NHL Draft: Whitehall native Gibson could be first-rounder

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John Gibson is 6 feet 3, 205 pounds.

And not just big, but fairly athletic. With a burgeoning reputation for playing his best in high-stakes games.

It is easy to understand why he is the top-rated North American goaltender -- and a good bet to be a first-round draft choice -- in the 2011 NHL entry draft this weekend in St. Paul, Minn.

A lot easier, certainly, than it is to understand why he wasn't able to earn a spot on the Baldwin High School team when he was a freshman there.

If Gibson, who grew up in Whitehall, has a good explanation for why he was cut, he doesn't seem inclined to share it. Then again, that long-ago episode isn't something on which he dwells.

Or, from the sound of it, ever did.

"When I got cut from that team, I kind of just laughed," Gibson said. "I didn't really even know what to say. It was probably the biggest joke I've ever had. I've been cut off AAA teams, and that's fine. The competition's better. But high school hockey in Pittsburgh, I mean, it's nothing [special]."

The quality of high school hockey in this region has risen dramatically over the past few decades, but most of the elite talent from Western Pennsylvania goes elsewhere to develop their games.

Some end up in major-junior hockey. Others join the United States Hockey League or, in Gibson's case, the U.S. National Development program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Gibson is something of a late bloomer, at least in the eyes of some scouts. Nonetheless, the advances in his game the past few seasons can't be ignored, and there is ample reason to believe he will make many more.

"He's heading in the right direction," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins director of amateur scouting. "He's a boy who didn't make all his AAA teams growing up in Pittsburgh until maybe his last year before going to the National Development program.

"He's kind of on the right curve, and he's a big, athletic kid who seems driven. I don't think his technique is refined or anywhere close to it. He's kind of a raw goalie. Having said that, he's already proven he can win. He's won at the top level."

That includes a strong showing at the world under-18 championships in Germany in April. Gibson was honored as the top goaltender in the tournament after compiling a 6-0 record, 2.34 goals-against average and .926 save percentage while helping the U.S. earn its third consecutive goal medal in that competition.

Gibson said he interviewed with "about 22" teams at the NHL scouting combine in Toronto a few weeks ago, the Penguins being one of them. None, he said, divulged whether they intend to select him -- that is the norm in those interviews -- but, if Gibson is fretting about who will end up with his rights, it doesn't show.

"It comes down to draft day and whoever needs a goalie and wants to use the pick on me," he said.

Gibson said Montreal goalie Carey Price has provided a template of sorts for him in his time with the national program.

"I've watched a lot of video of him over the past two years and tried to learn what he does," Gibson said. "I think we have similar styles, [being] big and athletic. I try to see what he does and learn from him and try to incorporate [things] into my game."

Price seems to be pretty easy-going, and Gibson said that's another trait they share. He is not, for example, one of those stereotypical goalies who is so high-strung that teammates dare not approach him as game time closes in.

"I'm not your normal goalie, being nuts, or anything like that, before a game," Gibson said. "I'm kind of laid-back, like to have fun with the guys. I'm not like most goalies, where you can't talk to me or touch me."

Whether his name is called out in the first round Friday at the Xcel Energy Center or one of the subsequent rounds the next day, it seems unlikely that Gibson will flash back to a few years ago, when he was informed that there wasn't a place for him on Baldwin's roster.

That seems, at most, a remote memory now, although Gibson still manages to put a positive spin on what could have been an ego-crushing setback.

"It motivated me more and made me want to succeed even more," he said. "Whatever happened, happened. It worked out for the best, so I'm thankful for that."

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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