Thursday, September 20, 2007

Goaltending Profile: Pacific Division

The Pacific Division in 2006-07 was divided between three of the league’s best teams and two of the league’s doormats. The relation to the end results and the strength of the respective team’s goaltending depth follows those lines. Last year Anaheim, Dallas, and San Jose had at least two very strong goaltenders at the NHL level, while Phoenix and Los Angeles struggled with a mix of aging and injury plagued veterans and prospects that were not ready for the NHL jobs they were forced into. For 2007-08, little has changed in the division balance. The most significant change in the division is probably San Jose’s decision to trade Vesa Toskala and open their backup position to one of their prospects. The Ducks could’ve lost starter Jean-Sébastien Giguere to unrestricted free agency, but made sure to sign him long term. Beyond those moves, the changes rested with the two bottom feeders, as both Phoenix and Los Angeles try and find a combination that works for them at the NHL level both short term and long term. What’s the end result? This division looks to be the same as it ever was.

1. Anaheim Ducks

a. Starting Goaltender: Jean-Sébastien Giguere, 30 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Ilya Bryzgalov, 27 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Jonas Hiller, 25 years old
d. Gerald Coleman, 22 years old
e. Jean-Phillipé Levasseur, 20 years old

Training Camp Battles: Backup Goaltender – Ilya Bryzgalov & Jonas Hiller

The defending Cup champions boast an embarrassment of riches in goal, and one that undoubtedly will not last very long. Giguere is coming off a dream spring, the birth of a daughter that battled for her life before coming out on top. The least the new daddy could do was battle for his job back as Anaheim’s #1 goalie and lead them to their first Stanley Cup. No Conn Smythe Trophy this time, but the doubters are somehow a lot more silent this off-season than in the past. Off-season hip surgery has given some hope for backup Ilya Bryzgalov to impress early in the season, where it is likely that the team will be looking to trade him to the highest bidder. With Khabibulin’s recent struggles in Chicago, Bryzgalov might be Russia’s second best goaltender right now. After a somewhat inconsistent regular season, Bryzgalov stepped up for the Ducks yet again in the post-season, winning his first 3 games against Minnesota before one bad outing put Giguere back in goal for good. Trouble is, Bryzgalov has paid his dues as a backup and seems to deserve at least a shot at a legitimate goaltending tandem, where he could eventually become a #1. That won’t happen in Anaheim, not with Giguere under contract for the next 4 years at $6m a season. When Anaheim does trade him, they are prepared to move on, with Swiss league star Jonas Hiller joining the fold. His cap hit is enormous ($3.2m), but most of that is occupied by bonuses that only a #1 goaltender would be able to attain. With Giguere being eased back into action, Hiller could see a couple of games of action early in October, or possibly even September as the Ducks open the season in England. At 25, any apprenticing in the AHL will likely be very short. Occupying the AHL and ECHL ranks are Gerald Coleman and Jean-Phillipé Levasseur. Coleman has had a taste of the NHL, but has a long ways to go to challenge for a job full time. Levasseur now has to go from an above average junior goaltender to a professional, and the learning curve for him is expected to be very steep. Not that the Ducks are that concerned, as they are committed to Giguere as their #1 goaltender for 4 more years.

2. Dallas Stars

a. Starting Goaltender: Marty Turco, 32 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Mike Smith, 25 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Tobias Stephan, 23 years old

Training Camp Battles: none

Marty Turco finally exorcised some demons with an unbelievable performance in the NHL playoffs this past year, but amazingly it was still not enough. The 32 year old posted 3 shutouts in the first round, but amazingly Dallas lost to Vancouver in 7 games. Turco is as much “the whole package” in goal as anybody in the NHL. He’s incredibly athletic, can play over 70 games, and is the best puck handler amongst his position. Before this past year, it was a question of being able to perform at a high level in the playoffs. If he can build on his unbelievable showing against Vancouver (1.29 GAA, .952 SV%, 3 SO), Dallas could be ready to make another deep run into the playoffs, something they haven’t done since the turn of the century. Backup goaltender Mike Smith stepped up when Turco was having some problems in December last year, and his overall performance was enough for him to be the goaltender on the NHL’s All-Rookie team, although as the only rookie goalie in the league that played the full season, he really had little competition. At 25, he’s a bit of a late bloomer, and playing behind Turco won’t offer him a lot of opportunity for advancement as long as Marty stays healthy. The Stars only have 3 goaltenders directly under contract, with Swiss prospect Tobias Stephan now moving into the team’s 3rd stringer role with Dan Ellis now out of the organization. Stephan struggled during his first year in North America, but it was expected to be a bit of a learning process for him. Stephan is much more reliant on a consistent butterfly than his NHL teammates, so getting comfortable in North American rinks will go a long way to improved results for him. Phil Sauvé is also in the organization, signed to the team’s AHL affiliate in Iowa but not currently signed by Dallas.

3. San Jose Sharks

a. Starting Goaltender: Evgeni Nabokov, 32 years old
b. Backup Goaltender/Top Prospect: Thomas Greiss, 21 years old
c. Third Stringer: Dmitri Patzold, 24 years old
d. Taylor Dakers, 21 years old

Training Camp Battles: Backup Goaltender – Thomas Greiss & Dmitri Patzold

Nabby finally has his team back. It’s been a long time since Nabokov was the undisputed #1 in the Bay Area, but after splitting the last 3-4 seasons with Vesa Toskala, Nabokov finally emerged as the team’s go-to-guy again. Toskala was dealt this off-season to Toronto for draft picks, leaving Nabokov as the only goaltender in San Jose with substantial NHL experience. As good of a reputation as he has, Nabokov has had a hard time getting the Sharks deep into the playoffs, only making one appearance past the 2nd round in 2004. Will an increased workload in 2007-08 help him prepare better for a deeper run, or it will be detrimental? Who the Sharks choose as a backup will go a long way to help determine Nabokov’s workload. If Top Prospect Thomas Greiss is the winner, the team will likely be comfortable giving Nabokov a few more games off. Greiss is only 21, and with just 1 year of North American pro experience, but he won the starting job in the AHL last year after starting the year in the ECHL. His strong play allowed the Sharks to trade Nolan Schaefer in a minor deal at the trading deadline, and confirmed his status as the team’s “future” goalie. But is the future really now? Dmitri Patzold had a much less impressive 2006-07 when compared to Greiss, but at 24 and a few more professional seasons under his belt, might be able to handle a limited backup role behind Nabokov. All that being said, it’s Greiss’ job to lose more than it is Patzold’s to win. Joining the Sharks’ strong youth movement in goal is Tyler Dakers, fresh off a very strong junior career. If he starts strongly in the AHL, he might even see some NHL action should an injury take place or the backup goaltender struggles.

4. Los Angeles Kings

a. Starting Goaltender: Dan Cloutier, 31 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Jason Labarbera, 27 years old
c. Third Stringer: Jean-Sébastien Aubin, 30 years old
d. Erik Ersberg, 25 years old
e. Joanthon Quick, 21 years old
f. Daniel Taylor, 21 years old
g. Top Prospect: Jonathon Bernier, 19 years old

Training Camp Battles: Starting Goaltender – Dan Cloutier, Jason Labarbera, Jean-Sébastien Aubin & Joanthon Bernier

There’s no tiptoeing around this situation… it’s a mess. Cloutier, fresh off the worst season of his career where he was the worst goaltender in the league statistically, and a major injury, is penciled in here as the starter more because of his relationship with Head Coach Marc Crawford and his salary than his credentials. However, Crawford has made it clear that this job is up for grabs, and likely will be for the entire season given the group of goaltenders battling for the job. Jason Labarbera, stuck in the AHL all last year due to the re-entry waiver rule, is back in the mix after another sensational AHL campaign. His one full NHL season was decent, but merely average. Still, an average NHL season would be very welcome form a LA perspective. The team was so desperate for goaltending help they took a chance on the unorthodox J-S Aubin, who has been known to have conditioning issues that prevent him from consistent performance. Last year, Aubin struggled in Toronto, and was stapled to the bench for most of the year despite playing behind an unremarkable starter in Andrew Raycroft. So where’s the hope in LA? Well, it’s 19-year-old Jonathon Bernier, the best teenage goaltending prospect in the world. Bernier is in a situation that major junior hockey may not be challenging enough to make substantial improvements to his game, but junior to the NHL is a huge jump. However, he is right now the logical starter for Team Canada for the 2008 World Junior Championships, which would be a sufficient challenge for him. Bernier is under contract and might earn a longer look out of training camp, as the Kings might use the 9 games allotted to them before his contract kicks in for the full season. Also in the mix is Swedish free agent signing Erik Ersberg, who will be AHL bound to start the season at least, but could very well see NHL action by the end of the year. Jonathon Quick is another promising prospect for the Kings, as he cut his NCAA career short to turn pro after a very strong year with the University of Massachusetts.

5. Phoenix Coyotes

a. Starting Goaltender: David Aebischer, 29 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Mikael Tellqvist, 28 years old
c. Third Stringer: Alex Auld, 26 years old
d. Top Prospect: Josh Tordjman, 22 years old
e. David LeNeveu, 24 years old

Training Camp Battles: Backup Goaltender – Mikael Tellqvist & Alex Auld

It’s come to this for Phoenix. Three goaltenders deemed expendable within the past calendar year by their previous organizations are now expected to guide the team through 2007-08. David Aebischer is by far the most accomplished of the group, but after a strong 2003-04 campaign in Colorado, has been very inconsistent since the lockout and has seemingly reached a plateau as an average NHL goaltender with poor rebound control. Mikael Tellqvist played well upon first arriving in Phoenix from Toronto, but finished the year with a .885 SV%, which is hardly a confidence builder for the organization. The team than made a late move in the free agent pool by bringing in former Vancouver & Florida netminder Alex Auld, who is just one year removed from being part of the Roberto Luongo deal. Auld is a big frame goalie, not unlike former Phoenix goalie Sean Burke, but is definitely lacking in lateral mobility as well as puck handling. Still, at only 25, he’s perhaps Phoenix’s best hope of the bunch. As for what else the future might hold in Phoenix, the team once passed on Al Montoya because they felt David LeNeveu was a good enough goaltending prospect, but in the past two years LeNeveu has failed to deliver in the NHL when called upon, and now looks like he’s lost the status as the team’s “future goaltender” to former QMJHL star Josh Tordjman. Tordjman took over as San Antonio’s starter last year and seems to be about the only goaltender in Phoenix’s organization on an upward trajectory. With the decidedly below average collective of goaltenders ahead of him, Tordjman could see some NHL action sooner than he could’ve ever imagined upon signing with the Coyotes just last summer.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Goaltending Profile: Northeast Division

In contrast with our first feature in the Central Division, the Northeast Division is full of changes, with only the Ottawa Senators keeping their tandem from last year in tact. Every team kept their #1 goalie from last year, but in the case of Boston and Toronto, that apparently wasn’t good enough. New to the division is former Minnesota Wild starter Manny Fernandez and former San Jose Sharks netminder Vesa Toskala. What is interesting about the choices of those organizations is that they didn’t seem deterred by Ottawa’s experience of last summer. Last summer, Ottawa decided that Ray Emery, who finished last year as the replacement starter, was not ready for the full time job and signed Martin Gerber to a hefty 3-year contract. Gerber struggled and Emery stepped up again, helping lift Ottawa from a middling start to the Stanley Cup Finals. Now Ottawa has two goaltenders that cost more than $3 million each. Like Gerber, both Fernandez and Toskala became expendable by their organizations because their goaltending partner outplayed them, and both carry hefty price tags (Toskala doesn’t for this first season, but was quickly re-signed to a 2 year, $8m contract). Meanwhile, Buffalo and Montreal return their All-Star starters, but they get new backups. Buffalo opted for a veteran, where as Montreal is breaking in some highly touted prospects.

1. Buffalo Sabres

a. Starting Goaltender: Ryan Miller, 27 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Jocelyn Thibault, 32 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Adam Dennis, 22 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: none

You’d think things have been easy for Ryan Miller since he took over as starter in 2005-06. He’s racked up 70 wins in 2 seasons and twice backstopped his team to the Conference Finals, while upsetting Martin Brodeur to be voted as the starting goaltender for the Eastern Conference in the 2007 All-Star game. Now with all those experiences behind him, he’ll be looked to as a leader in Buffalo with the departure of their high-profile co-captains. Miller has always had a calm demeanor in the crease, but he has a reputation as a strong voice in the locker room. Now that the goaltender he displaced as the starter, Martin Biron, has found a new home in Philadelphia, Miller will likely see an increased workload. That’s not meant as a slight to Jocelyn Thibault, but with Miller entering his prime and Thibault’s prime passed him (largely thanks to a series of injuries), it seems to be a safe bet. How Miller handles his increased responsibility will be key in how the Sabres adapt to the significant losses up front. Meanwhile, Adam Dennis will see more time as Rochester’s top goaltender. He played in 35 games last season as a rookie, but did not play in the team’s brief playoff. The team has yet to sign a 4th goaltender.

2. Montréal Canadiens

a. Starting Goaltender: Christobal Huet, 32 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Jaroslav Halak, 22 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Carey Price, 20 years old
d. Yann Danis, 26 years old
e. Loic Lacasse, 21 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Backup Goaltender – Jaroslav Halak & Carey Price

This coming season promises to be an exciting one for Montreal fans when it comes to seeing how the goaltending situation plays out. Christobal Huet, who made his All-Star debut following an incredibly strong first half, returns to assume a starter’s role that some feel won’t be his for much longer. When a goaltender experiences the kind of injury trouble that Huet has experienced the past 2 seasons, limiting him to only 42 appearances last year, one has to wonder how long he can continue to provide a high level of goaltending for the club. Not only that, but the team not only boasts one, but two very strong goaltending prospects behind him. Jaroslav Halak was the top goaltender in the AHL in many statistical categories when he was called up to take the injured Huet’s spot in February, and a strong finish by him saw him unseat veteran David Aebischer and nearly propel a floundering Habs team into the playoffs. When Montreal’s season was over, however, he didn’t return to the AHL, but instead to the World Championships to represent Slovakia for the first time on the men’s team. Did the Habs’ farm team miss him in the playoffs? Hardly. Carey Price had a dream season in 2006-07, at only age 19. He posted a strong season for Tri-City, earning him top goaltender honors for both the WHL and all of Canadian major junior hockey. The season was highlighted by a Top Goalie, MVP, gold-medal winning performance for Team Canada at the U-20 World Championships that made him a household name in the hockey world. Upon the conclusion of his junior season, he signed with Montreal and assumed the starting goaltender role for the AHL playoffs after only 2 AHL starts. He got a shutout in his first pro playoff game and never looked back, propelling a middle of the pack Bulldogs team to a Calder Cup Championship, and claiming one more MVP award as the AHL Playoffs’ top player. Oh yeah, and there’s still Yann Danis, who did well in a cup of coffee for the Habs in 2005-06 but has seen himself surpassed by the aforementioned youngsters. Danis is still a goalie with NHL potential, but is now 26 and must make a significant push. If he does make the NHL again, it likely won’t be with Montreal. It’ll be interesting to see how this fairly inexperienced but highly talented crew fairs for Montreal in 2007-08.

3. Ottawa Senators

a. Starting Goaltender: Ray Emery, 25 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Martin Gerber, 33 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Jeff Glass, 21 years old
d. Brian Elliot, 22 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Third Stringer – Jeff Glass & Brian Elliot

It was a season to remember for Ray Emery, and at the end of the day, he got rewarded for it. Unfortunately for Ottawa fans, it wasn’t the Stanley Cup, but a big raise. After winning the #1 goaltending job early in the season, Emery backstopped the Sens to a very strong finish and a near dismantling of the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, shaking a lot of the April & May stereotypes associated with the Senators. But it wasn’t enough to stop Anaheim, and now the process begins again. The Senators now have 2 goalies paid like #1’s on their payroll, and while Emery will get the starting gig out of training camp, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to keep it. Emery has always shown signs of becoming a quality starter in the NHL, but he lacks consistency and often battles rebound control problems and can let in soft goals when he doesn’t see much action. Lost in Martin Gerber’s early struggles was his strong finish as well as he became the backup. There is no reason to write him off completely as a factor for the Senators’ goaltending position. Behind the tandem are Jeff Glass and Brian Elliot, an unremarkable tandem of prospects. Like Price, Glass too won a Gold Medal at the U-20 WJC for Canada, but did so on what has been dubbed the greatest team of junior aged players ever assembled. Since turning pro, Glass has spent most of 1 year in the ECHL and this past one in the AHL, where he was fairly underwhelming on a poor team. Brian Elliot will challenge Glass, as he is fresh off a very strong final year for Wisconsin. Neither goalie, though, are close to being NHL ready now, and maybe never will be.

4. Boston Bruins

a. Starting Goaltender: Manny Fernandez, 33 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Tim Thomas, 33 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Tuukka Rask, 20 years old
d. Jordan Sigalet, 25 years old
e. Mike Brown, 22 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Starting Goaltender – Manny Fernandez & Tim Thomas

In 2006-07, goaltending depth was a major issue for the Boston Bruins. When their top prospect at the time, Hannu Toivonen, faltered early, the Bruins had to lean heavily on veteran journeyman Tim Thomas, who ended up playing in a career high 66 games. Thomas faired admirably for a weak Bruins squad, but there was a general consensus that he was overworked. Fact is Tim Thomas did not strike most observers as a prototypical #1 goaltender, despite showing great resolve and an ability to make tremendously athletic saves. So Boston GM Peter Chiarelli made a big move before the free agency period kicked in, acquiring Manny Fernandez from the Minnesota Wild for a fairly hefty price. Fernandez, who was just one year removed from receiving a big contract as the Wild’s undisputed starter, had lost his job when a knee injury sidelined him down the stretch and upstart Niklas Backstrom backstopped the Wild into the playoffs. Now, Fernandez & Thomas are expected to give the Bruins a strong tandem while top prospect Tuukka Rask develops at the AHL level. Fernandez has experience in goaltending tandems as well, battling for playing time and mutual success with Dwayne Roloson for several years in Minnesota. The key for Fernandez is to prove that he can stay both healthy and effective, which will go a long ways for the Bruins as they look to make it back into the post-season after a two-year absence. Thomas, meanwhile, is back to battling for playing time after earning a lot of starts in the past two years. Rask is widely considered to be one of the brightest goaltending prospects in the game, and before Carey Price’s tremendous 2006-07 campaign, was seen by many as the top prospect in the game. The team’s real improvement in the future lies with Rask, not the current tandem. Boston has been searching for a true #1 goalie for a long time, and has given up recently on two younger goaltenders that they brought into the league. Rask, in fact, was acquired for one of those goaltenders, Andrew Raycroft. Behind Rask is Jordan Sigalet, himself an inspiring story as he has overcome a continuing battle with Multiple Sclerosis.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

a. Starting Goaltender: Vesa Toskala, 30 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Andrew Raycroft, 27 years old
c. Third Stringer: Scott Clemmensen, 30 years old
d. Top Prospect: Justin Pogge, 21 years old

Training Camp Position Battles:
Starting Goaltender – Vesa Toskala & Andrew Raycroft
Third Stringer – Scott Clemmensen & Justin Pogge

Much like the Bruins, the Leafs also struggled with goaltending depth in 2006-07, playing starter Andrew Raycroft in 72 games while only sparingly playing their backup Jean-Sebastien Aubin. However, when your starter plays 72 games while recording an .894 SV%, it can be assumed that the Leafs were unable to get the saves they needed on many occasions in order to earn a playoff spot. So in comes Vesa Toskala, who has spent the past 2 seasons sharing duties with Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose and posting strong, but not spectacular numbers. Many people expect Toskala to automatically become the starter, and certainly the Leafs have that faith, awarding Toskala with a 2 year, $8m extension before playing one game in Blue & White. However, with Toskala’s career high in games played only at 38 (set last season), it stands to reason that this will be a tandem to begin with. The hope is that the goalies will challenge each other and the stronger goalie will eventually emerge as the go-to-guy down the stretch and into the team’s first playoff appearance since the lockout. The goalies couldn’t be much more different in style, Toskala a more agile and athletic hybrid goaltender, and Raycroft a more traditional butterfly goalie who succeeds with strong positioning. His positioning failed Raycroft many times last year, and his lack of agility was often targeted by opponents. Meanwhile, the Leafs brought in former New Jersey backup Scott Clemmensen to help provide experienced depth in case of injury, as well as helping top prospect Justin Pogge develop after an up and down rookie campaign in the AHL. For Clemmensen, he finally gets the opportunity to play regular minutes after being Martin Brodeur’s backup for the past 2 years. He was always a very strong AHL netminder when in Albany, and this could be the opportunity to get noticed by another NHL club in the future. Pogge, who had an impressive major junior career, will look to improve on his numbers which saw him finish the season on the negative side of 2 key statistics, an over 3 GAA and a sub-.900 SV%.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goaltending Profile: Central Division

The Central Division will see only 2 NHL jobs change from how they ended in 2006-07, but that includes perhaps the most dramatic off-season goaltending turnover. The trade of Tomas Vokoun from Nashville to Florida perhaps impacted the goaltending strength of those indivdual teams the most, but also was perhaps the single biggest loss by the Western Conference in talent this off-season to the Eastern Conference. The viability of Chris Mason and Pekka Rinne over a full season is perhaps the biggest goaltending question in the division this off-season, but other questions remain for other clubs. Is Detroit pushing Hasek too much? Is Khabibulin finally getting back into pre-lockout form for Chicago? Who is going to survive training camp in St. Louis? And are better times ahead for the Blue Jackets?

1. Detroit Red Wings

a. Starting Goaltender: Dominik Hasek, 42 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Chris Osgood, 34 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Jimmy Howard, 23 years old
d. Adam Berkhoel, 26 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: None

Did we miss something here? Not only did “The Dominator” manage to post his first full healthy season since coming out of retirement in 2003, he did so in brilliant fashion. He played in 58 games, more than anyone could’ve predicted, and won 38 of them while being amongst the leaders in GAA, posting 8 shutouts, and backstopping the Red Wings to their first conference final since 2002. The question now remains whether Hasek can do it again. One of the keys to his success last year were regularly scheduled rest days, as well as never even dressing for games in which he was not scheduled to start. Because of the success of this approach last year, look for the Red Wings to add a goaltender off the waiver wire at the end of training camp, perhaps someone like Michael Leighton, Yann Danis, or Jason Bacashihua to play the part Joey MacDonald occupied for most of last year. Meanwhile, the Red Wings are going to give Jimmy Howard one more year to prove himself worthy of a promotion to the backup role. With Stefan Liv gone from the organization after 1 year of AHL duty, Howard should be able to play in close to 60 games as Grand Rapids’ undisputed #1 goalie.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

a. Starting Goaltender: Nikolai Khabibulin, 34 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Patrick Lalime, 33 years old
c. Third Stringer/Top Prospect: Corey Crawford, 22 years old
d. Wade Flaherty, 39 years old
e. Mike Brodeur, 24 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: None

Khabibulin proved a tough goaltender to read in 2006-07. Although he had a bounceback campaign of sorts, improving on a terrible Chicago debut in 2005-06 which saw him battling injuries and posting a save percentage that could be confused with numbers a veteran AHL goaltender would put up in an emergency callup situation, he still left a lot to be desired. Perhaps it was the team in front of him, but Khabibulin used to look much better in the past when he had a poor supporting cast. At the mid-way point of his contract, it is evident that he will never live up to his lofty salary, which pays him the most amongst NHL goaltenders, tied with Roberto Luongo. The good news for Chicago is that there should be more competition for Khabibulin this year, with a healthy Patrick Lalime and a more NHL ready Corey Crawford behind him. Word out of Chicago is that Crawford is in the same situation as Jimmy Howard in Detroit, where the organization hopes to promote him to NHL backup duty by next training camp. Crawford was one of the AHL’s biggest workhorses last year, starting in 60 games.

3. Nashville Predators

a. Starting Goaltender: Chris Mason, 31 years old
b. Backup Goaltender/Top Prospect: Pekka Rinne, 24 years old
c. Third Stringer: Dan Ellis, 27 years old
d. Dov Grumet-Morris, 25 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Backup Goaltender - Pekka Rinne & Dan Ellis

It’s not that Chris Mason hasn’t impressed when given the opportunity in Nashville, in fact his numbers were even better during last year’s regular season than his much wealthier goaltending partner, Vokoun. It’s just that Mason appeared in a career high 40 games last year, and with a projected backup goaltender in Pekka Rinne having only 2 NHL games of experience and coming off an injury-filled AHL campaign which limited him to 29 games, it just seems impossible to project how this new goaltending combo will work. And that’s without considering that the team in front of the goal crease took a significant talent hit this off-season as well. Mason & Rinne have both shown enough to warrant consideration for promotion, but having both go through the acclimatization period at the same time is fairly risky. Behind the new goaltending combo are two younger AHL journeymen in Dan Ellis and Dov Grumet-Morris. Ellis at one point looked like a potential backup in Dallas, but Mike Smith finally won the battle last year and Ellis might be at one of his last chances to get a NHL job this year with Nashville as a result.

4. St. Louis Blues

a. Starting Goaltender: Manny Legace, 34 years old
b. Backup Goaltneder: Juuso Riksman, 30 years old
c. Third Stringer: Hannu Toivonen, 23 years old
d. Jason Bacashiuha, 25 years old
e. Top Prospect: Marek Schwarz, 21 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Backup Goaltender - Juuso Riksman, Hannu Toivonen, & Jason Bacashihua

You would’ve thought that when Manny Legace signed with St. Louis last offseason, his impressive streak of winning seasons would be at an end. But he was one of the catalysts in the Blues’ strong second half that had them move up from near the bottom of the NHL to 10th in the Western Conference, and at the end of the year, he finished with a 23-15-5 record, highlighted by 5 shutouts. Meanwhile, with Curtis Sanford out of the picture, the job of backing Legace up this year is once again open. The Blues signed veteran Finnish professional Juuso Riksman after a very strong season, including a stellar .949 SV% in the playoffs. He will be brought in to compete with two former first rounders, Hannu Toivonen (acquired in an offseason trade with Boston) and Jason Bacashihua, who appeared in 19 games for St. Louis last season. This will be one of the most competitive training camp battles in net in the entire NHL this September. The goaltender who finishes “3rd” could be traded, waived, re-assigned to a non-affiliated AHL organization or possibly even assigned to the ECHL. The reason for this is simple, the team’s top prospect, Marek Schwarz, is all but guaranteed a roster spot with the Blues’ AHL affiliate in Peoria. Just as a prediction, look for Bacashihua to be the odd man out in the Blues’ crowded crease. He has yet to make a significant push for a NHL job and is now 25, and the team brought in not just 1, but 2 new goalies this off-season to compete for one open job with him.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

a. Starting Goaltender: Pascal Leclaire, 24 years old
b. Backup Goaltender: Frederik Norenna, 33 years old
c. Third Stringer: Tomas Popperle, 22 years old
d. Daniel Lacosta, 21 years old
e. Top Prospect: Steve Mason, 19 years old

Training Camp Position Battles: Starting Goaltender – Pascal Leclaire & Frederik Norenna

One of the few revelations for the Columbus Blue Jackets last year was the strong play of Fredrik Norenna when Pascal Leclaire went down to injury. While that might be cause for some optimism in Ohio, it still shows how this organization has not been able to really improve since their inaugural expansion year. In reality, Marc Denis & Ron Tugnutt as a goaltending tandem doesn’t look too much different than today’s tandem of Leclaire & Norenna. However, just because Marc Denis was not able to become the true #1 goalie that the team envisioned isn’t a reason that Leclaire won’t. Leclaire remains the organization’s best hope at the position, but at least the team has a couple of contingency plans in their pipeline now with 22 year old Czech Tomas Popperle, who made a strong NHL debut this past year in a callup situation, and Steve Mason, one of the top goaltenders in the OHL. Mason will return to the OHL for next year, but is now under contract, while Popperle will continue to develop in Syracuse. However, for this team to take the next step, it’s time for Lecalire to live up to his lofty draft position.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Goaltending Profiles

Well, time for the re-launch.

I'm going to be posting a series of Goaltending Profiles on here and on over the next few days and weeks. I'll be running through each team's depth chart and analyzing their respective strengths and weaknesses, highlighting training camp battles, and trying to give a general idea of what to expect throughout the season and into the future. I'll be organizing them by division, starting with the Central Division, ranking them from #1 to #5.

A couple of notes for the unitiated: I only consider goalies that are currently under contract in my analysis/ranking. A team's top prospect, therefore, is the goalie with the highest upside that is currently under contract. These aren't standings prognostications or anything, it is entirely possible to build a strong team without having a top goalie on a roster. I'll assign spots for the following positions:

1. Starting Goaltender
2. Backup Goaltender
3. Third Stringer
4. Top Prospect

A Top Prospect can be a team's Strating, Backup, or Third String goaltender if that's how they rank heading into the training camp. They could also be the last goaltender on the depth chart currently.

I have done a few of these before for before, whether on the main page or in the web forums. I figure it's a good discussion launching point for this blog as we head into the hockey season.

I hope you enjoy them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mistakes he knew he had made.

The Samsonov error is over.

On Saturday, Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon generously offered an easier pill to swallow for Bob Gainey in getting rid of one disgruntled, ineffective, and overvalued winger Sergei Samsonov. With Tallon unable to find any takers for one of their own bad contracts (D Jassen Cullimore), and unable to use the buyout option themselves after using the 2 allowed buyouts last season on forwards Curtis Brown and Matthew Barnaby, the Blackhawks presented a unique trading partner... the only kind at this point that could potentially desire Samsonov at full price.

Predictably, Canadiens fans have rejoiced upon hearing the news of the trade, heaping loads of praise on the Habs' legendary centre. In reality, though, it highlights that Gainey is certainly a very fallible GM, but at least one who is able to recognize his own mistakes and address them. I'm going to use this trade as an opportunity to examine how Gainey minimized the impact of several bad contracts on the club's future in the process.

As a disclaimer, I'll say this. "Mistake" is a word thrown around here with the benefit of hindsight. Some of these moves looked good at the time, and I'll acknoweldge those as they come up.

Mistake #1: Donald Audette - 4 years, $12m contract (Dallas, 2001 UFA signing)

I don't want to go too far back and start bringing up mistakes made that didn't really affect the Habs, but this one did have a large impact on the Habs. The Stars were a powerhouse at the turn of the century, winning the Cup in 1999 and losing in the Finals in 2000. After a disappointing 2nd round exit in 2001, Gainey decided the team needed an injection of offensive minded, slick, skilled players. This went contrary to the Stars' trap-heavy, physical style of Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, but with the team losing Brett Hull to free agency, any offence was considered a positive. Not only did Gainey sign the undersized but fairly prolific scorer Audette, but he also signed former Hab star Pierre Turgeon to a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal.

Within weeks, though, Gainey realized that Audette was not the answer for Hull he was looking for as the Stars struggled out of the gate. He was traded to Montreal along with Shaun Van Allen for Benoit Brunet and Martin Rucinsky after only 20 games in a Dallas uniform. Shortly after being traded, Audette cut several tendons in his wrist in a very scary incident where he was cut from a skate blade. The incident caused permanent damage and he was unable to ever play at the level he, or his team, expected him to.

This is relelvant because the 2001-02 season cost Gainey his job in Dallas. Audette's inability to produce also helped cost the Habs a playoff spot in 2002-03 (Audette even had a 10 game stint in the AHL that year). Whenever a team misses the playoffs, the job security of management comes into play. Andre Savard was replaced as GM by Gainey in June 2003, and Gainey once again became responsible for the Audette contract he negotiated. Within 3 months, Gainey was unable to find a taker for the remaining term on Audette's contract (which expired at the conclusion of 2004-05), and they agreed on a buyout in late December. This was following the buyout of both Mariusz Czerkawski and Randy MacKay in July, both contracts that Gainey had inherited from Andre Savard's tenure.

Mistake #2: Jose Theodore - 3 years, $16 million (2005 offseason)

In reality, this contract was not a mistake when inked. Theodore was widely considered one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and I include myself in the camp who considered him an elite goalie. The fact is, the evidence up to August 2005 showed he was, as Bob Gainey put it at the time, "an elite player in a position where there are few elite players." He had won the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002, and made an All-Star appearance in 2004. He had twice backstopped the Canadiens to the 2nd round, despite the Habs being ranked 8th and 7th in the East those playoff seasons. He was the 3rd goaltender for Team Canada at the 2004 World Cup, and was invited back for that role at the 2005 World Championships, but pulled out due to a knee injury. Perhaps that knee injury played into what would happen into his well chronicled meltdown in 2005-06. That meltdown first helped cause Claude Julien his job as head coach, then Theodore's own job as starting goaltender when Cristobal Huet took over in January 2005, his placement on Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics, and then finally Theodore's job in Montreal when he was traded on the eve of the trade deadline to Colorado for David Aebischer. A $5.33m cap hit was exchanged for a $1.9m contract.

Bob Gainey then used the money saved on Theodore's contract, as well as the increase in the cap ceiling itself, to re-sign Cristobal Huet ($2.875m), re-sign Francis Bouillon ($1.875m), and sign Sergei Samsonov ($3.525m). Increased cap space (and not retaining Jan Bulis) also allowed the Habs to swap Mike Ribeiro ($1.9m) for Janne Niinimaa ($2.5m).

Mistake #3: Sergei Samsonov - 2 years, $7.05m (2006 offseason)

It didn't work out. While Huet and Aebischer were for the most part competent (and sometimes brilliant, particularily Huet), they were unable to stop a slide down the standings in January and February that cost the Habs a playoff spot. Samsonov was dreadful, a player who spent nearly every game just skating up and down the ice along the boards, not involved in the play. Bouillon spent the first part of the season recovering from knee surgery and never regained the form that saw him become a millionaire. And Niinimaa hardly even played, let alone played well.

The point of this all is to illustrate that Samsonov was not Gainey's first misstep as the Habs' GM, nor is it likely to be his last. Just like in 2001 with Dallas, Gainey saw an opening for a slick, small offensive forward (both Audette and Samsonov are listed as 5'8"), only to eventually admit it was a mistake. And while the Theodore trade removed one problem, Gainey was unable to turn it into a real positive for the club. In theory, the Habs could've went into last season with Theodore (instead of Aebischer) backing up a re-signed Huet, with Theodore's contract not allowing the Habs to retain Bouillon or Bulis, and maybe not even allowing the Habs to take on Niinimaa's contract. And, because they still had Theodore, Samsonov would not have been acquired. We don't know how this scenario would've turned out, but it's hard to believe it would've been remarkably different in retrospect.

Now, all of that is in the past. Gainey saved himself some money by buying out Cullimore instead of Samsonov, and got Salmalienen as a throw-in. This does not make him a brilliant GM, but it does show he finds ways of getting out of tough situations. He can admit his own mistakes, and it's about time Montreal fans acknowledge that he makes them.

Here's to hoping this pattern doesn't continue this off-season. If it does, well... at least we know he'll try and find his way out of it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Introduction: Goals, Points, and Biases

Welcome to the Fastest Blog On Ice. You may be wondering to yourself, just what kind of blog is this? Well, this entry will give you a short summary of what you can expect here.

Primarily, but not exclusively, this will be a hockey blog. Consequently, the main league covered will be the NHL. There are plenty of hockey blogs out there, and many good ones, so it will obviously be a challenge to find my niche, but it's what I know and love. My favourite NHL team, as you can probably tell, is the Montreal Canadiens. There will most likely be more subject matter related to the Habs than any other NHL franchise, but I hope to cover the league moreso than my favorite team.

I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and was born and raised in various small towns throughout this province. That's relevant because there are other topics I'd like to put on this blog aside from the NHL. The first is the Western Hockey League. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I do go to some games and seeing as more WHL players graduate to the NHL than any other non-NHL affiliated league than I think any insight would be greatly appreciated. I know there are some blogs out there on major junior hockey, but obviously not nearly the number that there are for the NHL. I'll try and do my part to hold up my end of the bargain. Obviously, my hometown bias is towards the Saskatoon Blades.

My Saskatchewan residency makes my second sport, and pro league that I will cover, an obvious choice. I'm a CFL fan, and as game day approaches, and passes, during the summer my focus will be on the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The pain, the agony, the exaggerated highs and devestating lows of being a Rider fan will be on full display here. I apologize in advance.

As far as hockey is concerned, I have a positional bias for goaltenders. You will see me comment on goaltending transactions, scenarios, and issues probably more than the average hockey blog. I played goal as a kid and have ever since paid more attention to the position than the other players on the ice. I also have a preference for players from Saskatchewan, and I'm sure that will be on display a number of times as well.

Undoubtedly, I will touch on other sports. But not enough to realistically expect fans of those sports to drop by. The hockey fan that is also a sports fan in general might appreciate a small break from pucks.

I post frequently on hockey message boards around the world wide web as saskhab, but I am a moderator at the web forums. On the front page, there are some articles and I do plan to cross reference to that website when I write something more substantial.