The North American Hockey League likes to bill itself as "The League of Opportunity". Though they generally don't draw the cream of the junior hockey crop, they do provide an opportunity for players that may have been overlooked, or come from lightly-scouted non-traditional hockey areas the opportunity to play quality junior hockey competition and be seen by NHL scouts. That means that while the league doesn't necessarily send a lot of prospects to the NHL Draft, they do occasionally produce a diamond in the rough. That's especially true for goalies, where scouting and identifying potential at such a young age is a crap-shoot at best, and it's harder to see players from less traditional areas enough to get a full grasp on their abilities.
Last year, the NAHL had two goalies selected in the NHL Draft when Anthony Stolarz(Corpus Christi) was selected in the second round by Pittsburgh and Connor Hellebuyck(Odessa) was selected in the 5th round by Winnipeg. Both goalies were huge(6'6" and 6'4" respectively) and were considered raw, with a ton of potential. Early returns on Stolarz have been mixed, but Hellebuyck is looking like one of the bigger steals of last year's 5th round.
This year, Evan Cowley, a goalie from the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the NAHL fits a similar mold. Cowley has the prototypical size NHL teams look for, recently measuring in a 6'4" 190 lbs. with very respectable athleticism for a goalie his size. But he is also about as raw as goal tending prospects come. Prior to this season, Cowley was playing Midget Minor AA hockey in Colorado and had never worked with a goalie coach. But after a few impressive junior tryout camps last summer, Cowley earned an opportunity with Wichita Falls and immediately began turning heads in the scouting community.
After making the huge jump from playing local AA hockey to the NAHL, Cowley's numbers weren't overly impressive. His save percentage on the year ended up at .900 with a 2.90 goals against average. He has lots of room to improve with his positioning and technique, sometimes being a bit too aggressive and over-committing on pucks, but those are issues that hopefully can be cleaned up over time, especially now that he is starting to receive professional goalie coaching. Cowley does possess the calm, level-headed demeanor that goalies need to succeed at the pro level, which is something that is much harder to teach.
Whichever team takes him will certainly have to wait a few years for their investment to pay off, as Cowley has a lot of developing and refining to do before he's ready for pro hockey, but that is likely the case with any goalie taken in the draft. The average NHL goalie is about 29 years of age, so selecting goalies is all about drafting for future potential, which Cowley seems to have a lot of. Cowley was selected by Sioux City of the USHL in this year's USHL Entry Draft, and recently made a commitment to play college hockey at the University of Denver, which means he could have up to five years of development time before he makes the jump to a pro career.
Draft projections have Cowley being taken anywhere between the 2nd and 5th round at the NHL Draft. The second round seems a bit high for such a risky pick in such a deep draft, but there will likely be at least a couple teams who see a player that could bloom into a starting NHL goalie some day once he starts getting the type of high-level goalie coaching he has yet to receive in his career. There are still some major holes in Cowley's game, but they are the type of things that can be taught and corrected, whereas he possess many of the traits a goalie needs that simply can't be taught. The fourth or fifth round of the draft seems like a good time to take that type of gamble, though it wouldn't be a shock if a team chose to reach a little higher than that just to make sure they got him.