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.

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