Predicting Which NHL Goaltenders Will Improve the Most in 2016-17 Season
Big changes were supposed to be in store for the National Hockey League's goaltending fraternity in 2016-17. According to a March report from the Canadian Press (h/t Sportsnet), the league declared its intention to crack down on oversized goalie equipment by requiring goaltenders to streamline their gear.
The World Cup of Hockey is just around the corner and preseason games for league play begin in just over a month. But there has been no announcement about the details of the initiative and Mark Spector of Sportsnet reports that the NHL and the Players' Association have not yet reached an agreement on standards for the new equipment.
Time is quickly running out to get everybody signed off, get the equipment manufactured and get it tested to a point where goalies will feel comfortable enough to step in front of a Shea Weber slap shot with less protection than they've had in the past.
If the gear was changing this year, those changes would probably impact different goaltenders in different ways, depending on how reliant they've been on oversized equipment during their careers.
At this point, it looks like we will see the same bulky pants and shield-like chest protectors that we're used to in 2016-17. We can delay speculation about which goalies have been most reliant on equipment for their career successes. For now, it's the status quo as we predict which backstops are going to see improvements in their performances next season.
Most of the names on this list are familiar—either goalies who should bounce back after subpar performances last year or who will take more strides toward their career pinnacles.
Other than the usual suspects, which goalies do you think will unexpectedly dazzle us in 2016-17?
6. Marc-Andre Fleury: Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16 Stats: 58 GP, 35-17-6, 5 shutouts .921 save percentage, 2.29 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: It's tempting to include Matt Murray on this list, but he hasn't left himself much room for improvement after his clutch performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins in last spring's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Instead, watch for veteran Marc-Andre Fleury to reassert himself as Pittsburgh's go-to goalie.
The first overall draft pick from 2003, the 31-year-old has spent his entire career with the Penguins and holds the franchise records for goaltenders for games played, wins, shutouts and save percentage, according to Hockey Reference.
Fleury has three years left on a contract that has a cap hit of $5.75 million per season, according to General Fanager, and has a full no-movement clause that he has no intention of waiving.
"I love Pittsburgh, and the Penguins are my team; I want to stay with them for the rest of my career," Fleury said, per Robert Laflamme of LNH.com (h/t NHL.com) in August. "I want to come to camp ready to win my job back. I have to get back to the same level of play and help the team, win games."
Fleury lost his starting job in the playoffs due to a concussion but was not able to reclaim the net from red-hot Murray once he got healthy.
Starting fresh, expect him to put up career-best numbers and force the Penguins' hand heading into next June's expansion draft, when only one goaltender can be protected.
5. Pekka Rinne: Nashville Predators
2015-16 Stats: 66 GP, 34-21-10, 4 shutouts .908 save percentage, 2.48 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: One year after finishing second in Vezina Trophy voting to Carey Price, the usually superconsistent Pekka Rinne experienced some serious peaks and valleys in his goaltending performance in 2015-16.
He started off well—6-1-2 in November with a 1.97 goals-against average. But from November 1 to January 31, Rinne was an uncharacteristic 13-14-5, allowing 83 goals in 32 games.
The turnaround began on Feb. 12, when the Preds started a streak of 14 games without a regulation loss. Rinne allowed just 20 goals in 10 appearances as the team went 9-0-5 over the course of a month and locked down a playoff spot.
Once Nashville was in the playoffs, the lanky Finn struggled once again to find his consistency through two rounds of postseason play.
Rinne will join Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Mikko Koskinen of the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg as the trio assigned to guard the net for Team Finland at the World Cup of Hockey in September.
The early start to the hockey season should give the workhorse Rinne a chance to shake off the rough edges from last season and rediscover his usual unflappable form.
4. Robin Lehner: Buffalo Sabres
2015-16 Stats: 21 GP, 5-9-5, 1 shutout .924 save percentage, 2.47 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: Originally earmarked as one of the key blocks of the Buffalo Sabres' rebuild, Robin Lehner's impact in 2015-16 was severely limited by a lower-body injury suffered midway through his first game with his new franchise.
He returned to the lineup in January but was then shut down again in mid-March to have season-ending ankle surgery.
After a summer of rehab, Lehner will start his new campaign behind Henrik Lundqvist on Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey. That should get him nicely into game shape, ready to show why the Sabres gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire him when his second season in Buffalo begins in October.
3. Jake Allen: St. Louis Blues
2015-16 Stats: 47 GP, 26-15-3, 6 shutouts .920 save percentage, 2.35 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: A crowded crease has led to a slow climb to No. 1 status for Jake Allen. But with next June's expansion draft looming, the St. Louis Blues took a leap of faith with their goalie of the future.
This summer, the Blues signed Allen to a four-year contract extension with a cap hit of $4.35 million per season, per General Fanager, and traded the older Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames.
At last, Allen is top dog, and the job security should bring out the best in him. "It was tough to make mistakes when Brian was around because one game—you had a bad game—he was right back in the net and vice versa with him and me,” said Allen on a video posted on the Blues' website, per NBC Sports.
"I think you get a little bit more leeway, I guess, now (as a starter). But not a whole lot."
In 2016-17, Allen will be backed up by 30-year-old Carter Hutton, who was signed away from the Nashville Predators as an unrestricted free agent.
Working once again behind the Blues' impressive blue line and well-structured system, Allen should thrive as he comes into his prime hockey years.
2. Brian Elliott: Calgary Flames
2015-16 Stats: 42 GP, 23-8-6, 4 shutouts .930 save percentage, 2.07 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: Just as Jake Allen is glad to see the back of Brian Elliott, Elliott's equally happy to get a starting job of his own with the Calgary Flames for the upcoming season.
Elliott hasn't started more than 50 games in a season since he was a 24-year-old with the Ottawa Senators back in 2009-10. During his five seasons in St. Louis, he led the NHL twice in save percentage and shared a William M. Jennings trophy in 2011-12. But he was never the undisputed No. 1, sharing the crease at various times with Jaroslav Halak and Ryan Miller as well as Allen.
"To have that good of numbers and not get the opportunity to be the No. 1 guy, sometimes it’s frustrating," Elliott said, per the Canadian Press (h/t Sportsnet), when he was introduced to the Calgary media in late July. "But I’ve always believed if you worked hard, put your head down and plowed through it, opportunities will pop up for you."
After an impressive run to the Western Conference Final during the 2016 playoffs, Elliott will be embraced by Flames fans, who were let down by their goaltending last season. Calgary finished dead last in the NHL with 257 goals against in 2015-16. There's nowhere to go but up.
1. Carey Price: Montreal Canadiens
2015-16 Stats: 12 GP, 10-2-0, 2 shutouts .934 save percentage, 2.06 goals-against average (from NHL.com)
Why He'll Be Better: There's every reason to believe that Carey Price will rebound from an injury that took him out of the mix in 2015-16. He should once again become the best of the NHL's goaltenders next season.
After many months of rehab following an MCL sprain last November, Price was on the ice for a charity fundraiser in Kelowna, B.C. on August 20. He told Kevin Woodley of NHL.com that "I feel like my old self on the ice."
That's music to the ears of Habs fans, who saw their team's fortunes dip dramatically last season without Price guarding the cage.
"It's been sitting in my back pocket forever so I am just looking forward to getting past (the injury)," Price told Woodley. "I don't want to say I feel anxious, but I just want to get started. I feel like the buildup has been six months of waiting for that first game and I still haven't gotten there. I've been working toward a goal I haven't gotten to yet."
Price will get a chance to work out those butterflies and get ready to return to the Canadiens when he steps between the pipes for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, looking for a follow-up title after winning gold in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Olympics.