The issue of durability among NHL goalies remains one criterion for achieving a successful season.
The barometer of 50 to 55 games is usually held to determinate worthiness, productivity and value. A quick look at goaltenders around the league indicates that an average of near 70 games played the past season characterizes their merit.
Cam Ward, who appeared in 74 games for Carolina, could be used as the benchmark. Carey Price of Montreal appeared in 72 games, while Ilya Bryzgalov was in 68 games for the Coyotes and Henrik Lundqvist appeared in 68 games with the Rangers; those are another three who have set the standard.
When Bryzgalov packed his hockey stick, signed a free-agent deal with the Flyers for $51 million and moved east, the Coyotes were left not only to fill this important hole but also seek a goaltender of equal or greater durability.
In the end, general manager Don Maloney settled on Mike Smith, a 29-year-old who posted a 2.90 goals-against average in 22 games last season as a backup with Tampa Bay. For his career, Smith’s career high in games played in one season is 42 at the NHL level—for the Lightning during the 2009-10 season.
If the Coyotes are to challenge in the highly competitive Pacific Division, they will need big minutes and big games out of Smith. That might be easier said than done because the 6'4" native of Kingston, Ontario has not been asked to carry a team like he will now in the quagmire that is the NHL season.
Enter Jason LaBarbera, who could be called upon for at least 30 to possibly 40 games this season for Phoenix. That should also be a challenge for the 31-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C.
With the Rangers and Kings before arriving in the desert at the start of the 2009-10 season, LaBarbera’s highest game total was 45 for the Kings in the '07-08 season. In the minors, he appeared in 59 games for Hartford of the AHL in '03-04 and 53 for Hartford the following season.
An issue in front of the Phoenix franchise is whether LaBarbera can come in, handle the test and play effectively.
“Mike has played very well and it’s fun to see,” LaBarbera said after dropping a 3-0 decision to Nashville Nov. 3 at home. “I just have to be ready when they call. Basically, it’s the same for me as in the past, and it’s tough to play like once a month.”
In the second game of their first back-to-back set of the season, Smith defeated Colorado 4-1 on Nov. 2, and LaBarbera faced Nashville at home the following night.
Appearing in his third game of the season, LaBarbera was serviceable but allowed the first two Nashville goals on loss of the puck and execution breakdown. The third Preds tally came when Patric Hornqvist hit the empty net at 19:00.
“We had the back-the-back situation, and there’s been a heavy workload on Mike,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. “(LaBarbera) played well, but when you don’t score, it makes it pretty hard for a goalie to win.”
Against Nashville, Preds defenseman Jonathon Blum put the Music City team on the board when his shot from the right point slid through traffic and just inside the left post at 8:01 of the second period.
“I didn’t see that at all,” LaBarbera added. “There was so much traffic in front, and the second one was a broken play in front. I committed myself too much to the shooter.”
On the second goal, Matt Halischuk’s backhander, finishing off a two-on-one from Craig Smith, slid under LaBarbera’s right pad for a 2-0 Nashville lead at 16:04 of the middle session.
Now with one month in the books, the elongated NHL season crawls forward, and the issue facing Tippett could be Smith’s longevity. That could mean more playing time for LaBarbera, and the netminder says he’s ready for the increased workload.
“Frankly, I’m not sure what role I have,” LaBarbera said. “Let’s hope there’s more playing time, but I just have to ready and be sharp.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PEKKA
At the other end of the ice in Glendale Nov. 3, Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne celebrated a “goalie hat trick,“ according to Preds coach Barry Trotz.
“He celebrated his birthday, signed a new deal and picked up a shutout,” said Trotz. “I would say that’s a pretty good day.”
Rinne, the proud new owner of a freshly minted seven-year, $49 million deal signed on his 29th birthday, turned aside 35 Phoenix shots to record his 23rd career NHL shutout. All his shutouts have come since Dec. 1, 2008, and that puts the native of Kempele, Finland first in the NHL since that date.
“He’s worth every penny of that new contract,” Trotz added. “(Rinne) brings it every night and gives us a chance to win every night.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The quotes in this story were obtained by the author during postgame interviews Nov. 3, 2011.