When Phil Housley went to Lake Placid, N.Y., in the summer of 2013 to evaluate players for the U.S. team he would be coaching in the World Junior Championships, he had some idea of their position strengths.
He had heard some about then 19-year-old goalie John Gibson, and immediately saw the maturity that Gibson displayed.
“I knew we were going to be strong at the goalie position, but I didn’t know it was that strong,” said Housley, an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. “He was very much in control. He had great technique. Nothing seems to faze him, whether good or bad.”
Not much has changed with Gibson, who has taken over the net for the Ducks with his calm and collected style and fulfilled lofty expectations placed on him since he was the most valuable player of that junior tournament.
Gibson, 22, is often referred to as the Ducks’ goalie of the future, but the future is now. He led the NHL with a 1.82 goals-against average through his first 17 games.
“I thought it was just going to be a matter of time,” Housley said. “He was pushed into the limelight early there, but he had success.”
It has been Gibson’s net since he was recalled from the minor league San Diego Gulls in November because of an illness to Frederik Andersen. That was all the opportunity Gibson needed. He recorded the first back-to-back road shutouts in Ducks history Dec. 29-31 and was named the NHL’s rookie of the month for December.
Gibson said he’s happy wherever he’s playing, and didn’t wonder when he would be recalled when he began the season with San Diego and Anton Khudobin backed up Andersen.
“You never know what’s going to happen, right?” he said. “Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t. You can’t predict the future.”
But teammates noticed that he was eager for his shot upon his arrival.
“I could definitely see a spark when he came here this year,” defenseman Clayton Stoner said. “After being down in San Diego, you could tell he was coming and he was going to stay. Just from his attitude to him doing extra stuff in the gym and on the ice, I think he’s just matured and realized that these opportunities come and go and you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
Stoner, who played with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens for the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, agrees that Gibson’s easy demeanor is like that of Price, widely regarded as the NHL’s best goalie.
That poise has defined Gibson. As bodies and pucks fly at him, he’s not scrambling. Stoner said that Gibson even slides and covers angles like Price.
“Whether they’re [playing or practicing], pucks kind of sink into them,” Stoner said. “They make it look effortless.”
Gibson’s impact at his age is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his story. Housley said goalies typically don’t bloom until 24 or 25 “unless you’re a freak of a goaltender. I would say Johnny Gibson’s not too far from [that].”
Gibson treats such praise and media attention as if he were allergic to it. He’s known as a goalie of few words, even if he has reason to have a chip on his shoulder.
Gibson was cut from his high school team growing up in suburban Pennsylvania but said “it was more funny than anything” because he just wanted to hang out with his friends on the team.
He was reportedly disappointed at not being a first-round pick in the 2011 draft. Anaheim picked him in the second round, 39th overall, and the other 17 goalies drafted that year have played a combined 23 games in the NHL, none with any real impact outside of Garret Sparks of Toronto.
Gibson, who still qualifies as a rookie, has 25 wins in his first 43 games and has played in four playoff games. It would have been more if not for a groin injury that kept him out for six weeks last season.
He’s not going anywhere soon. Gibson gravitated to the cage shortly after he learned to skate as a kid and basically has had the net since.
If at some point he realized he could play in the NHL, he didn’t truly know until he saw the bright lights. It bears mentioning that Gibson got a shutout in his NHL debut in 2014, when Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau effectively handed the torch from Jonas Hiller to Gibson.
“You never know you can play at the level until you play at the level,” Gibson said. “Anybody can say ‘I want to be there,’ but you’ve got to prove that you can be there. You’ve got to prove it every day. If you don’t, someone will take your spot.”
DUCKS NEXT UP VS. DETROIT
When: Sunday, 5 p.m.
On the air: TV: Prime; Radio: 830.
Update: Defenseman Simon Despres was on the ice with the team Saturday for the first time since he sustained a concussion Oct.16, the longest he’s been away from the game. “It was a feeling I haven’t had in a long time,” Despres said. “I definitely felt like a little child again, doing the things I love to do, which is play hockey.” Despres, who was cleared to return around Christmas, said he’s “very eager to play a game” but the Ducks will proceed cautiously, especially given that Despres had setbacks. Corey Perry and Sami Vatanen were among a handful of Ducks players who sat out practice after a playoff-like game against St. Louis on Friday, but Boudreau said that they were either taking maintenance days or under the weather. Stoner could return from a lower-body injury, Boudreau said. Anaheim is 4-0 against Detroit since the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference. Goalie Petr Mrazek will start, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Follow Curtis Zupke on Twitter @CurtisZupke