Knight Rider

Spencer Knight’s Ascent Up The Ranks Of Promising American Goalies A Long Time In The Making
By: 
Chris Peters

He's been lauded as the next great American goaltender, a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, set the career record for wins at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, and it seems like it's only the beginning. 

He is Spencer Knight, and you're going to want to remember that name.

When Jared Waimon started working with Knight at the Darien Youth Hockey Association in Connecticut, he knew there was something special about this big 10-year-old.

"It was clear as day right away," says Waimon, the founder and lead instructor for Pro Crease Goaltending and also one of USA Hockey's goaltending development coordinators in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Eight years after their first encounter, Knight is now an 18-year-old, 6-foot-3, nearly 200-pound goaltender. He is also the No. 1 rated goaltending prospect for the NHL Draft by most publications and projected by many scouts to be a first-round draft pick, which has become increasingly rare for a goalie.

Waimon has had a front-row seat for much of the young netminder's development. 

"He was always tall for his age," Waimon recalls. "The biggest thing with him growing up, he'd get taller and he never lost coordination. All these kids go through a bump somewhere in Bantam, or prep school, because of their height and their body changing. It never happened for him. It speaks to his natural athleticism."

Knight moved on from his home town association to the Mid-Fairfield youth hockey organization, which has been a breeding ground for many national champions and top-quality players. He quickly earned the call to Avon Old Farms prep school where he immediately made an impression. 

"You never see someone go from a 14U goalie to starter in prep school," Waimon says. "Even Jonathan Quick played public high school before Avon."

Knight has often been compared to Quick, not because of his playing style but because many feel he is on a similar trajectory to stardom. For some, he may even be ahead of where the two-time Stanley Cup champion was at the same age.

Knight appeared in 22 games for Avon in his first season and posted a .935 save percentage. It didn't take long for more recognition to come his way as Knight soon earned an invite to the National Team Development Program and verbally committed to Boston College. 

His play at the NTDP only strengthened the belief that Knight could be unique among his peers. He, along with tandem mate Cameron Rowe, was in charge of backstopping one of the more talented teams that has come through the NTDP. That group won the World Under-17 Challenge, became the first NTDP team to clinch a playoff berth and win a series in the USHL playoffs. 

Knight was with his own age group for only part of that first season as he eventually was called up to join the U18 team and ended up being the go-to goalie at the World Under-18 Championship that season.

As always, Knight was ahead of schedule, but his success and that of his team in the early stages of that first NTDP season came as a bit of a surprise to Knight himself.

"Coming into it two years ago, we didn't really think of this. We didn't think we'd have this many wins," Knight recalls following the 2019 World Under-18 Championship in April.

"Playing really well in the USHL that first year is really tough. But once we started going, our team was so tight. It was never about who was getting points and who's not. It was a really special team."

Knight is part of what made that team special. He was between the pipes for 59 wins over his two years there, besting the career record previously co-held by Rick DiPietro and Jeff Frazee. He went 32-4-1 in his U18 season, posting a .913 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average. He also has three IIHF medals including silvers from the 2018 Under-18 Men's World Championship and 2019 World Junior Championship and a bronze at the 2019 Under-18 Men's World Championship.

His natural athleticism is matched only by his technical skills, elite skating ability and the all-important confidence in himself, especially under pressure.

"Being on the bench, there's certainly a calming effect in a goaltender that's confident," said John Wroblewski, Knight's head coach the last two seasons. "The goaltender usually has the pulse of the team. You can feed off the efficiency level he was at. His level was always quite high."

One of the many skills that allows Knight to stand out, according to Wroblewski and just about anyone else you ask, is his incredible ability to play the puck. He was credited with three assists this season and is one of those rare goalies who can actually make plays with the puck on his stick.

"His hockey IQ is off the map," Wroblewski says. "To feel comfortable with the forecheck and read it before it happens, he took to our breakout scheme as well as any player. He knew how to count numbers, how the ice was balanced and what the other team's forecheck was. The confidence level that he had to trust his instincts and make the next play, it really allows your forwards to stretch out a bit more. It makes the game more exciting. 

"He's a true hockey player and what a modern-day goalie should be."

As much as Knight has grown as a player, Wroblewski also points to the goaltender's personal development as well.

"When he first got to the program, he was rigid," Wroblewski recalls. "He was very regimented and of course you see the kid that's dialed in. He is that, when it comes to preparation and meticulous nature of taking care of himself. He's grown into a young man who now is comfortable exhibiting his joy of playing hockey and good nature away from the ice. Success allows you to be a little looser." 

With that success came all of the extra attention.

There will always be pressure of some kind on a goalie. It's something Knight seems to relish. Given that the 2018-19 season doubled as Knight's draft-eligible season, the pressure came with a magnifying glass. As soon as Knight was named to the U.S. National Junior Team as a 17-year-old, the attention only intensified.

Though Knight did not play in any games at the World Junior Championship, slotted behind goalies that were two years older than him in Cayden Primeau and Kyle Keyser, it was undeniable that his being given a spot on that team was yet another example of how highly regarded he is within USA Hockey. That, coupled with being ranked the No. 1 North American goalie all season from NHL Central Scouting, made Knight the most talked about netminder for the 2019 NHL Draft from then on.

That never mattered much to Knight, though. He wouldn't allow it to take his focus away from his own priorities. It's that attitude that may just be enough to carry him all the way to the NHL.

"From Day 1, I know where my game is at," Knight says. "That's a big thing, just recognizing where you are. 

"I never see it as a competition between me and other [draft-eligible] goalies. It's more about how can I better myself and make the most of my potential. For people to rank and say this guy is better than this guy, it doesn't really mean anything. How you handle that weight that has been put on your shoulders, the expectations, really it's more fuel for getting better." 


Chris Peters is a staff writer for ESPN.com, covering the NHL, NHL Draft and prospects.

 

Issue: 
2019-06

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