With his strong progression since being drafted, Joe Vrbetic is proving that he belongs in the conversation when discussing the future in net for the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens have made a concerted effort to bolster their goaltending depth over the last three years at the draft table, and Vrbetic’s strong progress this year, especially down the stretch, has positioned him on par with fellow goalie prospects Jakub Dobes and Frederik Dichow.
A Potential Gem for the Montreal Canadiens
A 7th-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 NHL Draft, Vrbetic is a technically sound goalie who uses his size (6’6, 186 lbs) and excellent technique to cover out his net and aggressively take away shooting angles from the opposition. The 19-year-old fell to the 7th round of the draft due to the cancellation of the 2020-2021 Ontario Hockey League season last year, which forced him and other Ontario-based players to miss out on an entire year of hockey. It may have dragged down his draft stock, but it was a blessing in disguise for the Canadiens, according to Battalion head coach, Ryan Oulahen.
“We felt bad for Joe during the pandemic because, if he were able to play, he would have been a much higher draft pick,” said Oulahen on Vrbetic’s bad luck last season. ”We feel Montreal got a bit of a steal where they took him in the draft.”
With the OHL constantly postponing their prospective start date, the young goaltender focused on what he could control: his own game. He immediately sought to continue training on synthetic ice while the lockdowns were in place and spent his time growing stronger and faster off the ice.
“At the start of Covid, I practiced on synthetic ice because rinks weren’t opened,” said Vrebetic about how he kept busy last year. “I was able to still practice and work on some stuff. I was focused on my off-ice training for whenever the season was going to start.”
Even though the OHL season was officially cancelled on April 20, 2021, Vrbetic continued to work on his game both on and off the ice to be ready for the upcoming season. He had no idea whether or not he was going to be drafted. He received some very good news in July of 2021, as the Montreal Canadiens selected him 214th overall.
“When I first got drafted, I thought, ‘what a great organization to go to,’” said Vrbetic on his feeling of being drafted by the Canadiens. “ I had an interview with them before on the draft on Zoom. I knew they were interested in me, and I knew they liked my game.”
Vrbetic took the vote of confidence from the Canadiens as added motivation and worked even harder to prepare for the upcoming season and the Canadiens Rookie Camp. When Vrbetic showed up to Montreal for camp, he partook in his first in-game action in over 18 months, and the difference in pace was striking.
“The pace of the game was much faster than the OHL,” said Vrbetic of his experience at Rookie Camp. “I wanted to take that experience with me to motivate me to get better for North Bay this season.”
Vrbetic impressed quite a few at Rookie Camp with his calm demeanour and impressive technique, and he took that momentum with him back to North Bay, where the Battalion was getting ready for a big season. However, the Canadiens made sure to remain in contact with Vrbetic and help him grow his game from afar as best they could.
“Marco Marciano, the goalie coach in Laval. I was with him the whole Rookie Camp; he was the guy I was working with the whole time, “ said Vrbetic on his relationship with the Canadiens’ staff during this season. “I’ve been in contact with him throughout the year to see how I’m doing, and, if I need to ask him anything or have questions about something, he’s the guy I go to.”
Vrbetic was quick to point to his coaching staff or the Montreal Canadiens’ developmental staff for his success this season in the OHL, as one of the league’s most impressive goaltenders, but coach Oulahen rightfully applauded the change in Vrbetic’s approach that has sped up his growth as a player this season.
“I think the biggest thing with him this season is he’s becoming a pro. He’s learning about how to take care of himself on a day-to-day basis, load management, and having those big starts against top teams,” said coach Oulahen on Vrbetic’s progress this season. “We try to run our program like a pro team, and Joe has bought in 100%, and the results are showing this season.”
Back-to-back shutouts for Joe Vrbetic!@CanadiensMTL prospect and reigning #OHL Goaltender of the Week extends his perfect run to over 164 minutes with 23 saves for another @OHLBattalion clean sheet 🎥 pic.twitter.com/GSmzNBRHaN
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) November 19, 2021
Big Game Joe
Vrbetic has gone on to have a pretty successful season in North Bay. His team sits 2nd in the OHL’s Eastern Conference, and he’s been a major part of their success, especially in the big games against divisional opponents like the Hamilton Bulldogs or the Kingston Frontenacs.
“He relishes under pressure. The bigger the moment or the better the team, Joe really seems to excel in those situations, “said coach Oulahen of Vrebetic’s competitiveness. “When you have a goaltender like that that you can count on, night in and night out, it gives your team confidence.”
Vrbetic’s calm and collected approach to the game has helped him elevate his game down the stretch for the Battalion, posting a .920 save percentage and a 2.57 GAA over the last 20 starts. His steady improvement has been invaluable to the Battalion’s playoff push, as they look to do some damage in the OHL playoffs this year.
“Joe’s a great goalie. His first season was tougher because the team wasn’t as strong, but this year he just kept getting better and better,” said teammate Ty Nelson of Vrbetic’s growth this season. “The more pressure the game, the better he plays. He’s just a calm and proud goalie. I joke about my billet family that he reminds us of Carey Price because he’s just so relaxed and makes key saves at the right time no matter what.”
If those around Vrbetic feel he gives off a similar aura to that of Carey Price, it’s certainly not by chance. Vrbetic has idolized and modelled his game after Carey Price for years, emulating the veteran goaltender’s style and mannerisms on the ice to help him thrive in pressure situations.
“I like to say I model my game after Carey Price,“ said Vrbetic on his style of goaltending. “He was my favourite goalie growing up. One of my big attributes as a goalie is being calm and very poised, never getting too high or too low. We know he does that well, on top of moving very smoothly and being a strong player.”
Big Joe was a brick wall in overtime! 🧱🥅@CanadiensMTL prospect Joe Vrbetic with a flurry of saves beyond regulation for Thursday's @RealCdnSS #SaveoftheNight in an @OHLBattalion win 🎥 pic.twitter.com/84vrqcLBzt
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) April 8, 2022
The Montreal Canadiens will have decisions to make soon as to the future of their goaltending in the coming years. Vrbetic remains motivated to prove the Canadiens right for taking a chance on him in the draft last year and continue to work his way to the NHL in the coming years. An Imminent jump to the pros is not yet in the cards, as he is eligible to return to the OHL next season.
When the Canadiens think of the future and envision what’s to come, Vrbetic should be part of that solution. With the way he’s improved in such rapid fashion this season, the Canadiens would be doing themselves a disservice not to.