Pipeline: Top goalie prospect Bjarnason blooming at just the right time
It’s no secret that the 2023 NHL Draft is forward-heavy with the Western Hockey League leading the way with, potentially, eight or more players set to be selected in the first round. While the WHL’s forwards have been running rampant over the league, goaltenders like Carson Bjarnason are tasked with keeping them off the scoreboard.
He’s tasked with it while being one of the youngest goalies available in 2023. Bjarnason isn’t set to turn 18 until June 30, one day after the completion of the 2023 draft.
In an organization with a winning culture like the Brandon Wheat Kings, it’s not often that a 17-year-old is leaned on as the team’s No. 1 option in goal. Still, Bjarnason has taken the opportunity presented to him head-on. He finds himself as the top-ranked North American goaltending prospect by NHL Central Scouting and second overall in FCHockey’s Midterm ranking for the 2023 draft.
With scouts holding Bjarnason in such high regard, it takes a certain mentality not to let the accolades go to your head and maintain your composure, knowing he has a target on his back every night.
“It’s kind of hard not to see when it’s posted everywhere,” Bjanason said on The Pipeline Show with Guy Flaming. “Just going back, you recognize it and you can either use it to your advantage or disadvantage. You can kind of soak on it and think about how good you are or move forward and prove yourself even more.”
As Brandon is batting for their playoff lives — barely holding onto the final spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference — Bjarnason is trying to continue proving himself by willing his team into the postseason. It’s almost a full-circle opportunity with the Wheat Kings for the young backstop.
Bjarnason is playing near his home in Carberry, MB, where he frequented the Keystone Centre rooting for his hometown team.
“I was always a fan,” said Bjarnason, who has a 3.02 goals-against average and .902 save percentage this season. “My parents would take me to games and the Carberry minor hockey association would always get tickets a couple of times a year, and we’d all catch a game as a team. I actually remember watching a couple of games with even my teammates now. I’d watch Nolan Ritchie out there on the ice and Ridley Greig playing in Belleville now. It’s something cool and something I’ll always remember in the back of my head.”
Rewinding to his early days as a teenager, it was hard to imagine it would even be possible that Bjarnason would be in this position. Only playing the position for about four years, it’s almost inconceivable to think that someone with so little experience could be one of the best in the world at what he does for his age group.
But Bjarnason wanted to nail down the fundamentals of the game as a defenseman before making the switch to goaltending.
“It was a little later, you know, for my development, to try to be the best I could at my age. I was always fond of being a good skater and making sure my skating ability was set — so I think I might have made the jump full-time at about 12 or 13 years old,” Bjarnason said of his move from blue line to the goal line. “I was always a defenseman, always had the backward skating ability, you know, once I kind of got that down pat, I made the jump.”
Despite all the success he’s had of late, the road to Brandon wasn’t smooth for Bjarnason, as he went undrafted in the WHL Bantam Draft.
Measuring in at only 5-foot-9 on draft day, he was not seen to have much of a future in hockey as a netminder.
“I always keep that in the back of my head, you know,” Bjarnason admitted. “You get upset about how you weren’t drafted and you just have to put things into perspective about what they were seeing, and I was a smaller guy in the draft class. So it works out fine now but at the time, a little height wouldn’t have hurt me.”
That little height needed would come to Bjarnason in the subsequent years.
According to himself, he’s now 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds — quite a significant growth spurt over two years. With any hockey-playing teenager, it takes time to adjust as your body is constantly changing.
For goaltenders, it is even more difficult as they persistently contort their bodies into uncomfortable positions.
“I think it’s just the normal human response,” Bjarnason said. “I always had those growing pains. There were weird stages, I had to reset my hand-eye coordination and get all my footwork down and stuff like that, but hopefully, I still have a couple of inches left to grow. I think I’m doing better with the hand-eye part of it.”
As the junior season closes and draft season really gets underway, general managers and front offices will look to break down every aspect of each player’s game. They will look for what separates an individual from the pack.
Bjarnason is no exception.
“Every goalie has to set themselves apart and make them stand out in a way which is positive to them and their (style of) play,” Bjarnason said. “For me, I think it’s the way that I handle myself which sets me apart. The way I can see the ice and off-puck awareness and stuff like that. But most importantly, I think just the way I handle myself. You know, any goal against, any good save, things like that, you gotta just keep even keel and just have that stoicism to your body language. So that’s something I think puts me ahead of the class.”
That even keel mentality becomes ever-so-important for goaltenders as they progress throughout their careers. Having that at such a young age is a trait that will carry on with Bjarnason for years. With draft day just over three months away, draft fans could hear Bjarnason’s name being called as the first goaltender selected in 2023.