Predicting the Most Unstable NHL Goaltending Situations for 2013-14

Al DanielCorrespondent IISeptember 1, 2013

Predicting the Most Unstable NHL Goaltending Situations for 2013-14

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    NHL goalies Jonathan Bernier and Cory Schneider relocated over the summer, and the teams that acquired them should have better insurance in their backstopping brigade because of it.

    Consider those teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils, two big winners in a key offseason competition. They ought to be the envy of other teams in the sense of winning a derby to pick up coveted pieces that will help stabilize their overall goaltending situation.

    While having a reliable and relatively seasoned starter and backup is not always proportional to team success, it is always a useful asset for an 82-game grind. Those teams whose goaltending scroll includes a much less-experienced or less-talented specimen, or someone with a toe-curling health history, need to compensate for that drawback with an even sounder stable of skaters.

    Some of the teams on this list have that luxury, others do not. Accordingly, barring a timely reversal or transaction, some will suffer in the standings more noticeably than others in 2013-14 as a result of goaltending fragility.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this slideshow were found via nhl.com

Boston

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    Remember, this is a list about unstable situations as a whole rather than unstable players, so bear with the selection here.

    Granted, in his first season as the Bruins' clear-cut starter, Tuukka Rask reiterated his worth through his performance.

    He is not very likely to regress at any point in the near future, although it will be interesting to see how he competes with the comfort of a lengthy, lucrative contract in place.

    After battling for an extension in three of his first six professional seasons, the 26-year-old’s cap hit has suddenly doubled with a new eight-year pact that ties him with Nashville's Pekka Rinne as the priciest goaltender of all at $7 million.

    Even if Rask continues to deliver more of the same, if not improve, there is cause for concern as to who stands in for 20-plus games when he needs a breather, is injured or in a slump. The Bruins let Anton Khudobin get away and now have Chad Johnson, a four-year professional veteran with all of 10 NHL games on his transcript, as their most experienced backup candidate.

    Other options include Niklas Svedberg and Malcolm Subban, who while coming off brilliant AHL and OHL seasons, respectively, have a combined zero appearances in The Show. Outside of a last-resort situation, it would look nothing short of daring to have either one sport the Spoked B in more than a handful of regular-season games in 2013-14.

Buffalo

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    Is Ryan Miller on his way out soon? If not, will the rise of Jhonas Enroth complicate his continued tenure in Buffalo?

    Or, if something does happen with the Sabres exporting Miller and making Enroth the new No. 1, particularly if it is early in the year, who takes the backup job?

    Right now, Matt Hackett is third on the depth chart and does have 13 NHL games on his transcript. But 2013-14 promises to be a year of growing pains if the majority of it involves introducing the 25-year-old Enroth and 23-year-old Hackett to their new, more rigorous roles.

    If it’s not the round of growing pains for the 25-and-under tandem, the most realistic alternative will be headaches stemming from the collision of an extended present and a future-turned-present.

Calgary

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    If, by any chance, Miikka Kiprusoff is coming back, then the topmost question is about how much he has left in him.

    If, on the other hand, Kiprusoff confirms he is finished, the Flames are left with the likes of Karri Ramo and Joey MacDonald to alternate as the last line of defense.

    Ramo will be looking for a fresh reboot to his NHL career after three choppy years (2006-09) in the Tampa Bay system followed by four years in the KHL.

    Ramo’s numbers overseas have been good enough, including three straight seasons of GAAs at 2.00 or lower and save percentages of .925 or higher. But the Hockey News is apt to caution that, to have any chance of translating that data favorably, he “Needs to develop a book on shooters' tendencies on this side of the pond, as well as develop greater consistency.”

    MacDonald, meanwhile, has only once played the majority of an NHL schedule in a 12-year professional career, putting in 49 appearances with the New York Islanders in 2008-09. Other than that, he has logged a mere 73 games in six other full or partial NHL seasons.

    Somebody is going to have to be the surprise of the year―whether it’s a throwback Kiprusoff, a fast-acclimating Ramo or a late-blooming MacDonald―to lend the Calgary crease decent stability.

Chicago

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    At 40, going on 41 come January, Nikolai Khabibulin is not nearly what he was during his four All-Star seasons between 1997 and 2003. He is not even the same goaltender that he was when he went 25-8-7 to cap off his previous stint with the Blackhawks in 2008-09.

    Yet with the free-agency exit of Ray Emery, 10 years his junior and presumably hungrier, Khabibulin will assume the task of supplementing Corey Crawford’s workload in Chicago.

    Fortunately, the Blackhawks are far better equipped than most teams to compensate for a less-than-stellar allotment of netminders. Crawford has proven he can backstop a team of this caliber by playing 57 games in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 and then taking the bulk of the workload en route to the 2013 Presidents' Trophy and Stanley Cup.

    With that said, there will most likely be a handful of occasions when high-flying shots singe Crawford and other instances when Khabibulin’s age shows.

Florida

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    As promising as youngster Jacob Markstrom looks for the long run, the Panthers do not have much to supplement their sizable stopper at this time.

    Scott Clemmensen turned 36 in July, and through a dozen seasons in the pros, his best at the NHL level saw him retain a .917 save percentage and 2.39 GAA through 40 appearances with the New Jersey Devils in 2008-09.

    For Markstrom, a veteran of 31 NHL games, this season figures to be a classic, old-fashioned fiery baptism. After cramming 23 contests into three-plus months last year, he is likely looking at 60-plus showdowns with the world’s best strike forces in 2013-14.

Minnesota

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    The Wild’s greatest residual concern carrying over from the 2013 playoffs revolves around the health of their two established NHL netminders, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.

    Backstrom, who missed the whole first-round series with Chicago with an injury he sustained in warm-ups, has not successfully dodged the injury bug in any of the last four seasons. He previously missed five starts apiece due to back and groin ailments in 2009-10, four outings with a hip injury in 2010-11 and a cumulative nine games in March 2012.

    In Backstrom’s place, Josh Harding battled through multiple sclerosis, which had cost him 33 appearances, and earned the Masterton Trophy as a result. However, he too has suffered other ailments, including head and hip injuries as well as a right knee problem that sidelined him for the entirety of 2010-11.

    After that, the next option currently at Minnesota’s disposal is Darcy Kuemper, who has scraped the blue paint eight times for the Wild but otherwise split two professional seasons between the AHL and ECHL.

Phoenix

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    The real issue here is not the mere fact that late bloomer Mike Smith failed to match his performance from his first season as a Coyote. Rather, it is the fact that his fullest and most fulfilling year that was the 2011-12 campaign was also his healthiest in the NHL.

    Even that year, he missed six games with a groin ailment in late December, though his return for the rest of the ride, including three playoff rounds, kicked plenty of ice chips over that setback.

    But in 2012-13, Smith added three multi-game injury stints to a transcript that was littered with injuries to begin with. A knee ailment kept him out for 18 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, a neck problem for six in 2010 and a concussion for 32 in 2009.

    Before that, he had six injury-related absences apiece in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, his first two full seasons of strictly major league membership.

    In short, the ever-growing sample size is too broad to avoid the phrase “injury prone.” In turn, attempting another workload much longer than 60 games may not be advised.

    If the Coyotes do take the cautious route to ensure Smith’s sustained condition and performance, they do have a fairly experienced new backup in Thomas Greiss, he of 41 career appearances in three years with the San Jose Sharks.

    But would Greiss be ready to tackle 20-plus games right here and now? That is anything but a sure bet for this season.

Pittsburgh

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    Like the Blackhawks, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree, the Penguins are unmistakably built to avoid too much damage from a subpar stable of stoppers for at least the majority of a season. But the problem is there nonetheless.

    The burning multifold question in this department that has stayed hot over the summer concerns, first and foremost, whether or not the veteran Tomas Vokoun has enough to keep spelling Marc-Andre Fleury.

    He did it for the better part of the 2013 playoffs, helping Pittsburgh to its first series victory since 2010 and first third-round appearance since 2009. But could he have enough to bring the same stability, if need be, over an 82-game itinerary and beyond?

    Either way, there is also the mutating question on Fleury, who has now emerged with raggedy stat lines after tempestuous playoff runs in 2012 and 2013. The former―with a 4.63 GAA and .834 save percentage in six games―ceased to look fluky when the latter occurred―with a 3.52 GAA and .883 percentage in five games.

    Implosions of that nature can plague a goalie through aftershocks even in subsequent regular seasons. For someone like Fleury, who has won a Cup and been the clear-cut starter for seven years, a combination of that and uncertain No. 1 job security can threaten one’s confidence.

    Just look at the recent saga on Canada’s west coast. Speaking of which…

Vancouver

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    For all we know, the trade of the aforementioned Schneider and the new coaching regime of John Tortorella may remedy Roberto Luongo’s well-documented woes of the last two-plus years. The new system and new sense of reduced internal competition could embolden him in his push to change his outlook.

    Then again, this is still the Vancouver market, which means the potential automatically remains for another pressure-induced erosion. In that event, with Schneider gone, the Canucks would have to resort to the likes of Eddie Lack.

    Granted, Lack’s future looks promising enough based on some of the seasons he has turned in at the AHL level. He had a .926 save percentage with the Manitoba Moose in 2010-11 and a .925 success rate with the Chicago Wolves in 2011-12 while assuming the bulk of the team’s crease time.

    Yet he still has not seen a millisecond of NHL action. And it is always a toss-up, at best, when a team rigidly cements an up-and-comer into a backup role, with likely around 20 games in store, without having gradually introduced him to the league beforehand.

Canadian Olympic Team

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    OK, this is obviously not an NHL team, but it will be one composed of established NHL players competing in the middle of the 2013-14 season. Canada’s Olympic goaltending outlook stands out for potential instability even more than that of 21 NHL franchises.

    Assuming its spoils of talent among skaters can coalesce and compete on overseas ice, Canada can by all means repeat its gold medal from 2010. However, it figures to have one hurdle to surmount in a less-than-lights-out stable of goaltenders.

    The preliminary candidates for one of three roster spots: Crawford, Braden Holtby, Luongo, Carey Price and Smith.

    Luongo was the masked man in charge when the Canadians claimed gold at home in 2010, but the intervening events with the Canucks mean he will need to re-prove himself. Crawford has a Cup, but the best-case 2014 Canadian Olympians figure to be much like the 2013 Blackhawks, i.e. a team that wins for more obvious reasons than him.

    With their regular employers, Price and Holtby constitute the starting half of a comfortably stable tandem with Peter Budaj and Michal Neuvirth, respectively. But put them in an international and size them up with the presumptive top stoppers of other nations, and whether or not they can measure up comes into question.

    Consider these prospective counterparts from some of the other traditional powers: Sergei Bobrovsky and Evgeni Nabokov of Russia; Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden; Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard of the United States; Pekka Rinne and a surplus of promising challengers (Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, Rask) of Finland.