The NHL Western Conference Goaltending Duals: The Top Five
As the season draws closer, the ultimate key that used to be the goaltending, turned a page of change during last season's NHL play-offs.
Two newcomers, by the names of Antti Niemi (Chicago Blackhawks) and Michael Leighton (Philadelphia Flyers), back-stopped their respective teams into the Stanley Cup finals.
Leighton had all of 102 NHL games experience, spread out over seven seasons with four different teams, while Niemi had even less, with 42 games over two seasons with Chicago.
Not only that but their cap hits were a bargain in today’s market.
Leighton’s salary last season was $600,000 (with a raise to $1.5 million this season) and Niemi’s was $827,000 (rounded up – this season - $2 million). Just shows you that with a strong defense in front and a NHL competent goalie, it can lead you to the Promised Land.
But with every Number One or One A goaltender, there has to be a strong backup waiting in the wings to take over. A comparison sport to the importance of the goalie is the CFL and NHL quarterbacks.
None of these football teams in either league get too far, when the number one guy goes down. The same can be said at times with the NHL hockey goaltender.
So with that in mind, I thought I would have a look at the goaltending tandems in the NHL Western Conference and see who are the top five.
Number One – The St. Louis Blues - decided that Chris Mason was not going to be there number one this year and went out and traded for the goaltender that took the Montreal Canadiens further than they should have ventured into the play-offs.
Jaroslav Halak was simply phenomenal and the best goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was in the running for the Conn Smythe trophy (awarded to the player judged most valuable to his team during the play-offs) up until the Canadiens lost to Philadelphia.
The other part of the Blues twosome is Ty Conklin. Conklin is an American goaltender that has been in the NHL and AHL since the 2001-02 seasons. He has seen his fair share of the AHL while auditioning for an NHL spot.
He has always been looked upon as a backup and played behind some very good number one’s in Edmonton, Columbus, and Buffalo and didn’t seem to be appreciated until he landed in Pittsburgh.
This is where he had his best season (18-8-5, 2.51 GAA and a .923 Sv %) while he shared the load with Marc-Andre Fluery, Dany Sabourin and the Stanley Cup champions in 2007/08.
Conklin went on to Detroit the following season and last season landed in St. Louis, where he played on a young struggling team and also behind number one Chris Mason. Conklin’s save percentage and GAA where actually better than Mason’s.
So if Halak for some reason struggles or gets injured, St.Louis should not miss a beat with Conklin and know that he can share the number of games required to keep the number one fresh.
Phoenix Coyotes - Ilya Bryzgalov was a part of a tremendous trio in Anaheim with J.S. Giguere and Martin Gerber. It's amazing that Bryzgalov remained with the Ducks for seven seasons until departing for Phoenix.
A solid goaltender with a save percentage never below .907 and in his second season with the Coyotes posted his best numbers (42-20-6, 2.29 GAA and a .920 save percentage).
Under new Coach Dave Tippett, his team defense first system helped turn the Coyotes around and with Bryzgalov, entered into the play-offs for the first time since 2001-02.
Vancouver Canuck fans should remember Jason Labarbera, as he came over from the Los Angeles Kings to help out, during the lengthy injury to Roberto Luongo.
Labarbera has been mainly a career AHL goalie but in 2005-06 he made inroads with Los Angeles. He was able to play in 29 games before being sent down to the AHL for one season.
When he captured his next opportunity he stayed up in the NHL. When Labarbera was not resigned after the 2008-09 Canuck season, he joined the Coyotes as a UFA.
Little did he know this would be his ultimate timing and his stats (8-5-1, 2.13 GAA and a sparkling .928 save percentage) mirrored the success of the team last season. It was to be his best season in the NHL to date.
These two form a strong tandem in goal.
Minnesota Wild – some of you will question this, due to the fact that the Wild have not made the play-offs in the past two seasons. I see this more to do with the team and team defense than the goaltenders – Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.
It should be remembered that Backstrom won the William M. Jennings Trophy (goaltender who has played a minimum of 25 game and allowed the fewest goals against) and the Roger Crozier MBNA Saving Grace Award (Goaltender – 25 minimum games – best save percentage) in the 2006/07 season.
In 2008-09 Backstrom and Harding both had GAA of 2.33 or lower and save percentages of .929 or lower. Another important factor here is that they have been together for three seasons and Harding has played an average of 24 games of relief.
It is not a coincidence that when Minnesota Coach Jacques Lemaire left after the 2008-09 season, that both their stats dropped noticeably. Once again the lack of team defense entered into the picture.
San Jose Sharks – We shall see whether these two Finnish goalies – Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki continue their stellar play. Not sure how Finland is able to continually churn out the product but it has become the goalie factory for the NHL.
Niittymaki came up through the Philadelphia Flyers system and is obviously the more experienced with six NHL seasons. While with the Flyers, he played behind Martin Biron who was clearly number one.
Last season he played on a sub-par five hundred Tampa Bay Lighting team and still managed to post a record of 21-18-5, 2.87 GAA and a .909 save percentage.
I expect Antero to do better this year with the Sharks defense in front of him.
Was it a mirage or was Niemi that good down the stretch in the play-offs? This will be his greatest test as he gets a shot at being the number one.
If he can play the 29-39 games like he did last season and Niitymaki like he did in Tampa, look for San Jose to take another run at the Western Conference top spot.
Detroit Red Wings – here we have an older pro in Chris Osgood and a young sophomore - Jimmy Howard. Howard was that good last season that he was a nominee for the Calder Trophy which goes to the NHL Rookie of the year.
Last season saw the Red Wings run into a huge amount of injuries throughout their lineup, so to post a 37-15-10, 2.26 GAA and a .924, was an accomplishment worth noting. Yes he plays behind a very good defensive team but with all the injuries, he had to be the main man some nights.
Detroit used, what seems to be the norm these days, nine different defensemen. So you can see that the goalie had his work cut out for him on many nights.
Howard now looks to keep his number one spot but never count out Osgood.
Osgood is like Rodney Dangerfield, the “I can’t get no Respect” comedian from years gone by. All he has done is win the William M. Jennings Trophy twice (1995-96 and 2007-08) and the Stanley Cup in 2007-08.
Since joining the Red Wings in 2005-06, his save percentage may not be all that impressive (3 seasons under .897) but he has won 94 times in 165 games. But even a .567 winning percentage is nothing to jump up and down about.
He just seems to be able to get it done when the play-offs arrive.
Footnote – Honourable mention goes to the Dallas Stars Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft and Columbus Blue Jackets – Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon.
Why a number of teams were left off was because of their lack of backup strength in goal.
For instance, if Canucks Robert Luongo were to be injured (which he has been the last two seasons), the unproven Cory Schneider and his un-spectacular 10 game play and stats, would leave the Vancouver Canucks fighting for survival.
This picture would be the same in Anaheim (Hiller & McElhinney), Calgary (Kiprusoff & Karlsson), Nashville (only Pekka Rinne signed), Los Angeles (Quick & Ersberg), Chicago (Turco & Crawford), Colorado (Anderson & Budaj), and Edmonton (Khabibulin & Dubnyk).
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