Which Hockey Team Has the Best Goaltending at 2014 Winter Olympics?
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, much of the credit for Team USA's silver medal win went to goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller led the tournament with a 0.946 save percentage and was named not only best goalie but also most valuable player.
Miller is back for the American side this year, though he'll be challenged for playing time on his own team by Jonathan Quick, who has been so good in the postseason for Los Angeles. Is it enough to give Team USA the edge in net over their rivals?
It's a competitive field. Roberto Luongo, who won gold in 2010, is returning for Canada. Henrik Lundqvist, who posted two shutouts and the best goals-against average the last time around is back too. Additionally, a long line of talented newcomers is poised to challenge the incumbents for the title of best goalie.
Which team is ultimately going to be strongest between the pipes? We have to wait for the answer, but the following slideshow represents our best estimate of each team's rank today.
Projected starter: Robert Kristan has provided Slovenia with exceptional goaltending performances in tournament play, including the 0.947 save percentage he posted during the Olympic qualifying tournament. In his one stint at a high-level league he posted a 0.909 save percentage in the SHL.
Projected backup: Luka Gracnar. The 20-year-old is Slovenia's goalie of the future, and he has been pretty decent in Austrian league play.
Projected spare: Andrej Hocevar currently plays in France; he almost certainly won't play a game.
Bottom line: Kristan's good enough to cause problems if he has the tournament of his life, but Slovenia doesn't have a single proven veteran of the top leagues in Europe or North America in net.
Projected starter: Edgars Masalskis has provided Latvia with strong World Championship goaltending for most of the last decade, and is a competent KHL stopper. He is presently a free agent.
Projected backup: Kristers Gudlevskis may end up getting the nod over the veteran Maslaskis because he is playing this season. The 6'4" Tampa Bay draft pick has a 0.915 AHL save percentage.
Projected spare: Ervins Mustukovs has mostly played in second-tier European leagues and seems the clear-cut third-string goalie.
Bottom line: Latvia has two competent options in net with experience in strong leagues, but no NHL-calibre goalies today.
Projected starter: There were rumblings over the summer that there might be NHL interest in Bernhard Starkbaum, following the goalie's 0.933 save percentage performance in Sweden. It didn't materialize, but he's an exceptional European pro.
Projected backup: Rene Swette is a competent Austrian league netminder, but nowhere close to Starkbaum in caliber.
Projected spare: Fabian Weinhandl brings size (6'3", 212 pounds) but has struggled in Austria this year.
Bottom line: Starkbaum gives Austria an edge over a couple of the other small powers, but if he falters there isn't a good backup plan.
Projected starter: Lars Haugen has provided Norway with exceptional play at the World Championships and been a very strong KHL option for a few years now. He is presently out with injury, details of which are hard to find.
Projected backup: Lars Volden is a big goalie and a 2011 draft pick of the Boston Bruins. He's developed nicely in Finland and has played well when given starts.
Projected spare: Twenty-year-old Steffen Soberg is No. 3 with a bullet on this list. The Capitals draft pick is both the youngest of the three goalies and also playing in the weak Norwegian top league.
Bottom line: As with Austria, Norway's hopes are going to rest heavily on projected starter Haugen, but the presence of Volden gives them at least a somewhat credible fallback option.
8. Czech Republic
Projected starter: Ondrej Pavelec is an NHL starting goalie. The bad news is that he is one of the worst starters in the NHL, both this season and over his career.
Projected backup: Alexander Salak hasn't been able to put it together at the NHL level, but he's been exceptional in all of the top European leagues, from Finland to Sweden to the KHL. Pavelec's job isn't safe.
Projected spare: Jakub Kovar has delivered some solid performances for the Czechs at previous World Championships and is having a great season in the KHL.
Bottom line: The Czechs have three solid goaltenders, and while Pavelec's NHL status might earn him the first shot at the starting role, it's far from guaranteed he'll hang on to the job.
Projected starter: Jonas Hiller is a very good NHL starting goalie, the latest in a line of top Swiss 'tenders.
Projected backup: Depending on how the Swiss feel about the schedule, one wonders if they might not be better off not even playing Reto Berra. The Flames' goalie is a fringe NHLer and well back of Hiller.
Projected spare: Tobias Stephan has past NHL experience and is enjoying a decent season in Switzerland.
Bottom line: Hiller is the key to any medal hopes Switzerland might harbor, and he could well be the difference in a short tournament.
Projected starter: Slovakia isn't in exactly the same situation as Switzerland, but like that country this team will depend heavily on starter Jaroslav Halak. Halak is a proven NHL netminder and compares favourably to many of the other top goalies in the tournament.
Projected backup: Peter Budaj is enjoying a fine season in Montreal and has a long NHL track record, mostly as a backup goalie.
Projected spare: Jan Laco is a KHL veteran but has only played seven games this season. He performed very well at the 2012 World Championships, being named top goaltender in that tournament and winning a silver medal.
Bottom line: Halak should give the Slovaks competent goaltending, and the guys behind him are reasonable options too.
Projected starter: Semyon Varlamov is enjoying a breakthrough NHL season and has been as good as anyone this year. He could well be a difference-maker in a short tournament.
Projected backup: Sergei Bobrovsky is the NHL's defending Vezina winner but has had some rough patches this season.
Projected spare: Alexander Yeryomenko has been the KHL's top goaltender two seasons in a row and has been brilliant at the World Championships.
Bottom line: Russia doesn't have a top goaltender with the long-term track record other countries do, but Varlamov has been exceptional this season and all three netminders are solid.
Projected starter: Henrik Lundqvist may be the best goalie in the world over the last five years, but he's having a tough go of it in New York this season. Sweden needs vintage Lundqvist in net.
Projected backup: Jhonas Enroth has been an excellent understudy to Ryan Miller in Buffalo and is likely ready to take over the starting role of the Sabres move Miller this season.
Projected spare: Jonas Gustavsson had a great run to start the year but has cooled of late and has a decidedly underwhelming long-term record.
Bottom line: Sweden lacks the depth of other top medal contenders, but if Lundqvist can put a difficult season behind him, they will have a starter second to none at the tournament.
3. United States
Projected starter: Jonathan Quick has a phenomenal playoff resume and has been very good since returning from injury (3-1-1, 0.942 save percentage). Balanced against that are mediocre regular season performances over the last year and a half, but Team USA is likely to trust in his playoff history.
Projected backup: Ryan Miller has soldiered on, at times brilliantly, while the Sabres implode in front of him. He probably should be the American starter and may ultimately win out in that role.
Projected spare: Jimmy Howard isn't having a great season but is a proven NHL starter.
Bottom line: If Quick can match his playoff performance, the Americans will get exceptional goaltending. If they get regular season Quick, they have a fantastic backup option in Ryan Miller.
Projected starter: Roberto Luongo won gold in 2010 and has a long record as a top NHL goaltender but can't seem to win the confidence of fans in general. He should provide the Canadian side with strong netminding.
Projected backup: Carey Price may make the same leap from 'goalie of the future' to 'goalie of the present' for Canada that Luongo did at the 2010 games when he supplanted Martin Brodeur. He's playing very, very well for the Canadiens this season and has been pressure-tested in that role.
Projected spare: Mike Smith is a competent NHL starter and a veteran hand.
Bottom line: Canada has two top goalies, and if one should struggle, the other can step in.
Projected starter: Tuukka Rask is arguably the top young goalie in the NHL today and was brilliant for Boston in the playoffs last season (0.940 save percentage).
Projected backup: Kari Lehtonen is an awfully nice Plan B for any team and would be the starter for most of the countries in this tournament. He's been brilliant for Dallas and arguably a top 10 NHL goalie during his time there.
Projected spare: Antti Niemi backstopped Chicago to a Stanley Cup win in 2010 and has been a very good starter for San Jose since joining that team.
Bottom line: Finland has arguably the best starter in the tournament, a backup goalie who could start for most of the teams in Sochi and a third-stringer with an impeccable history. They have the top-end talent that is so vital and the depth to compensate if injuries hit.