To everyone's surprise, two goalies who started the 2009 season finished the year contending for the Stanley Cup. To put this in perspective, most sports fans acknowledge that winning Lord Stanley is the toughest championship to win. The playoffs are an all-out battle every other night for two months straight. The war of attrition spares no one.
So to have two guys in Niemi and Leighton lacing up the pads to backstop their teams is quite the feat. They not only had to prove they could start for their team, but they had to go above and beyond and prove they could lead a contender all the way to the Holy Grail.
This development has heavily impacted the recent trend to underpay at the goalie position as the copy cat effect swings into full gear.
Now that most teams are stockpiling multiple goalies to carry the load, there is ample opportunity for another backup to step up to the plate and knock it out of the park.
Here are the top 10 goalies who could follow in Niemi's footsteps.
Jack Campbell is a potential franchise starting goalie for the Dallas Stars. The organization took him a little bit higher than most teams had him projected because they were so in love with his ability. He's only 18 and might not see any time with the Stars this season, but their goaltending situation is far from settled.
They invested big money in Kari Lehtonen and so far it is looking like a monumental mistake. He is already overpaid in today's goalie market and he can't seem to stay healthy. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Campbell gets the call up due to circumstance. There have been many other examples of young kids taking the ball and running with it once given the chance. Stranger things have happened.
Some people may laugh when they see this slide. Luongo is about to begin the first year of the league's most overpaid goalie contract. Luongo has relinquished the 'C' and should be a lot more focused this year, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Cory Schneider comes in and steals the show.
No one expected Tim Thomas to lose his job outright to a kid who hasn't proven anything in this league, but that's exactly what happened. Expectations have been high for Schneider and he's shown flashes of what he can do. Many think the Canucks will use his 10-20 starts to showcase him as trade bait, but if he plays out of his mind and Luongo struggles he may see more action than anyone could have anticipated.
Let it be said right away that Jacob Markstrom is a star starting goalie in waiting. He is perhaps the best goalie not playing in the NHL right now and the Panthers are ecstatic to have him as a prospect.
The team has considered getting rid of Tomas Vokoun to make way for this youngster, and don't be surprised to see something happen during the season.
If Markstrom can make the jump and earn some starts, you might witness the beginning of a superstar career. The kid was born for the big game and is eager to show his skills on the grandest stage.
There is no question that Tuukka Rask is a stud No. 1 goalie. You won't find anybody outside of Toronto who will dispute his long-term value, but the Bruins have not been able to unload Thomas's contract. They just might play it out another year with both and see how it shakes out. His inclusion on the list is a no-brainer because he didn't win the Vezina trophy all that long ago.
No one thought that Rask would steal the No. 1 job away from Thomas heading into last season, and it would take a miraculous run to supplant him as the top dog. Yet, this is what happened. Is it too far-fetched to believe it can happen again?
If Rask stars the year with a sophomore slump, you can bet that Thomas will see increased game action and just might wrestle away the starting job at least for the short run.
Most people were caught off guard when the Sharks signed Antti Niemi a few weeks ago. The offseason acquisition of Antero Nittymaki gave every indication that San Jose was going to go cheap at goalie after letting Nabokov walk away.
Thomas Greiss is a pretty good prospect and showed he can play at the NHL level last season, so grabbing Niemi tells us that the Sharks are eager to have as much insurance in the net as possible. Nittymaki has been an excellent backup goalie in his career and has shown that he can handle the starting job at times. What better place to supplant the starting job than on a team with the reigning king Antti Niemi?
Niemi started this movement and it would be an interesting touch of irony if he's sitting on the bench to start the 2010 playoffs.
Not too long ago Leclaire was the goalie of the future in Columbus. He put together a Vezina-like season and showed no signs of regressing. Then came along Steve Mason. It's uncertain whether or not Mason has solved the goalie position in Columbus, but Leclaire is currently bench-warming in Ottawa.
In the 2009 playoffs, Leclaire relieved Brian Elliot and gave the Senators a spark. It was too little too late in that series, but the writing is on the wall. Unless Brian Elliot plays much better in 2010 the Sens will be looking for answers elsewhere. Personally, I don't believe Elliot has what it takes to be a reliable starter in this league so I fully expect Leclaire to get another shot at the starting job at some point this season.
Bernier has already made my list as one of the top 10 emerging goalies in the NHL. Quick has a steady hold on the starting job and didn't look out of place in the playoffs against the Canucks, but the Kings are looking for bigger and better things for their franchise.
They have patiently built a team for the long-haul and are on the cusp of making a deep run. The NHL season is a long year so Bernier should get many opportunities to show that he's up to the task. It wouldn't surprise me one bit to see him in between the pipes to start round one of the playoffs.
When the Leafs acquired Giguere, I knew it could be a move that pays dividends later down the road. There is no questioning his talent and he's young enough to recapture some of the magic from his younger days. He has had a lot of off-ice issues to deal with in the previous years and Jonas Hiller seized the opportunity and put a strangle hold on the starting job in Anaheim.
In Toronto, the future is supposed to be Jonas Gustavsson. However, he had an up and down rookie year and has injury/health concerns. The Leafs are currently rebuilding towards a better tomorrow and could have a very solid back end if they could get quality play from the goalie position. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to see Giguere steal the starting role and give Toronto its best chance to win this season.
Neuvirth is an emerging goalie in this league and out of all the players on this list, he may have one of the best chances to take over the No. 1 role. Coach Boudreau has a itchy trigger finger and if Varlamov doesn't bring his A game when they need him the most, Bruce won't hesitate to play the backup. Just ask Jose Theodore.
Neuvirth has all the talent and minor league experience needed to be the goalie of a team's future, and sooner or later the Caps will have to make a choice between their young netminders. Varlamov is clearly better right now, but that might not last long on a team that is desperately looking for a Stanley Cup parade.
Ondrej Pavelec is Atlanta's goalie of the future. So you can understand why a lot of fans were a bit surprised when the team went out and signed Chris Mason early in free agency. People knew they needed to add a veteran goalie, but Mason has come in with the understanding that he will get the majority of the starts.
Pavelec will have a lot to say about this because he is on the verge of breaking out this year. Once he puts all his skills together Atlanta will have a bona-fide starter on their hands and Mason will be holding pom poms on the bench. The chances of this happening are quite high given how Mason is winding down his career.
Last season he lost his confidence and was single-handedly responsible for a boatload of bad goals during the World Championships in Germany. Keep an eye on this situation because I believe he has the best chance to be the starter sooner rather than later. This save is a sign of things to come for the Thrashers.