Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong lauded Joel Hofer on the same day St. Louis signed the minor-league goaltender to a two-year contract extension.
“A guy like Joel Hofer, he’s been fabulous this year in the American Hockey League,” Armstrong said in a conference call last Monday. “Look at his numbers from him — they’re off the charts.”
Hofer, whose entry-level contract was set to expire this summer, signed an extension worth $775,000 annually, a one-way deal that paves the way for him to become the backup goalie in the NHL as soon as next season. Current backup Thomas Greiss36 will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
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Entering Monday, Hofer was seventh in the AHL in both save percentage (.921) and goals-against average (2.41) among qualified goalies. Only one goaltender has played more than Hofer’s 23 games.
“Ever since I got drafted here, the organization has really treated me unreal,” Hofer said in a phone interview. “Super grateful and thankful to them for having the trust in me to sign for the next two years. Just super excited.”
This season marks another step forward for the 2018 fourth-round pick.
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 undisputed No. 1 for the Thunderbirds and has only ceded the net to Vadim Zherenko on back-to-backs.
“Obviously, it’s nice to be playing games and getting into a little bit of a rhythm, but last year is your first year (in Springfield), you’re getting to adjust to things on and off the ice,” Hofer said. “Now this year, you kind of know what to expect, getting a year under your belt.”
He said the little things off the ice have become clearer, like how to pay your own bills and how to cook. Hofer also lives with defenseman Tyler Tucker, who has been bounced up and down between the AHL and NHL.
Blues goalie development coach Dan Stewart is based in Springfield and has had a close-up view of Hofer’s rise this season.
“He’s clearly taken a step with respect to his overall approach to the game,” Stewart said. “He was always a good pro, but he’s taken that extra step and he’s more consistent. He it’s really showing on the ice. He’s able to hold certain positions better due to extra strength from the work he’s put in in the weight room, as well as his nutrition. He’s getting stronger every day, and it’s helping him a lot on the ice.”
For Hofer, it’s more about strength in the right areas rather than mass and bulk.
Stewart works closely with Blues goaltending coach Dave Alexander and said the biggest part of Hofer’s progression plan was developing physical maturity.
“Certain times in the game put us in positions where our feet go outside our base, for example, and he’s able to still have access to his edges there, and it’s helping him with his recovery as well as with a lot of his in- tight play,” Stewart said. “He’s just stronger.”
Hofer pointed to his post play and ability to push side to side in the crease as improved thanks to his reinforced core strength.
“I think it’s been good for me,” Hofer said. “Looking forward to the offseason and getting back into the gym and getting ever stronger. All the off ice stuff can only benefit your game. Definitely trying to make the most of that.”
At 22 years old, Hofer is still on the fast track of developmentat least as far as goaltenders go.
Typically, goalies take longer to reach the NHL and find success there than forwards and defensemen do. Current Blues starter Jordan Binnington was 25 years old when he burst onto the scene in 2018-19. Only two of the last 25 Vezina Trophy winners have been younger than 25 years old. In the same span, five Vezina winners were at least 35 years old.
Many evaluators say that young goalies need more experience to be able to read the game well enough to thrive in the NHL. How is Hofer in that department?
“That area with Joel has always been very strong,” Stewart said. “He has a very good brain, and his hockey IQ is through the roof. For him there, it’s just a matter of playing more professional hockey, playing more in the American League as well as his time in the NHL. It’s helped him naturally adjust to the level, given the hockey IQ he already has.”
As impressive as his .921 save percentage is this season, it’s actually down from where it was in mid-December. Following a four-game stretch when he stopped 115 of 119 shots, Hofer’s save percentage stood at .928.
His 30-save effort on New Year’s Eve against Hartford was the 15th time in 23 games he allowed two or fewer goals.
“He’s 6-5 and he’s able to move like a goalie that’s much smaller, in terms of skating and his agility,” Stewart said. “It’s just continuing to work and get him stronger and more confident in his body than him so that he’s able to do things we know he’s going to be able to do on the ice.”