It was probably no coincidence that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong paid tribute to Joel Hoover the same day St. Louis signed the minor league goaltender to a two-year contract extension.
“A guy like Joel Hoover has been amazing this year in the American Hockey League,” Armstrong said on a conference call last Monday. “Look at his numbers – they’re off the charts.”
Hoover, whose primary contract was set to expire this summer, signed a $775,000-a-year extension, a one-way deal that paves the way for him to become the NHL’s backup goaltender as soon as next season. The current backup, Thomas Grace, 36, will be an unrestricted free agent this season.
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Hoover entered Monday, ranked seventh in the AHL in both save percentage (. 921) and goals against average (2.41) among eligible guards. Only one guard has played in more than 23 games for Hoover.
“Since I was recruited here, the organization has treated me unrealistically,” Hoover said in a phone interview. “So grateful and thankful to them for trusting me to sign over the next two years. Just so excited.”
This season marks another step forward for a 2018 fourth-round selection.
In 2021, his first professional season was shortened due to COVID-19. Last season, he split the net with Charlie Lindgren as Springfield advanced to the Calder Cup final. Now, he’s the Thunderbirds’ undisputed No. 1 and has only conceded the net to Vadim Zherenko on the backstretch.
“Obviously it’s nice to play games and start to get a little bit on the pace, but last year is your senior year (in Springfield), you have to adjust to things on and off the ice,” Hoover said. “Now this year, you kind of know what to expect, having a year under your belt.”
He said the little things off the ice became more obvious, like how to pay your bills and how to cook. Hoover also lives with defenseman Tyler Tucker, who has bounced up and down between the AHL and NHL.
Dan Stewart, the Blues’ goaltender development coach, is based in Springfield and has an up-close look at the rise of the Hoovers this season.
“Obviously he’s made a move in terms of his general approach to the game,” Stewart said. “He’s always been a good pro, but he’s taken that extra step and is much more stable. It really shows on the ice. He’s able to hold certain positions better because of the extra strength from the work he’s been doing in the weight room, plus his nutrition. He’s getting stronger every time.” day, and that helps him a lot on the ice.”
For Hoover, it is more about force in the right areas rather than mass and size.
Stewart works closely with Blues goalkeeping coach Dave Alexander and said the biggest part of Hoover’s progression plan has been to develop physical maturity.
“Certain times in the game put us in positions where our feet are moving off our base, for example, and he can still get to his edges there, and that helps him with his recovery as well as with a lot of his feet,” Stewart said. “He’s just stronger.”
Hoover noted his subsequent play and ability to push side-to-side into the crease also improved thanks to his enhanced core strength.
“I think it was really good for me,” Hoover said. “I’m looking forward to the holiday season, getting back in the gym, and getting stronger than ever. All the non-freezing things can only benefit your game. I’m definitely trying to make the most of that.”
At 22 years old, Hoover is still on the fast track of development, at least as far as goalkeepers are concerned.
Usually, goalkeepers take longer to get to the NHL and achieve success there than forwards and defenders. Current Blues star Jordan Bennington was 25 years old when he burst onto the scene in 2018-19. Only two of the last 25 Vezina Cup winners have been under the age of 25. In the same period, five Vezina winners were at least 35 years old.
Many evaluators say young goaltenders need more experience to be able to read the game well enough to thrive in the NHL. How is Hoover in this department?
“That area with Joel has always been very strong,” Stewart said. “He has a very good mind, and his hockey IQ is through the roof. For him there, it’s just about playing more professional hockey, playing more in the American League as well as his time in the NHL. It’s naturally helped him adjust to the level, given his hockey IQ which he already has.”
As impressive as his . 921 save percentage has been this season, it’s actually lower than where it was in mid-December. After a four-game stretch when he stopped 115 of 119 shots, Hoover’s save percentage was . 928.
His 30 save effort on New Year’s Eve against Hartford marked the fifteenth time in 23 games that he had allowed two or fewer goals.
“He’s 6-5 and he’s able to move around as a much smaller goaltender in terms of skating and agility,” Stewart said. “It’s just keeping working and making him stronger and more confident with his body so he can do things that we know he’ll be able to do on the ice.”