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.

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