Assessing the World Cup Goaltending Selections
There were few surprises among the goaltenders selected for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, with all eight teams required to name at least two netminders to their preliminary rosters on Tuesday.
While the World Cup itself is still six months away, final rosters are due to be named on June 1st, and though injuries and poor form have seen expected starters knocked out of the crease before, the desire for instant success in a short tournament has left little room for experimentation.
But each nation still has decisions to make before the puck drops on September 17th. From selecting a starter to completing their line up, the remaining months of the NHL season could determine much.
Team Canada – Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby and Carey Price
Team Canada’s biggest concern between the pipes ahead of Tuesday’s announcement was simply the health of Montreal’s Carey Price.
The reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy winner has been out of action since late November due to a knee injury, and only recently started skating in full equipment again. Were his rehab to have carried on in to the summer, Team Canada General Manager Doug Armstrong may have had to rethink their options.
As it is, the Canadian trio almost pick themselves, with veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was on the Canadian Roster at the past two Olympics, making way.
Price is widely regarded as the best goaltender in the world. If he’s fit and ready then the likelihood is he starts; just as he did in Sochi where Team Canada secured back-to-back Olympic gold.
Washington Capitals’ number one Braden Holtby – for many the Vezina Trophy front runner this season – seems the likely candidate to server as deputy, but the selection of Crawford adds further credence to the argument that the Blackhawks’ netminder is truly among the games best puck stoppers.
Team Czech Republic – Petr Mrazek, Michal Neuvirth and Ondrej Pavelec
Goaltending could be the Czech Republic’s secret weapon, or its Achilles heel.
Petr Mrazek looks to have stolen the Red Wings starting role from Jimmy Howard, having posted some of the best numbers in the NHL while powering his way in to the Vezina Trophy conversation this season.
As a result, most would expect the Ostrava native to start for the Czech Republic in September. But a recent slump may have left the door ajar.
Petr Mrazek's last 6 starts:
5v5 SV%: .871
PK SV%: .875
Goals Saved Above Average: -6.24
— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) March 3, 2016
Like Mrazek, both Michal Neuvirth and Ondrej Pavelec – who backstopped the Czech Republic at the 2014 Winter Olympics – can boast occasional highs, but both have struggled with consistency throughout their careers.
Neuvirth’s performances for Philadelphia this season make him the obvious candidate to steal the starting role if Mrazek struggles in the fall. In 29 games for the Flyers, the 27-year old has posted a 2.22 goals-against average and 92.7% save percentage, and he performed admirably for a poor Buffalo side last season before being traded to the Islanders.
Winnipeg’s Pavelec remains the butt of many jokes, but the big puck stopper did show signs of improvement last season and has international experience. An injury earlier this year derailed that progress however, with the 28-year old now under pressure in Manitoba following Connor Hellebuyck’s impressive run of performances.
Team Europe – Frederik Andersen and Jaroslav Halak
The omission of Slovakia, Switzerland and other top European nations was controversial. But with the creation of Team Europe, Frederik Andersen gained an opportunity to appear on the world stage in a way he might never have been able to with his native Denmark.
Andersen and Halak were virtual locks to be on Team Europe from the moment the amalgamated team was announced, with Halak the likely starter given his previous tournament experience with Slovakia.
General Manager Miroslav Satan still has some decisions to make regarding his third goaltender though. Halak’s New York Islanders team mate Thomas Greiss is a strong candidate following a solid season at the Barclays Center, while Swiss duo Reto Berra and Jonas Hiller may also be considered.
German national Phillipp Grubauer could also be a dark horse for the role, but short of an injury or a complete collapse in form it’s hard to see Halak or Andersen losing their place.
Team Finland – Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne
Finland’s depth of goaltending talent continues to impress, though logic dictates Boston’s Tuukka Rask will again lead his country come September.
Even with strong competition for places, Rask remains the stand out stopper for Team Finland, as he continues to help Boston inch closer to securing a post season berth.
Pekka Rinne’s distinctly average season hasn’t put Jere Lehtinen and his scouting team off selecting the 33-year old. But with Antti Raanta, Karri Ramo and Dallas’ Finnish tandem – Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen – vying for the third spot, Rinne still may not be guaranteed the backup role come by the time the World Cup rolls around.
Team North America – John Gibson, Connor Hellebuyck and Matt Murray
Arguably the most intriguing trio heading in to the tournament is that of Team North America, who boast three of the most exciting young goaltenders in the NHL.
John Gibson is favourite to start, having impressed for Anaheim again this season. With a 91.80% save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average, Gibson, and team mate Frederik Andersen, have provided solid goaltending for the Ducks all season, despite some early offensive woes for the club.
But Connor Hellebuyck also stood out during his 26-game spell with the Jets earlier this season. The top ranked goaltender in InGoal Magazine’s Top 50 Goaltending Prospects for 2015/2016, Hellebuyck also posted a 91.80% save percentage, but bettered Gibson in adjusted save percentage; suggesting the decision to go with Gibson is not quite as clear cut as some may believe.
The Jets goaltender was also outstanding at last year’s World Championships, posting a tournament high 94.79% save percentage in ten games with a 1.37 goals-against average as Team USA took bronze.
Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, set to move in to the backup role behind Marc Andre Fleury next season, rounds out the goaltending depth chart. It should speak volumes of the strength Team North America has in the position that Murray is seen as ‘third choice’.
Team Russia – Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov and Andrei Vasilevskiy
With only four Russian goaltenders in the NHL, and an active decision not to name KHL players to the preliminary roster, options were rather limited ahead of Head Coach Oleg Znarok’s announcement on Tuesday.
Given Russia’s propensity to be somewhat loose in its own end, perhaps it is beneficial two of three netminders selected play for Colorado and Columbus though.
At present, Semyon Varlamov would likely get the nod, based largely on a hot streak at the turn of the year combined with Bobrovsky’s continues battle with groin problems. But Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy may be the wild card here.
The 21-year old is exceptionally talented and a cold streak from Varlamov or Bobrovsky could clear the way for the Tyumen native.
Bobrovsky certainly hasn’t performed at his best during two injury riddled seasons, while Varlamov’s consistency has come under question again this year – especially after a recent dip which saw Calvin Pickard take the Avalanche starting role.
Despite their high profile group of forwards, once again it’s making the right decisions in their own end which is likely to define the Russians tournament.
Team Sweden – Henrik Lundqvist and Jacob Markstrom
Perhaps the most obvious selection of the entire tournament, 2006 Olympic gold medallist Lundqvist will undoubtedly back stop Team Sweden again in September.
A Vezina Trophy candidate once again this season, the veteran goaltender has been among the game’s elite since his debut in 2005, and his place was never in doubt on an already impressive preliminary roster for the Swedes.
The inclusion of Markstrom ahead of Robin Lehner, Eddie Lack and Jhonas Enroth proved somewhat controversial though.
But Lack struggled early this season, Lehner has only recently recovered from serious injury and Enroth has logged the fewest minutes of the four; while Markstrom has been relatively stable behind Ryan Miller in Vancouver.
With Enroth unlikely to feature in the post season, and Buffalo and Carolina effectively out of the play off picture, time is running out for all three netminders to stake a claim to the third spot on Team Sweden.
Lehner has impressed since returning to the Sabres line up in January, and could claim the role if he continues. But Lack has also seen steady improvement since reverting to his more natural, passive style following a difficult opening to the new campaign.
Team USA – Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider
While Bishop has had a good season with Tampa Bay, once again the debate centres around the active game of Jonathan Quick versus the more passive style of Cory Schneider.
Quick and the LA Kings rebounded from last seasons disappointment to lead the Pacific Division, but there is no denying Schneider’s excellence between the pipes in New Jersey.
Team USA’s defensive style may well dictate who starts in September. Quick got the nod in Sochi, but many felt it should have been Schneider and the split is no less pronounced this time.
One thing worth noting may be that Schneider leads Quick in almost every significant statistical category – save percentage, adjusted save percentage, GSAA and high danger save percentage – except one: wins.
It’s not a huge statistical advantage, but in the age of analytics it might prove significant.