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InGoal 2015-16 Preview: Central Division

InGoal 2015-16 Preview: Central Division

Central

It’s October, which means a new NHL season is beginning. To prepare, the InGoal staff took a deep look at every team’s goaltending situation, from starters to backups to the minors and more. Taking into account both statistical and observational evaluations, we give you a look into what might happen for each team.

The statistics in this series are drawn from War-on-Ice.com. Because every goaltender sees a different amount of time on the power play and penalty kill, we are using 5-on-5 stats only. All save percentage figures are for the 2014-15 season only. Age and contract data are for 2015-16 and beyond.

For those unfamiliar with these stats, Adjusted Save Percentage accounts for some differences in the kinds of shots each goaltender faces, mostly location but also some rebounds and rush chances. High Danger Save percentage includes only shots from the slot. This is the part of adjusted save percentage that appears to predict future performance best and thus may tell us the most about individual goaltenders. More information is available here.

Also check out the season previews for the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions.

Chicago BlackhawksChicagoBlackhawks

Corey Crawford

Age: 30
Contract Status: $6m until 2020
Games Played: 57
Save %: 93.04
Adjusted Save %: 93.06
High Danger Save %: 84.42

The reigning Jennings trophy co-recipient is the unquestioned starter for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Despite an early-round stumble in last season’s playoffs, Crawford recovered his regular-season form in time to regain the net for the rest of the run. Don’t expect him to relinquish it for long this season. Crawford’s conservative style is efficient behind Chicago’s strong defense, and his year-to-year consistency makes him ideally suited to playing for a perennial cup contender.

Scott Darling

Age: 26
Contract Status: $0.5875m until 2017
Games Played: 14
Save %: 94.80
Adjusted Save %: 95.07
High Danger Save %: 89.22

Scott Darling capped an unexpectedly strong, Masterson-nominated regular-season performance with a surprise playoff stint that helped the Hawks through a tough Nashville series. If Darling can approach last season’s impressive numbers, he’ll be in line for a significant bump in ice time. Unless the Hawks stumble significantly, however, Darling is likely to see fewer than 25 games. Regardless of what Darling does in his limited starts, it’s Crawford’s net to lose.

Other Options

In the unlikely event of a Crawford-Darling collapse, or the more likely event of an injury, Chicago can turn to the veteran experience of Michael Leighton. The 34 year old had a strong season in the AHL, and is no stranger to the NHL, having played 105 games over parts of ten seasons. Matt Tomkins is Chicago’s top prospect, but with a year of NCAA eligibility remaining, he won’t likely make his professional debut until 2016-17.

Off-season Changes

Antti Raanta played well enough for the Blackhawks to earn himself a regular NHL job – he’ll back up Henrik Lundquist after having been traded to the Rangers this summer. This ends the backup-goalie battle that raged last season, meaning Darling’s position is more secure.

Outlook

Though Chicago has had to battle against the salary cap this summer, they have managed to maintain most of their core. Promising young talent like Teuvo Teravainen will have the chance to fill the shoes of departed veterans like Patrick Sharp, meaning that Chicago will ice another very strong team. Crawford and Darling should expect to receive the same kind of support they’ve grown accustomed to.

Colorado AvalancheColorado_Avalanche

Semyon Varlamov

Age: 27
Contract Status: $6.9m until 2019
Games Played: 57
Save %: 91.85
Adjusted Save %: 91.85
High Danger Save %: 83.46

Like the Blackhawks, Colorado isn’t expecting its starter role to be up for grabs. Semyon Varlamov, barring an injury like the one that sidelined him briefly last season, will start the vast bulk of Avalanche games. He’s shown he can perform at an elite level, and will be given every opportunity to do so again. Head coach Patrick Roy is not easy on his goalies, but Varlamov has shown he can handle the pressure of playing for a legend.

Reto Berra

Age: 28
Contract Status: $1.45m until 2017
Games Played: 19
Save %: 93.12
Adjusted Save %: 93.22
High Danger Save %: 86.17

Varlamov’s aforementioned injury opened the starter’s door to Reto Berra, who performed well, albeit inconsistently, in the role. He is older and more experienced than his main challenger, Calvin Pickard, and would have to clear waivers before an AHL assignment. Financially, he is the easier choice, and despite Patrick Roy’s assertion that the backup competition was wide open, Berra has been chosen to start the season, at least, with the big team.

Calvin Pickard

Age: 23
Contract Status: $0.8505m until 2016
Games Played: 16
Save %: 95.00
Adjusted Save %: 94.67
High Danger Save %: 88.35

Looking at Pickard’s stat line alone, you’d assume he was the clear starter: all but one of those numbers is excellent. The lone problem is games played, meaning that Pickard’s stats represent a very small sample of starts. Keeping him on the NHL side of his two-way contract would be a risk because Berra could be lost on waivers. Pickard will start the season in the AHL, but if Berra stumbles, he’ll get a chance to show last year’s impressive performance wasn’t just luck.

Other Options

Roman Will is likely the best option in the organization outside the three contenders above, but he has never seen NHL action, and has played only 40 games as a professional (in the ECHL and AHL). He is behind a long queue for Colorado’s pair of goaltending positions, and considering he is older than Calvin Pickard, he is unlikely to see ice with the Avalanche.

Off-season Changes

Signing Calvin Pickard to a one-year, two-way contract over the summer gave the Avs flexibility at the backup position. They have given themselves another season without much commitment to see how Pickard develops, and whether Berra can consistently handle the starts he’s given.

Outlook

Colorado has recently made an art of defying prediction. After riding Varlamov’s Vezina-worthy 2013-14 season to the divisional crown, they sputtered and failed to make the playoffs last season. If Varlamov remains healthy, he could see a move toward to his form of two seasons ago, making the post-season a possibility. As Varlamov goes, so go the Avs.

Dallas StarsDallas Stars

Kari Lehtonen

Age: 31
Contract Status: $5.9m until 2018
Games Played: 65
Save %: 91.42
Adjusted Save %: 91.46
High Danger Save %: 81.89

One of Dallas Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s post-game comments summed up Kari Lehtonen’s season well: “the goaltending performance doesn’t match the effort of the team….I know that’s hard, and it might be harsh from me, but you’re only giving up seven shots after 30 minutes, and your team hasn’t given up any chances, and the first shot goes in and it’s not a goal you like.…We’re not going to win those games.” Lehtonen had the worst season of his career, and Dallas missed the playoffs despite scoring the most goals in the Western Conference. There is no reason to believe Lehtonen has suddenly gone from being above average to being NHL-unworthy in a single season. His career numbers suggest a recovery is likely.

Antti Niemi

Age: 32
Contract Status: $4.5m until 2018
Games Played: 61
Save %: 92.19
Adjusted Save %: 91.99
High Danger Save %: 80.72

In light of Lehtonen’s terrible season, Dallas acquired another capable starter from the Sharks in Antti Niemi. Niemi’s last season exemplified the consistency he’s become known for, which is precisely why he became an appealing target for the Stars. He is used to carrying the load in San Jose, never having played fewer than 60 games since joining the club in 2010. He’ll battle Lehtonen for starts, and may well end up winning that fight.

Other Options

Jack Campbell is the top prospect in the Stars organization, and will likely start the season in the AHL. His play has been inconsistent from season to season, making him a poor choice for a team trying to stabilize its goaltending. With two seasoned vets standing in front of him on the depth chart, 23-year-old Campbell will have to have an outstanding season on the farm if he wants to see NHL action anytime before 2017.

Off-season Changes

Acquiring Niemi from San Jose was easily the most important change Dallas made this summer. For the price of a seventh-round pick and a slight raise, the Stars hope they have solved last year’s goaltending performance issues.

Outlook

Lehtonen and Niemi will likely platoon through much of the season. I believe Lehtonen has a higher ceiling when he is playing well, so he may grab more starts if he starts to heat up, but Ruff will have him on a short leash, and if he starts struggling, Niemi will immediately step in. The average to slightly above average goaltending this tandem can deliver will be enough to see Dallas into the post season.

Minnesota WildMinnesota_Wild

Devan Dubnyk

Age: 29
Contract Status: $4.33m until 2021
Games Played: 58
Save %: 93.62
Adjusted Save %: 93.26
High Danger Save %: 86.48

Take a moment to look at Dubnyk’s numbers; this man was behind Dustin Tokarski in Montreal’s depth chart a year and a half ago, suiting up for five organizations in just two seasons. His return to an even better version of the goalie he usually was in Edmonton came just in time for Minnesota, who were suffering behind poor goaltending. Dubnyk isn’t likely to post the phenomenal numbers he did last season, but even a return to his career average would make him Minnesota’s unquestioned starter.

Darcy Kuemper

Age: 25
Contract Status: $1.25m until 2016
Games Played: 31
Save %: 90.72
Adjusted Save %: 89.83
High Danger Save %: 81.69

Limited NHL experience and a down season make Darcy Kuemper hard to read. His success at the AHL level is a good sign, but so far, his NHL numbers over 63 games have been troubling. Another season as a backup with the big team should show whether Kuemper is an NHL-quality goaltender, but he’ll have to displace veteran Niklas Backstrom to take the spot.

Niklas Backstrom

Age: 37
Contract Status: $3.417m until 2016
Games Played: 19
Save %: 88.06
Adjusted Save %: 88.44
High Danger Save %: 72.34
Off-season elbow surgery has left Backstrom’s uncertain future with the Wild even more doubtful. His recovery seems to have gone well, but he’ll be hard pressed to challenge even for the backup position in Minnesota. Consecutive terrible seasons and advancing age might mean Backstrom doesn’t play for the Wild this year. His high cap hit makes him a poor candidate even for trade, meaning a season entirely out of the NHL is possible.

Other Options

Brody Hoffman is Minnesota’s top prospect, an NCAA goaltender signed last season. Hoffman should step into an AHL position, and at 24 years of age, will be hoping to become a starter in his first pro season. Barring injuries or a Kuemper mid-season collapse, Hoffman isn’t likely to see much ice with the big team.

Off-season Changes

Committing to Dubnyk for six years showed Minnesota’s abundant faith in the former (unjustly) outcast goalie. Backstrom’s health and Kuemper’s inexperience made it easy for the club to go in another direction.

Outlook

I expect Dubnyk to start 60 plus games this season, with Kuemper playing even less than last year. This would be ideal for the Wild, whose recent goalie woes have been devastating. They have found the stability they need to stay competitive, despite lacking organizational depth.

Nashville PredatorsNashville_Predators

Pekka Rinne

Age: 32
Contract Status: $7m until 2019
Games Played: 64
Save %: 93.62
Adjusted Save %: 93.83
High Danger Save %: 85.24

Pekka Rinne is the foundation of the Nashville Predators defensive system, and the franchise as a whole. Even after missing weeks due to injury, Rinne still started the seventh highest number of games in the league; if he remains healthy, he could play upwards of 70 this season. That “if” is a large one, however. Such a large workload, coupled with his big frame and aggressive, intimidating style may be a contributing factor to his recent history of injuries. The question of Rinne’s elite status has been a recent topic of debate, but there is no question that he is capable of the highest level of play.

Carter Hutton

Age: 29
Contract Status: $0.725m until 2016
Games Played: 18
Save %: 90.56
Adjusted Save %: 90.17
High Danger Save %: 84.88

In 58 games over 2 seasons of regular NHL play, Carter Hutton has not risen to the level Nashville requires. One could argue that a goaltender backing up a talented workhorse like Rinne on the cheap won’t hurt his team much in the few starts he’ll see. On the other hand, if Nashville had a stronger backup, they might not feel the need to play Rinne as often. At 29, and facing the prospect of limited starts for the foreseeable future, Hutton is unlikely to improve on his efforts to date.

Other Options

Hutton’s role as backup is secure because Nashville has few options in goal ready for significant NHL ice time. Marek Mazanec will likely be an AHL starter this season, but his work there, and in his 27 NHL games, has been below average. He’ll be joined in the AHL this season by Juuse Saros, a highly regarded, 20-year-old Finnish prospect. Whether the Predators can wait for him to develop into a capable backup depends largely on Rinne’s endurance.

Off-season Changes

Marek Mazanec was awarded a one-year, two-way contract in the off season, indicating that, while the Predators aren’t yet ready to part with him, they aren’t willing to commit longer term without seeing solid results.

Outlook

Nashville has arguably the highest quality defensive lineup in the NHL, and surrenders the lowest proportion of high-danger chances; there is nothing to indicate that won’t be the case this season. Rinne will start all but a handful of games, barring injury. If Rinne has to miss significant time, however, look for Nashville to sign or trade for a goaltender outside the organization.

St. Louis BluesStLouis_Blues

Brian Elliott

Age: 30
Contract Status: $2.5m until 2017
Games Played: 46
Save %: 92.58
Adjusted Save %: 92.12
High Danger Save %: 81.33

St. Louis has been a revolving door for high-profile goaltenders. Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller, and even Martin Brodeur have all come and gone, experiencing little success. The lone constant has been Brian Elliott, who has patiently gone about the business of being the best goaltender in the organization by a wide margin. He seems to be the perfect fit for the Blues, whose ability to limit high-danger chances hides Elliott’s poor high-danger save percentage, and exhibits his remarkable ability to stop everything he’s expected to. His playoff failures have turned perceptions against him, however, and nothing will change that but a strong post-season run.

Jake Allen

Age: 25
Contract Status: $2.35m until 2017
Games Played: 37
Save %: 92.01
Adjusted Save %: 92.15
High Danger Save %: 87.62
Whether Allen is a capable NHL backup, or a potential starter, could be determined this season. Coach Ken Hitchcock has insisted the starting job is completely open, so “If someone goes out and grabs it, we’re going to give him the job.” This is a prime opportunity for Allen to show his quality; after playing significant NHL regular season and playoff minutes for the first time last year, he’s no longer a rookie adjusting to the league. He played well through last season’s potentially confidence-sapping Brodeur debacle, which bodes well for his ability to focus on his game in the face of considerable distraction.

Other Options

Ranked 11th in InGoal’s top 50 prospects list, 23-year-old Pheonix Copley is already putting pressure on Allen. Another strong AHL season will likely earn him some NHL ice time: if Allen falters, Copley will have a chance to claim the backup role. If Allen excels, Elliott becomes trade-expendable, letting Copley come in as Allen’s backup. Jordan Binnington (33rd ranked InGoal prospect), and Ville Husso (7th ranked) round out a deep prospect pool.

Off-season Changes

The Blues two-year commitment to Allen with a substantial raise makes a clear statement: the team believes Allen is a capable goaltender, but need him to show them more before offering him a longer term.

Outlook

This is a pivotal season for Allen and Elliott. The Blues organization is impatient for success that extends past the regular season. I would be surprised to see the status quo maintained beyond 2016 in any event, with such strong prospects so close to being NHL ready. By the start of next season, Elliott or Allen will be pushed out, and though I say this with little confidence, I believe it will be Elliott.

Winnipeg JetsWinnipeg_Jets

Ondrej Pavelec

Age: 28
Contract Status: $3.9m until 2017
Games Played: 50
Save %: 93.00
Adjusted Save %: 93.00
High Danger Save %: 84.93

Winnipeg does not know what to make of Ondrej Pavelec. He has been the starting goaltender there since the move from Atlanta, despite posting far below average numbers – until last season. Pavelec’s career year was enough to push the Jets into the playoffs, where they were promptly eliminated, thanks in part to Pavelec’s inconsistent play. It’s unlikely he’ll match last season’s numbers, and whether he maintains the starter’s role depends on the play of Michael Hutchinson.

Michael Hutchinson

Age: 25
Contract Status: $0.575m until 2016
Games Played: 38
Save %: 92.56
Adjusted Save %: 92.04
High Danger Save %: 81.91
Last season was Hutchinson’s first real taste of NHL hockey, and he performed well enough to challenge Pavelec for ice time. His numbers were all at least slightly below league average, with his high danger save percentage (the best indicator of future success) significantly lower. If his AHL experience is any indication, Hutchinson has the ability to be an average to above-average goaltender in the NHL, which would likely put him in the starter’s seat ahead of Pavelec this season or next. His ceiling is uncertain, but this season should give us a good indication of its approximate height.

Other Options

Winnipeg has such a deep prospect pool that Pavelec and Hutchinson could be seen as short-term placeholders. Connor Hellebuyck is InGoal’s top-rated prospect, and at 22 has already been a very successful AHL starter and world championship bronze medalist. If Pavelec and Hutchinson struggle, Hellebuyck could see NHL action this season, and if he makes the transition to the big club as well as he did to professional hockey, he could remain for the foreseeable future. Oh, and Eric Comrie, InGoal’s 4th ranked keeper, is also poised to become a full-time professional in the Jets organization. No team can compete with the Jets goaltending potential.

Off-season Changes

None. The Jets are hoping that Pavelec and Hutchinson together will be sufficient.

Outlook

The future in goal looks very bright for the Jets, but the present is overcast. Pavelec is likely to turn in a more typical, below-league-average performance this year, and while it’s far more difficult to predict Hutchinson’s performance, I think it likely he’ll win the starter’s role. Expect to see Hellebuyck, as well, stepping into spot-duty with the big team, which may turn out to be the most interesting and important goalie-related development of the season.

 

About The Author

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell is a writer at InGoal, and a former CIS goaltender and women's goaltending coach for Mount Allison University. He occassionally moonlights as a university literature instructor.