect he struggles with is his puck-tracking. Because he was unable to play this past season, the last time many scouts saw Vrbetic was when he was only 17 years old. It’s hard to say where his game progressed during the year off.
He’s also known to be an above-average puck-handler and isn’t easily rattled after goals against. Which is probably a good thing.
For goaltenders, it is easier to work on many aspects of their game without game action, however the weaknesses that Vrbetic had — situational awarness and dealing with traffic — are things that you don’t get a chance to work on by yourself.
Physical development is also a key factor for young players, especially ones that grow as quickly as Vrbetic has. Once he develops into his body more, you may end up seeing a top-end prospect. Teams are always trying to project how players will develop, and in Vrbetic’s case the stuff you can’t teach are there. The reflexes, the athleticism, and perhaps most importantly for the current game, the size are all there.
With some technique improvements, we may look at Vrbetic as the next Canadiens seventh-round pick to become a professional. At the very least, he adds his name to intriguing prospects the team has selected in the round.