With the NHL lockout over, the hockey questions have returned.
For goaltenders facing the unknown of a condensed 48-game season, there are a lot more questions than answers.
InGoal started the week by asking the same one so many others have: Where will Roberto Luongo end up – and could he really stay with the Canucks in tandem with Cory Schneider? There are many others, including curiosity about which goaltenders would be affected the most by the long break from NHL action, and whether the goalies that played through it – either overseas or in the American Hockey League – might have an advantage over puck-stopping peers who stayed home but struggled to stay sharp.
As long-time Nashville goaltending coach Mitch Korn said, “It’s the great unknown.”
Which won’t keep us from trying to come up with answers. Today we turn our attention to whether or not guys who have been staying sharp – and in some cases, getting hot – in the AHL will get a legitimate shot at NHL employment? Answers varied, but one was consistent among the NHL goalies and coaches InGoal talked to: depth will be crucial this year.
As Kings’ goaltending coach Bill Ranford pointed out, it is not just about playing a lot of games in a short period. Ranford was one of eight goalies to play 40 or more games when the NHL emerged from the 1994-95 lockout to an abbreviated 48-game season.
“From my own experience, you have to mentally prepare to play every night,” Ranford said.
He also stressed the importance of getting enough rest to be able to maintain their games – and not just play a lot of them.
“Practice and maintenance time will be critical when you have the opportunity,” continued Ranford. “We will walk that fine line between rest and work in practice. The schedule is compressed, so rest is the most important thing. We will have to be conscious as a staff with everyone in the first few weeks. Both goalies need to be sharp out of the gate.”
Ranford’s emphasis on both goalies reiterates the need for depth. The importance of having three goalies you could count on was an increasingly important trend between lockouts, with an average of more than 87 goalies used per season, including 89 last year.
Only 68 goalies appeared in the last lockout-shortened season, but there were only 26 teams in the NHL back then and the position – and the physical demands placed on those who played it – was a lot different before the butterfly became commonplace.
Today, there is widespread agreement on the need for goaltending depth this season.
The question then is who has it – and where could it come from for teams short on it?
Abbotsford’s Barry Brust and Binghamton’s Robin Lehner are tied atop the AHL with a .944 save percentage, but Lehner is behind the one-way contracts of Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop in Ottawa, and Brust isn’t even under contract in the NHL. The same goes for Heat teammate Danny Taylor, who is seventh in the AHL with a .924 save percentage, and was recently featured in the new InGoal Magazine.
Both could be options for NHL teams in need of goaltending depth, but they are far from the only options out there.
Dan Ellis has proven in the past he is capable of carrying an NHL’s starter role, and could be a good partner for Schneider in Vancouver should the Canucks move Luongo without getting a proven goaltender in return (Vancouver’s No.3 Eddie Lack has been out since November with a groin injury that may be hip related). With a .922 save percentage for Charlotte, Ellis has also proven the groin injuries that plagued him last season are behind him, and has proven before that he can handle No.1 duties.
Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford told reporters in Carolina that Ellis was expected to compete for the backup job with Brian Boucher, who recovered from shoulder surgery during the lockout, and Checkers’ playing partner Justin Peeters. But Ellis confirmed in an email to InGoal that he is only on a 25-game tryout contract with Charlotte and remains an NHL free agent.
“Still a NHL free agent looking for a deal,” Ellis wrote.
Waivers may be another option for teams looking to add depth in the NHL.
The Columbus Blue Jackets added Sergei Bobrovsky during the summer, and he played well in his native Russia during the lockout, posting a .932 save percentage in the Kontinental Hockey League. Steve Mason is the incumbent. But Curtis McElhinney also has NHL experience, is sporting a .930 save percentage in the AHL, and should get a chance to push for work in Columbus. If he doesn’t, other teams could get a chance to claim McElhinney off waivers after training camp, as long as they keep him in the NHL.
Similarly, the Calgary Flames have to choose between Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving, with the loser in the battle to back up Miikka Kiprusoff likely exposed on waivers. Detroit’s Joey MacDonald is also destined for the waiver wire, and has already asked for a trade after the Red Wings added Jonas Gustavsson behind Jimmy Howard in the summer.
Yann Danis has been a solid No.3 for the Oilers and could be similarly available after training camp.
As for what other teams might be looking for help, the reality is waiver claims only really work as an NHL option – if a team tries to send them back down to the AHL, the original team gets first dibs to claim back – and beyond the Canucks moving Luongo without getting a goaltender in return, there aren’t a lot of immediate needs in goal.
That said, with Tim Thomas taking the year off, Boston has a lot of talent but not much NHL experience behind new No.1 Tuukka Rask. And Philadelphia is back to Michael Leighton backing up Ilya Bryzgalov, with no signed NHL experience behind them.
The only other concerns are among teams short with question marks in the No.3 role.
Buffalo has more experience behind Ryan Miller in Jhonas Enroth, but not much size, and is short on both beyond that. Chicago has questions beyond – and in some eyes about – Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. And while Colorado is set with Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the NHL, the Avalanche only has a couple young rookies in the AHL.
Anaheim, a team that has leaned too heavily on Jonas Hiller in the past, has promising Swede Viktor Fasth and some NHL experience in Jeff Deslauriers. Dallas, like Buffalo, has experience but not much size in the backup role, though new No.3 Cristopher Nihlstorp is both big, experienced as a pro overseas, and excelling in the AHL. There are questions in Nashville and New Jersey, though like Florida, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, the New York Islanders, Phoenix, St. Louis and Winnipeg they do appear to have enough depth options in the AHL, though with varying degrees of NHL experience.
The question is how many teams will need to lean on their depth – and how hard. Only time can provide that answer.
~ For an in-depth look at the goaltending depth charts of all NHL teams, check out The Goalie Guild.