It wasn’t long ago when NHL coaches might respond to questions about young players not getting opportunities by saying the NHL was not a development League.

That hasn’t been true for skaters for a while with more skilled forwards and defensemen getting the chance to play in the NHL at younger ages. It’s no longer universally applicable to goalies either and that is a new trend. Though the preference remains for goalies to gain experience in the American Hockey League, more and more are learning on the job in the NHL.

“You see it more with players, but you are starting to see it with goalies as well,” Carolina Hurricanes goaltending coach Paul Schonfelder said. “It feels like goalies are expected to play in the NHL quicker, often after just one or two years in the minors, and not that long ago a goalie prospect could spend 3-4 years in the minors and come in at age 25 or 26. Now it’s 21 to 24 but I still think it’s OK to be patient and let them spend time in the minors to grow and evolve their game.”

Like most things in goaltending, there are no absolutes. Some teams will still go to great lengths to let their young goalies ripen in the AHL, but it’s hard not to notice the rise in the number of goalies getting NHL opportunities earlier in their careers.

The New Jersey Devils, for example, started Akira Schmid in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs after he played 61 games during parts of two seasons in the AHL, and in each of those first two seasons he played NHL games as well. The 23-year-old started this season with the Devils too, playing 15 games before being sent to the AHL in favor of Nico Daws, who is also 23, has played 57 AHL games during parts of three seasons and made his NHL debut with New Jersey on Oct. 23, 2021, as a 20-year-old.

NJD@EDM: Schmid makes save with shaft of his stick

It's an interesting juxtaposition to Devils goalie Vitek Vanecek, who spent five seasons in the minor leagues, including one mostly in the ECHL, before making his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals eight days before his 25th birthday.

“Goaltenders are in the same category, but it takes time,” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said earlier this season when asked if goalies have joined skaters in getting to develop in the NHL. “There's a number of games they need to play before they understand the NHL game completely. Do young goaltenders go through up and downs? I don't know if you can point to a guy that didn't. Not many goaltenders are with the team, a lot of times, they started out with because you run out of patience. You look around the League at the starting goaltender, he often wasn't drafted by that team. So it takes time, it takes incredible patience, but they need to play.”

Increasingly, they are getting the opportunity to do so sooner in the NHL.

Jeremy Swayman of the Boston Bruins played more games in the NHL (51) than the AHL (14) in his first two professional seasons after leaving the University of Maine and has been an NHL regular for three seasons at age 25.

Spencer Knight went from the Boston College to the Florida Panthers in 2021, playing more games in the NHL (57) than AHL (13) in his first two full seasons.

Devon Levi has played more games with the Buffalo Sabres (27) than their AHL affiliate (five) since leaving Northeastern University at the end of last season, though they’ve sent him down to Rochester three times this season to keep him playing games when he wasn’t scheduled to start much with the Sabres.

That was how the Nashville Predators managed Juuse Saros' playing time for two seasons before he stuck in the NHL full time, and the Columbus Blue Jackets did it with Joonas Korpisalo for parts of three seasons, taking advantage of the fact they didn’t require waivers at the time and using their AHL affiliates to get them couple of games during a weekend rather than sit on the bench in the NHL for a game.

NSH@DET: Saros dives to make a huge glove save

There are several reasons for the increase in NHL opportunities, including NHL salary cap savings for goalies on entry-level contracts, and the trend toward tandems and reduced workloads for No. 1 goalies. Sometimes injuries create unexpected openings. A lot of it can be linked to vacancies created by the departure of 13 long-standing workhorse goalies during the past five seasons.

Since Roberto Luongo retired in 2019 after 19 seasons, the list of other prominent No. 1's to stop playing in the NHL includes Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Ryan Miller, Braden Holtby, Ben Bishop, Jimmy Howard, Corey Crawford, Devan Dubnyk, Mike Smith, Craig Anderson and Cory Schneider. Combined, they were the starting goalies for more than one-third of the NHL during the two seasons prior to Luongo leaving.

The paths of most of those recently retired goalies included more time in the AHL than their replacements. Sure, goalies like Luongo, Lundqvist and Price all but skipped the AHL, with a combined 41 games (Lundqvist did play five seasons in Sweden’s top league, however) and regular NHL minutes in their first full season. But the other 10 averaged 156 games and four seasons in the AHL on a list that ranges from Rask on the low end (102 games during two AHL seasons) to Crawford (255 during five) on the high end.

Among goalies who made their NHL debut in the past four seasons and have played at least five games this season, the average time spent in the AHL is 70.8 games. Though part of that decline can also be tied to more European goalies playing in the NHL after gaining similar pro experience overseas, it’s still less than half the total of the above list of recent retirees.

“Those are crazy stats but make a ton of sense,” said Schneider, who retired Sept. 26 after a 15-season NHL career that started with 136 games during three seasons in the AHL. "That’s like one season of being an actual starter in the AHL.”

Given reduced workloads, it might be closer to two seasons. And even though young goalies arrive now with more of a complete technical base, they still need to learn when to apply those skills by reading the game and connecting the patterns it presents at an NHL pace.

“It’s a double-edged sword, with training and equipment and practice habits -- not to mention size and athleticism -- goalies are probably more ready technically than ever before,” Schneider said. “The issue is lack of reps and experience leads to guys who don’t read the game very well or can’t adjust or adapt in a pinch. They play everything the same way all the time rather than reading and reacting. That’s a broad brush, and they’re not all like that, but it’s a lot of the young guys who are learning on the fly after filling in the vacuum that was created by our generation of goalies leaving the game.”