It's a 48-game dash to the postseason, and with so few games coaches and general managers don't have the luxury to let their goaltenders play through early-season struggles.
With abbreviated training camps and zero preseason games to sharpen their skills, many teams have stumbled out of the blocks. As teams work to clean up their games, it is imperative that good goaltending leads the way in these early weeks.
Let's take a look at six teams whose goaltending situations are raising some questions in the early part of the 2013 season.
(All depth chart information from Rotoworld).
Jonas Hiller (2-1-1) 3.43 GAA, .868 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Viktor Fasth (2-0-0) 1.44 GAA, .938 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
Hiller has been the starting goaltender for the Anaheim Ducks since 2008-09. By any measure, he’s Anaheim’s franchise guy. And while he has five points in four starts to open this season, 30-year-old rookie Fasth has been downright larcenous in his two starts.
Hiller will start tonight when the Ducks face the Los Angeles Kings, but as Eric Stephens reports, Fasth will get plenty of opportunities as Anaheim plays six games in the next nine days.
Chances are good that this stretch will determine who gets the majority of the starts for the Ducks the rest of the way. If Fasth continues to stay hot he may earn himself quite a bit more playing time than he expected.
Cam Ward (1-3-0) 4.51 GAA, .861 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Dan Ellis (2-0-0) 0.75 GAA, .977 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
There’s no other way to say it: Ward is not playing well this season.
His poor start would be easier to overlook if he was not coming off a substandard 2011-12 season in which he went 30-23-13 with a 2.74 GAA and .915 SVPCT. Last year’s numbers were Ward’s worst since the 2006-07 season, his first as starting goaltender for the Hurricanes.
Conversely, 32-year-old journeyman Ellis has been brilliant this season, allowing only two goals in nearly eight full periods, and shutting out the red-hot Ottawa Senators 1-0 Friday night.
Ellis is coming off a season in which he played only 10 games for the Anaheim Ducks before tearing his groin. He earned a one-way contract from the Hurricanes and had to play his way onto the NHL roster, beating out last year’s backup goaltender Justin Peters for the No. 2 job.
Groin tears are notoriously difficult injuries for goaltenders to recover from. Head Coach Kirk Mueller is no doubt aware of this and hopes to use Ellis sparingly. That said, if Ward doesn’t find his game in a hurry, we may be looking at a depth chart adjustment in Carolina.
Marc-Andre Fleury (3-2-0) 2.54 GAA, .897 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Tomas Vokoun (2-1-0) 1.81 GAA, .940 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
The Penguins parted ways with their backup goaltender of three years, Brent Johnson, after a season in which he posted a career-worst save percentage (.883) and goals against (3.11) numbers.
In the early stages of the 2013 season, Vokoun appears to be Ray Shero’s best offseason signing.
Vokoun has been very solid in the pipes, delivering a shutout of the New York Rangers on Thursday night in Madison Square Garden.
Fleury redeemed himself admirably Saturday by holding the New Jersey Devils to one goal on 16 shots as the Pens smoked the Devils 5-1.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma made no bones about his intention to split time 60-40 between Fleury and Vokoun this season. Many point to Fleury’s collapse in last year’s playoffs as an indication that he played too many games in the regular season and was worn out when the postseason rolled around.
Vokoun will start tomorrow against the Capitals, and regardless of his performance, Fleury has done enough to retain his starting gig for the time being. He’ll be on a short leash, however, and if Vokoun continues to play at this level, he may find himself snagging a few extra starts.
Jaroslav Halak (3-0-0) 2.10 GAA, .889 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Brian Elliott (3-2-0) 2.34 GAA, .900 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
Okay, maybe this isn’t a controversy as much as it’s a glut of fantastic goaltending. Last year the Halak-Elliott tandem was the most fearsome in hockey. Halak finished tied with Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist with a 1.97 GAA while Elliott led the league with a 1.56 GAA. Elliot’s save percentage was best in the league (.940) while Halak’s was sixth best (.926). Many believed Elliott and Halak deserved to be named co-Vezina Trophy winners.
Neither netminder has been as fantastic as he was last season, but it would be unrealistic to expect them to repeat last year’s performance.
The great news for Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock is that neither player has a problem with the dominate-by-committee setup from last season. And if one guy starts to go sideways, he’s got another one just as good to turn to.
Cory Schneider (2-2-0) 3.13 GAA, .897 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Roberto Luongo (2-0-2) 1.46 GAA, .944 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
Well this is juicy, isn’t it? Luongo, the most polarizing figure in British Columbia, versus his heir apparent, Schneider.
Except there’s only one problem: Luongo is playing Schneider out of the arena night after night.
The Canucks have points in all four games in which Luongo starts, while Schneider has yet to find his bearings. There has been talk since the conclusion of last season that it is only a matter of time until Luongo is traded (with one report stating that a trade was in place a couple of weeks ago). But how does General Manager Mike Gillis trade away his $5.3 million per year goaltender when he’s earning every penny?
Luongo turned in a beastly performance Friday night against the rival Chicago Blackhawks, stopping 27 of 28 shots in 65 minutes and stoning all four Chicago shootout attempts (from the likes of Kane, Toews and Sharp).
It’s hard to imagine head coach Alaign Vigneault going back to Schneider after a night like that.
Braden Holtby (1-2-0) 4.02 GAA, .885 SVPCT (No. 1 on depth chart)
Michal Neuvirth (1-3-1) 2.97 GAA, .899 SVPCT (No. 2 on depth chart)
The Capitals have been struggling to find a franchise goaltender for years. Last season, the Caps began the year with Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun splitting duty pretty evenly. As the season progressed and injury took Vokoun out of the rotation, Holtby became the second man on the depth chart.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Holtby was the new No. 1 while Vokoun nursed his torn groin muscle and Neuvirth looked on from the bench.
Holtby went 7-7 (four overtime losses) in the playoffs and posted a scalding 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage, and was named the Caps' No. 1 goaltender for the 2013 season.
Holtby was benched five straight games after allowing 10 goals on 73 shots in the Caps’ first two games this season.
The problem for head coach Adam Oates is that Neuvirth hasn’t been much better.
However, it would be entirely unfair to blame the Capitals’ problems on goaltending alone, since they have yet to score more than three goals in a game this season (and they’ve only managed to do that three times).
Tomorrow the Caps face the Penguins, and Holtby will get the start after leading the Caps to their second victory of the season Friday night, earning his first win of the season in the process.
Holtby is 23 and Neuvirth is 24, and both players are up for new contracts next season. No wonder they’re both playing for big money and a long-term deal.