1st round? 2nd? Either way, Spencer Knight will write his own story
Rena Laverty / USA Hockey

"The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." - Norman Vincent Peale

As far as goaltending coach Jared Waimon is concerned, that quote from the popular self-help book "The Power of Positive Thinking" defines Spencer Knight.

Waimon believes that those who accept criticism and attack challenges with an open mind and a full head of steam tend to get ahead in both life and sport. Knight, who's worked with Waimon's Pro Crease Goaltending in Connecticut since the age of 10, is one of those people. And that's partially why the 18-year-old has a chance to become a rare sight in the contemporary NHL: a goalie drafted in the first round.

Rena Laverty / USA Hockey

"He's curious enough and honest enough with himself to take criticism," Waimon said of Knight, who spent the past two seasons stopping pucks for the U.S. National Team Development Program. "His sense of purpose was very strong at an early age. He very much enjoyed being out there back then, but totally wanted to know why we were doing something."

"One of Spencer's best characteristics," USNTDP head coach John Wroblewski said, “is that he identifies a challenge - something he wants to achieve - and then he systematically breaks that challenge down and he won't stop until he gets it. There's no knee-jerk reactions. There's a plan, he puts it in place, and he executes it."

This mentality will be Knight's compass as he transitions from junior to Boston College this fall and, down the road, to pro hockey. He's widely considered the best goalie available at the June 21-22 draft in Vancouver, and he's firmly in the conversation for first-round selections. That steely focus, freak athleticism, and a comprehensive skill set make Knight the most polished goalie prospect in years.

Realistically, though, no matter how NHL-ready a netminder is or how high their ceiling appears, teams almost always opt for a skater in the first round. Knight may have earned the right to be among the top 31 choices, but his place in the first round of the 2019 draft is far from guaranteed.

"As a hockey player, as someone going into the draft, yeah, I want to go in the first round," Knight said. "I don't see it as something that adds pressure. I'm never like, 'Ah, what's going on with the draft? Is this going to work out? Am I not going to go in the first round?' It's not like that. I think I have the ability to, but it's never something that has to happen. I'm just taking it all in."

The cold, hard facts

Once viewed by NHL executives and scouts as can't-miss first-rounders, elite goalies of this era rarely hear their names called early in the draft.

Olof Lindbom, picked in the second round (39th overall) by the Rangers, was the first goalie off the board last year; Jake Oettinger was the only one to sneak into the opening round in 2017, going 26th to the Stars; Carter Hart was 2016's top goalie, but had to wait until the Flyers and the 48th pick. Since 2010, only four goalies have been selected in the top 25.

To put that into context, of 225 players selected with a top-25 pick in the last nine drafts, less than 2 percent were goalies.

Rena Laverty / USA Hockey

League trends shifted in 2007. From 1993-2006, at least one goalie was picked in the first round every year, with the average draft including 2.7 first-round netminders. From 2007-18, a 12-year stretch, only seven goalies were drafted in the first round, closer to one every two years.

Teams were noticing that for every Marc-Andre Fleury or Carey Price, there's a Brian Finley, Dan Blackburn, Riku Helenius, Marek Schwarz, or Mark Visentin. The payoff for drafting a goalie high has been largely underwhelming and, let's face it, a general manager's job is not safe after striking out on a couple of marquee prospects.

Making matters worse, the list of Vezina Trophy winners includes late-round or undrafted gems such as Pekka Rinne and Sergei Bobrovsky. It's hard to blame the conservatism.

Bill Wippert / Getty Images

As for Knight, just about everyone in the know whose opinion can be shared publicly - scouting services and media outlets like NHL Central Scouting, HockeyProspect.com, The Hockey News, and Sportsnet - views Knight as a bonafide first-round talent. Goalie stigma aside, seeing Knight land in the 15-31 range in Vancouver wouldn't be crazy.

Knight's stats are solid but not eye-popping. The 6-foot-3, 198-pounder posted a 2.36 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in 39 games this year. The USNTDP - essentially a full-time all-star team - splits its schedule between USHL, NCAA, and international competition. That high level of play more or less offsets any questions about Knight hiding behind a group of skaters capable of dominating teams their age or older.

His two-year stint in a USA Hockey jersey gave talent evaluators plenty of opportunities to see him. The basic scouting report goes something like this: Big and athletic, good skater, calm amid chaos, technically sound, excellent puck-handler.

"I know he will be a franchise goalie," said Thomas Speer, the USNTDP's goalie coach. "He'll play a ton of minutes in the NHL." Speer's confidence is linked to Knight's consistency in the crease and maturity. He also noted Knight's trademark coordination and ability to read the play while under offensive pressure.

"Spencer's definitely writing his own song," Speer said.

The modern goalie

The 2018-19 regular season was not kind to NHL netminders. Their equipment shrunk, scoring rates reached a 13-year high, and goalie interference made too many headlines. Fueling the offensive wave is an industry obsession with skill development. Fourth liners are speedier and more dangerous than ever. And specialty skills, like deceptive shooting angles, are no longer reserved for the very best; every player is workshopping the offensive game.

Kevin Light / Getty Images

Having shared plenty of practice ice with five supremely skilled top 10 talents - Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, and Matt Boldy - Knight is acutely aware of the next generation's capabilities. "You can't complain about it, right?" he said. "Everybody's in the same boat.

"I get it. If you're an average Joe, you don't want to go see a 1-0 game. For me, yeah, I can watch any kind of hockey game and be into it. For those average Joes, the NHL's giving them what they want. For me, it's a different challenge and you've got to adapt."

Last summer, Knight decided to take matters into his own hands and joined Performance 20/20, a training facility about 10 minutes from his family home in Darien, Conn. Alongside athletes from many sports, Knight runs through various workouts to sharpen his cognitive skills.

There, he juggles tennis balls while wearing strobe goggles, taps blinking lights on a screen, and works on other vision-based tasks aimed at improving depth perception, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination. He doesn't bring his goalie gear inside the building, nor does he exert himself physically.

"Off-the-ice training is one of the biggest things for me," Knight said. "Find ways to tweak your nutrition, find different ways to get stronger, find ways to work on your mobility. Small things like that. Now, once you get to a certain level, it's about adding those extra percentage points. It's not like one year my game is going to totally evolve and it's going to be crazy different."

Rena Laverty / USA Hockey

Knight was arguably the MVP at this past weekend's scouting combine, by all accounts leaving a strong impression during 27 team interviews and destroying the fitness testing portion of the program. Among 100-plus participants in Buffalo, the former competitive lacrosse player finished with top 15 scores in eight of 18 categories, excelling mainly in the agility and jumping exercises.

"I think Spence is a kid with incredible athletic ability who competes all the time," said Cameron Rowe, Knight's goalie partner at the USNTDP. "Works incredibly hard and knows the game so well. That's what puts Spence above everybody else. It's the way that he thinks the game and analyzes it. It's elite."

There's that compliment again. Physically and mentally strong, with a growth mindset and the willingness to put on his work boots, Knight certainly seems wired for a prosperous NHL career. He's driven by the process.

Waimon, the goalie guru who loves a good quote, admits coaching Knight for a decade hasn't been all that difficult. "To be really frank ... I just really tried to not screw him up," he said.

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer.

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1st round? 2nd? Either way, Spencer Knight will write his own story
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