Who comes to mind when you think of the top goalies in today's NHL?
Obviously, Martin Brodeur and his plethora of records is the light by which any other flame is judged. But following following closely behind Marty are
- Roberto Luongo—arguably the most talented goalie in the game today and a man capable of single-handedly keeping his team competitive.
- Evgeni Nabokov—the 33 year-old Russian coming off of his first 40-win season.
- Henrik Lundvist—the man who makes New York Rangers fans forget about Guy Hebert.
But where do you go from there?
The argument can be made for Miikka Kiprusoff to be included in that group—after all, he was a win away from winning 40 games for the third-straight season last year—but his streaky play and periodic lapses in consistency keep him straddling the line between the upper level and the second tier. So far this season, he looks to be more on the second level.
Then there's the oft-overlooked Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who found himself in the top three in both save percentage (third at .922) and goals-against average (second at 2.12) last season while winning 35 games—but the West Coast prerogative keeps him from the forefront of most fans' minds, relegating him to second-tier status to some as well.
A guy like Marty Turco has consistently put up solid win totals and fairly solid numbers, but Turco seems to lack the "wow" factor that some of the more notable 'tenders hold.
Youngsters Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury are already talked about so much that you'd think they'd have the seasoning of a Turco or a Nabokov.
Then there's guys like Rick DiPietro and Kari Lehtonen, who could find themselves in that second-tier broaching the upper echelon, if not for injury problems and the changes taking place on their respective teams.
Right along with them though, eyeing a spot amongst the "named elite" of NHL goalies is Vesa Toskala—the man who everything falls to in the Toronto Maple Leafs rebuilding process.
If these three goalies can harness their respective situations this season, however, then they can help make themselves known around the league for more than just being the backbone to a troubled club.
For each goalie, last season was forgettable. Each of them spent their year wallowing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, with only the Tampa Bay Lightning separating them from a three-way battle for last.
Lehtonen, coming off a playoff appearance with the Thrasher in 2006-07, had high expectations. He had won 34 games the year before, and he, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Marian Hossa were expected to carry the Thrashers past the first round.
For Kari, though, the season got off to a sluggish start. The Thrashers started 0-6—and Lehtonen was in net for four of those losses, surrendering 18 goals. After his fourth game though, Lehtonen went down with a groin injury, and was forced to miss the next 16 games.
In his absence, the Thrashers made the tough climb back to two games within .500 (11-13), and Lehtonen returned in style, shutting out the New York Islanders 4-0.
Following an up-and-down first four games, Lehtonen started to kick his play into gear with a four-game win streak. After that though, Lehtonen suffered through a six-game winless streak as well as a seven-game winless streak, ending the season at 17-22-5.
Although Lehtonen had struggled periodically throughout the season, at least it wasn't as tumultuous as Rick DiPietro's.
Following an offseason which saw the Islanders' franchise go under the knife to fix a wonky hip, the consensus was that DiPietro was tuned up and raring to go, buoyed by enough spirit and talent to help the Islanders bounce their way back to the playoffs in 2008.
He looked like he was well on his way to taking them back there too as he started off the season with a 12-8-1 record spanning October and November. Once the calender flipped to December, though, it became a different story. DiPietro went 4-5-1 leading up to Christmas, and started to suffer some discomfort in his knee, causing him to miss the first three games following the Christmas break.
After a fairly dressing January (3-5-1), DiPietro looked to have started to turn the corner, winning six straight in February, allowing only five goals over the last four games of that streak. He even appeared in the All-Star Game, starting after Martin Brodeur dropped out.
However, as the end of the season approached, DiPietro started to suffer that all-too familiar hip trouble, and his up-and-down 2007-08 was put to rest following another surgery.
DiPietro may be the closest of these three to the "highest level"—but he's got to be healthy to prove it.
Then again you'd think he has to be healthy in at least one out of 15 years, right?
Vesa Toskala may have had the biggest culture shock of them all in 2007-08. Coming into a brand new market and being dubbed the backup to a man no one wanted to see between the pipes, the man with one of the coolest masks in the league brought his chill personality to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the first two months though, it looked as though V-Tosk might have trouble keeping his cool. Displaying strong play but dogged by inconsistent results, Toskala was forced to bounce back and forth in the crease with incumbent Andrew Raycroft.
But once December rolled around, it looked like Toskala was going to get a bit of a present. Toskala played in each of the first ten games of the month, going 6-3-1. Much like Lehtonen and DiPietro though, Toskala's season was derailed for six games with a groin injury in late-December.
After coming back though, there seemed to be no doubt in who was the man in Hogtown any longer, as Vesa started every game except one for the Leafs between January 12 and March 29, going 20-12-1.
So how exactly can a Finnish goalie who finished hot, an injury-plagued lefty, and a quality case of inconsistency make their mark on the 2008-09 season?
Well the first step would be getting healthy. Both Toskala and Lehtonen proved to be healthy over the remaining months of last season—but if DiPietro wants to prove he can consistently be an All-Star and worth that 15-year contract, then he has to live by a simple mantra:
To win games, you have to appear in games.
From there, it's up to the goalies as to what they make of their opportunity. Although having a winning team helps in getting yourself noticed, if V-Tosk can post even a 25-win season in Toronto, then people outside of Leafs Nation may give him his due.
If Lehtonen can keep the Thrashers afloat in the Southeast division and make a bit of noise—and who knows, maybe eke into the playoffs again?—then the Thrashers might start getting some respect around the league.
As for DiPietro—yet again: To win games, you have to appear in games. Let's make sure he can stay healthy first.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. You can get in contact with BT through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.