Predicting Which NHL Goaltenders Will Improve the Most in 2017-18 Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistAugust 29, 2017

Predicting Which NHL Goaltenders Will Improve the Most in 2017-18 Season

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Over the past few years, successful NHL teams have shifted their focus away from the grinding physical style that helped the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014.

    These days, the optimal approach seems to be explosive speed mixed with plenty of skill—as epitomized by the current two-time champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

    But the Penguins' success isn't all about speed and scoring. Matt Murray also appeared on the scene, fully formed as a world-class puck-stopper with ice in his veins.

    The game is changing up front, but good goaltending can still make the difference between winning and losing games.

    Keep an eye on these netminders as the 2017-18 season gets underway in October. If they live up to the potential they are currently teasing, they could give their teams some serious boosts in the league standings.

6. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Stats: 26 GP, 10-11-3, 0 shutouts .910 save percentage, 2.63 goals-against average

                

    Why He'll Be Better: The apprenticeship of Jacob Markstrom has now lasted nearly a decade. Drafted with high expectations at 31st overall by the Florida Panthers in 2008, he'll get his first clear shot at being a No. 1 netminder with the Vancouver Canucks this fall.

    Playing mediocre hockey as second fiddle to Ryan Miller in 2016-17, Markstrom suffered a season-ending injury in February at the Canucks' SuperSkills exhibition, of all things.

    When he returns this fall, Miller will have left for his new gig with the Anaheim Ducks. Markstrom will be sharing the net with a familiar face in Anders Nilsson—who backed him up when he helped Sweden to a bronze medal at the 2010 World Junior Championship.

    For the first time in his NHL career, the starter's job will be Markstrom's to lose.

    With the Canucks in a rebuilding phase, Markstrom won't rise to the level of the league's elite this season, but he will face plenty of rubber. That will give him plenty of opportunity to make highlight-reel stops and boost his overall save percentage. 

5. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Age: 35

    2016-17 Stats: 55 GP, 19-26-9, 3 shutouts .914 save percentage, 2.92 goals-against average

                    

    Why He'll Be Better: Mike Smith got a new lease on life as an NHL goaltender when he was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Calgary Flames in June.

    The well-travelled stopper, whose best season was his first in the desert in 2011-12, has left the team whose 34.1 shots against per game record was the second-highest in the league last year.

    His new home is behind one of the NHL's deepest defenses. The Calgary Flames gave up an average of just 28.7 shots per game last season and added another stud to the blue line over the summer—Travis Hamonic.

    Now 35, it won't be long before Smith's play starts to decline. This season, though, he should thrive with a better team in front of him. If that happens, the native of Kingston, Ontario, could rise from relative obscurity to become a media darling during his first career assignment with a Canadian team.

4. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Stats: 17 GP, 8-5-2, 2 shutouts .917 save percentage, 2.26 goals-against average

                     

    Why He'll Be Better:  Last season, Jonathan Quick's numbers were almost exactly on par with his career averages of .916 and 2.26. The problem was, those stats were accumulated over just 421 minutes of playing time.

    Quick suffered a groin injury in the first period of the opening regular-season game, which kept him on the sidelines for 59 games.

    When he returned to action in late February, the 31-year-old started 16 of the Los Angeles Kings' last 22 regular-season games, but the team failed to complete its late push for a playoff spot.

    A long offseason of training should help Quick return to action at 100 percent next season—back in full control of the Kings' net with new backup Darcy Kuemper supporting him.

3. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Stats: 60 GP, 20-27-11, 2 shutouts .908 save percentage, 2.82 goals-against average

                    

    Why He'll Be Better:  After three seasons of delivering playoff-caliber goaltending to a New Jersey Devils team that was woefully short on offense, Cory Schneider saw his performance take a significant dip last season.

    Since joining the NHL full time starting in 2010-11, Schneider had never before posted a save percentage below .921 or a goals-against average higher than 2.26. The Devils' 244 goals against last season were the most the team had surrendered since 1992-93—the last year before Martin Brodeur arrived on the scene.

    New Jersey's pop-gun offense also remained stagnant in 2016-17, causing the Devils to lose 14 points in the standings compared to the previous year. 

    Goaltenders do see drops in their performance as they age; and when it happens, the decline is often quite sharp. At 31, Schneider should not yet be at that point. He plays big minutes during the regular season but has only 10 games of playoff experience in his entire career, so he has plenty of time to rest and recuperate every summer.

    During this offseason, the Devils hired Schneider's former goaltending coach, Rollie Melanson. The pair worked together successfully at the Vancouver Canucks, so it's hoped history will repeat itself.

    "I don't take it as an indictment or a message," Schneider said, per Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com. "I take it more as, 'We want you to be the best you can be. We don't want you to go backwards or plateau,' and maybe this move signifies that and says, 'We're here to help you get better.'"

    Expect to see Schneider return to his usual high level of play in 2017-18.

2. Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Stats: 28 GP, 12-9-5, 2 shutouts .915 save percentage, 2.80 goals-against average

                     

    Why He'll Be Better: The New York Islanders' unsuccessful attempt to make a three-goalie system work during the 2016-17 season should mean we won't see another team give this a try for at least a generation.

    Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Griess and J.F. Berube all saw their individual numbers decline from one year earlier.

    Halak, the most established and most expensive of the three, spent the better part of two months lighting up the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

    After his recall on March 23, Halak went 6-1 with a .949 save percentage and 1.58 goals-against average as the Islanders went 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. They missed the second wild-card spot in the playoffs by one point. 

    Lesson learned.

    Islanders beat writer Andy Graziano of Sportsnet New York expects Halak to be back in his No. 1 slot this fall, making 60 percent of the team's starts.

    If he's right and the Islanders start strong, Halak will be one of the early comeback stories of the 2017-18 season. 

1. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Stats: 61 GP, 30-20-5, 4 shutouts .915 save percentage, 2.42 goals-against average

                         

    Why He'll Be Better:  Jake Allen's stat line from the full 2016-17 season ranks in the middle of the pack, but his second-half form was a much different beast to that of the first half.

    Before head coach Ken Hitchcock and goaltending coach Jim Corsi were relieved of their duties with the St. Louis Blues on February 1, Allen was 4-10-3 with a .895 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average.

    After the coaching change, he went 16-7-2, leading the league after February 1 with a .938 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average.

    Allen's great goaltending got the Blues past the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs. All told, he posted a .935 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average in 11 playoff games before St. Louis was eliminated  by the Nashville Predators.

    If Allen has turned a corner in his development, his play could help the Blues join the ranks of the NHL's elite teams next season. We could also have ourselves a new dark-horse Vezina Trophy contender.

                   

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com.