NHL Predictions: 4 Underrated Goalies Heading into the 2011-2012 Season
The hockey position that receives the most pressure and criticism night in and night out is the one in between the pipes: the goaltender.
When a team struggles to put points on the board, the goalie is called upon to play his best and keep the game close, not letting the 'W' slip away.
With a little over a week before the start of the season, some goalies are looking to start right where they left off, while others are looking forward to a fresh start.
Some of the most talented goalies in the league struggled last season and put up numbers that spectators are not used to seeing.
Because of this, many have dropped to the lower half of the preseason rankings.
Goalies, like Columbus' Steve Mason, are looking to show their respective teams as well as the league that they can still compete with the best of them and their past struggles were just a fluke.
While some goalies are looking to rebound, others on the outside looking into to the top 10 are just looking to make a name for themselves as they compete in their first full NHL season.
Whatever the reason, these lower-ranked netminders have a lot of talent and are coming into the season underrated.
They will show everyone why come October.
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In 2010, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak helped an eighth-seeded playoff team reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Halak has some spectacular performances against the No. 1 seeded Washington Capitals and the always-tough Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Canadiens had a tough decision on their hands at the end of that season as they had to choose to keep Halak or youngster Carey Price because they could not afford to hang on to both of them. Montreal decided to trade Halak to St. Louis, where he got off to a hot start, going 6-1-1 in October. However, after that, he struggled and could only win 27 games all season.
Halak was not used to being a team's No. 1 goalie and struggled with mental preparation.
However, Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said in an interview Sunday that Halak has worked to be better prepared,
"If you have back-to-back games on a Friday and Saturday, and you have a good game Friday, make sure you're prepared for Saturday. Don't take your foot off the gas," Hirsch said. "For me, Jaro's technical play is good as anyone in the league. It's his mental preparation (that needed work).
Halak comes into this season underrated as he still adjusts to being a team's top goaltender.
But in the offseason, Halak worked out harder than he has in the past, so that he will be prepared for playing 60 games, including back-to-back situations. The 26-year-old could rebound and put up impressive numbers.
Heading into last season, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer found himself third on the team's depth chart behind Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson.
Even with the odds against him, in January, the Manitoba native would get his chance and showed the Leafs as well as the rest of the league that he was worth a look as the team's top goaltender.
In his first two months of action, Reimer put together some impressive numbers, tallying 10 wins in 17 starts and two shutouts. The Leafs liked what they saw as Reimer began to get more starts and inked him to a three-year contract extension in the offseason.
As well as Reimer played in his first season, he is still underrated heading into next season.
One of the main reasons Reimer finds himself outside of the top 20 is because he has yet to have a full season of hockey. There have been several occurrences when a young player is called up and plays well, only to struggle in his first full season.
The Maple Leafs have been on the outside looking in on the playoffs for the past few seasons, and the pressure will be on Reimer to change that.
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The past two seasons have not been the best for Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom.
After a career-high 37 wins in 2008-2009, the Finnish netminder put up 26 wins in 2009-2010 and 22 last season.
Even with a low win total, Backstrom still put up a 2.66 goals against average, not the best, but not the worst in the league.
It was revealed in the offseason that the 33-year-old had been suffering from a nagging shoulder injury, one of the main reasons he struggled.
During one of his worst seasons in his career, Backstrom had an impressive month of February, as he had an impressive 1.69 GAA and a .940 save percentage, and looked like his old self.
With the shoulder injury behind him, it will be interesting to see if Backstrom can rebound and put up those February numbers throughout the entire season.
The Wild made two of the biggest splashes this offseason when they acquired both Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi from San Jose. Having two talented scorers in front of Backstrom should take some of the pressure off of Backstrom.
The Wild are a team on the rise this season and if Backstrom can return to his old form, they can be one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
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Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason struggled with inconsistency last season.
At times, Mason would keep the Jackets competitive for the entire game. However, there were times were opposing teams would have a scoring clinic early and the 23-year-old would be yanked before the first 20 minutes were up.
One of the biggest reasons for Mason's struggles was the fact that the Jackets could not consistently put points on the board.
So many times, the team would lean on All-Star captain Rick Nash to score and if he couldn't, it was up to Mason to keep them in the game.
In the offseason, the Blue Jackets took the necessary steps to increase the team's scoring ability with the acquisition of center Jeff Carter and offensive D-man James Wisniewski.
With more offense in front of him, Mason will not have the pressure of being at his best night in and night out, which will cause his statistics to improve.
The Blue Jackets also hired a full-time goaltending coach in Ian Clark, who has coached some of the best goalies in the game. Clark is an upgrade from the team's previous coach Dave Rook, who only worked with Mason part time.
In the past two seasons, Mason has struggled to return to the form that won him the Calder Trophy in his rookie season. However, after Columbus' front office put the necessary pieces around him, we should see the old Mason return this season.