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%.

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