Besides all of the recent trades between the two teams, the NHL’s newfangled Metropolitan Division rivalry of Columbus and the New York Rangers bears the intrigue of multiple showdowns between the last two Vezina Trophy winners.
Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets succeeded Henrik Lundqvist of the Blueshirts as the top goaltender this past spring. Shortly thereafter, the new victor made an assertive proclamation as he told the Associated Press: “This is not my final stage…I can be better and I will be better.”
How much truth that proclamation holds and how soon it comes to fruition will be measured, in part, by where Bobrovsky’s 2013-14 run ranks with that of his competitors. Some NHL netminders submitted less-than-stellar performances last season, but have flaunted enough flair in other years to sustain the trust of their teams going forward.
Others have not incurred much of a blemish lately, but are nonetheless on a trajectory to make 2013-14 a better year than any of its predecessors. They are either blossoming in their mid-20s or stepping into a situation that promises to help them unveil the best of their game a little more.
Here is the forecast for the NHL’s top seven stoppers in the coming campaign.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this slideshow were found via nhl.com
Strangely enough, Sergei Bobrovsky may be looking at a season where he fails to defend his grip on the Vezina Trophy despite turning in a better transcript than he did in 2012-13.
If the final eight weeks of the last regular season proved anything, it is that Bobrovsky has found himself as an NHL goalie, albeit a tad later than expected.
He had started his professional career with vast promise in 2010-11, where he briefly brandished a “goalie of the future” label with the Philadelphia Flyers. That path quickly crumbled when the Flyers acquired Ilya Bryzgalov, who practically took Bobrovsky down with him to extend that team’s crease curse.
The soon-to-be 25-year-old resurfaced after a trade to Columbus, where he spent January and February acclimating after the belated start to the season. The next 26 games to close out a playoff push helped him surge up the charts en route to a final 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Those 26 games included 18 winning efforts, four shutouts, 10 one-goal games and five two-goal outings. A far cry from the so-so 3-6-2 start to Bobrovsky’s Blue Jacket tenure, which yielded a .899 save percentage (293 saves on 326 shots) by the end of February.
Will he repeat his March and April of 2013 two to three times over through the course of 2013-14? Not likely, but he should be more consistent through the season’s entirety, avoiding any January or February 2013-esque slumps.
As he approaches the age of 24 and his first truly full-length NHL season, Braden Holtby is not about to get ahead of himself.
Yes, he followed up on his head-turning 2012 postseason well enough to officially usurp the Washington Capitals' starting job. But just as it is for the team, there is an expansive pothole of unfinished business.
One week after another premature playoff exit this past spring, Holtby told the Washington Post, “If you’re not improving every year, you’re doing something wrong.”
As easy as it is to dismiss that sentence as mere words that could come out of anyone’s mouth via classic hockey humility, remember what Holtby still has left to prove.
His allies will defend him as needed from any residual criticism for his two four-goal losses and five-goal, Game 7 home loss to the Rangers. That notwithstanding, those three installments of a fall-from-ahead first-round shortcoming will surely serve as motivation for Holtby to flex his growth throughout a workload of 60-plus games in 2013-14.
He is a veteran of the U.S. National Team Development Program, an NCAA Frozen Four and a member of the 20-and-under and 18-and-under World Championship teams. Now Jimmy Howard is in a position to add to his big-game, internationally saturated resume by cracking an Olympic roster.
With incumbent USA starter Ryan Miller caught in a quagmire with rising heir apparent Jhonas Enroth in Buffalo, this is increasingly looking like an opportune time for someone else to make his case to scrape the blue paint in Sochi.
Howard can bolster his odds of forcing and taking that vacancy with a season not unlike the last two, where he retained a 2.13 GAA and kept his save percentage at .920 or higher. When you consider the circumstances then and the changes in store for this year, the outside factors are in his favor.
Simply put, Howard has turned in three sparkling seasons out of his first four in the NHL while following a travel-dense regimen with the Detroit Red Wings. He will still be playing the sport’s most physically taxing role on the ice in 2013-14, but will log fewer miles on most road trips as the Wings shuffle to the Eastern Conference.
The change in the team’s itinerary will allow Howard to sustain more energy, possibly play more games than in past years and chase down a career campaign.
During a current six-year contract that is due to expire after 2013-14, Henrik Lundqvist has played in three of a possible three NHL All-Star Games, won the 2012 Vezina Trophy and earned another nomination in 2013.
Those accolades are what he is immediately coming off of going into this season, which might be in full swing before a new deal is ready.
If anything has changed for the face of the New York Rangers with each successive season, it has been for the better. Now that he is potentially playing to preserve his Manhattan tenure, but more likely just to earn a longer and more lucrative deal, one can expect nothing but more of the same out of Lundqvist, a perpetual 30-game winner since he debuted.
Call him the wild card of this gang if you must, but the 30-year-old Antti Niemi should have the means and the drive to turn in a 2013-14 season not unlike his 2012-13. That is, to once again finish in the range of a 2.16 GAA and .924 save percentage and at least flirt with winning one game for every two on the team’s docket.
With a restoration of normalcy, namely an 82-game rather than 48-game schedule, it will be harder to consume as much of the schedule as Niemi did last year, when he made 43 appearances (89.6 percent). It will also be harder to avoid cold spells over a standard six-month itinerary.
Even so, Niemi’s 2013 offseason was sandwiched by two tests of his competitive pride. For one, he is coming off a hard-luck loss to Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh game of the second round of the playoffs.
For another, he is in arguably the most qualitative international stable of goaltenders as Finland looks to fill its first-, second- and third-string slots for the 2014 Olympics. Fellow challengers for one of those positions include Kari Lehtonen, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne.
In turn, besides harboring a still unquenched appetite for fulfillment on behalf of the San Jose Sharks, Niemi will have added personal stakes in the majority of his 2013-14 starts.
For the one-time Cup winner with Chicago and veteran of other lengthy playoff runs who is just coming off his best year yet, that is a recipe for an encore.
If anybody other than Howard is the most promising candidate to nudge Ryan Miller aside as the top American Olympic stopper, it is Jonathan Quick.
Never mind his statistical drop-off between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 regular seasons (1.95 to 2.45 GAA and .929 to .902 save percentage). He is comfortably past the aftermath of his back surgery from 13 months ago and well beyond the point where his compete level is hardly a matter of question.
As long as his body is within the immediate radius of 100 percent, Quick will remain a consistently effective and a fervent acrobat. This season’s added incentive of building up to a working retreat in February should only bring out more of his best.
File 2012-13 under “fluke” for the Nashville Predators and especially such marquee members of the team as Pekka Rinne.
As Rinne’s principal shortcoming, The Hockey News highlights the fact that he “can wear down a little bit if overworked.” Incidentally, that was not much a problem in 2011-12, when he logged a whopping 73 appearances and emerged with 43 winning decisions, a 2.39 GAA and .923 save percentage.
Things were a little different in 2012-13, though. In a 48-game regular season that lasted a mere 99 days, Rinne crammed in 43 work nights while backstopping a defense that was adjusting to life without Ryan Suter.
Overreliance let to underachievement, which for Rinne meant a losing record, a 2.43 GAA and a career-low .910 save percentage. But now is everyone’s chance to show how much they grew through that uncharacteristic down year.
It will not be a 180-degree spin between difficulty and facility. Rinne can anticipate being in high demand yet again given that the other two goalies currently on Nashville’s NHL roster, Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec, have combined for one career game in the league.
Another high-60s or low-70s workload is likely ahead. But this time, the Predators schedule will feature six sets of three or more consecutive off days, including five before the Olympic break in February.