NHL 2010-11: Under Pressure: Top Five Goalies Facing Make Or Break Seasons

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst ISeptember 8, 2010

NHL 2010-11: Under Pressure: Top Five Goalies Facing Make Or Break Seasons

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    VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 11:  Goalie Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks and goalie Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks shake hands after the Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 5-1 to win Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals to win the s
    Rich Lam/Getty Images

    There was a time in the NHL when a team's potential for success was judged almost exclusively on who occupied the space between their pipes.

    Indeed, for several years, if the man keeping your goal did not have the name "Roy," "Brodeur," "Hasek," or "Belfour" on the back of his jersey, your team was largely left out of any discussions concerning Stanley Cup contenders.

    But, one of the most interesting developments since the inception of the "new NHL," which began after the 2004-05 lockout, has been the diminishing need for so-called "big money" goalies.

    In the years proceeding the lockout, only one high-dollar goalie has won the Stanley Cup - JS Giguere in 2007 with the Ducks.

    Aside from him, in the five years since the lockout, the Cup-winning goalie has been either a rookie (Cam Ward - 2006, Antti Niemi - 2010), a has-been back-up (Chris Osgood - 2009) or an emerging net-minder not quite solidified as a top-tier tender (Marc-Andre Fleury - 2009).

    Clearly, spending big money on a goalie is no longer necessary to secure a championship in the NHL.

    However, though team-depth and defensive skill are the two "must-haves" if a club has designs on winning a Stanley Cup, a solid goal-tender, at whatever salary, is still a very important piece of the puzzle.

    Inasmuch as they are a team's last line of defense, they have the potential to be exposed as either their team's weakest or strongest link in critical situations.

    Unlike the NHL of the late 90s and early 00s, goalies are no longer counted on to win a playoff series by themselves, but, they can still take a large part of the blame for losing it.

    Still, whether or not a goalie has the chance to play hero or goat in the playoffs is of course determined by their team's performance in the regular season.  Here too, a goalie can play a positive or negative role in their team's overall success.

    Therefore, while a GM need no longer lay out ridiculous amounts of dough to secure very good goal-tending (though some still do), the need for a true No. 1 goal-tender is still a pressing one for any team.

    Once that goalie is identified, however, the onus is on them to perform as such.  But, how heavy that responsibility weighs on an individual net-minder is almost always proportional to the overall expectations of the team itself.  Again, he may not get all the glory for winning, but will get a hefty share of the blame for losing.

    This season, there are five goalies who will be facing this kind of pressure perhaps more than any others in the league.

    The following is a progressive ranking of those goalies that will begin the season under significant pressure to deliver on expectations or else face declining confidence in their ability to do so.

5. Antti Niemi: San Jose Sharks

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    For any team, and especially a goalie, who has won a Stanley Cup, the only thing harder than doing it once, is doing it twice in a row.

    This being the case, how much tougher is it for a goalie to face the expectation of a repeat Stanley Cup winning performance - but for another team?

    Antti Niemi will be facing such expectations as he assumes the starting role in San Jose this season.

    Now, San Jose GM Doug Wilson is hardly looking for Niemi to become the face of the franchise, after all, he only signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal.

    But, Niemi's successful trip to the Stanley Cup finals is exactly the kind of experience Wilson wants to have in net as the Sharks try, yet again, to capture their first Cup in franchise history.

    This rationale may not be totally justified.

    While Niemi certainly didn't hurt his team in the playoffs, his .910 save-percentage and 2.63 goals-against average reveal Niemi to be a "good enough-goalie" to win a Cup so long as you have a stellar team in front of you.

    Like previous rookie-turned-Cup-champ, Cam Ward, Niemi may find that repeating the performance that won you a starter's job in the first place may be easier said than done.

    The Sharks are still a talented team, but, are not as deep as the Blackhawks were in 2009-10 and certainly don't sport the talent-laden defensive corps that helped secured Chicago's first championship in 49 years.

    Niemi will be counted on to play a bigger role as a Shark than he did as a Blackhawk, and whether or not he can live up to those expectations is up for debate.

    Still, all of this is not to say Niemi is not a good goalie; he is.

    His age, 26, combined with his extensive experience prior to joining the NHL bodes well for his chances of quickly settling in to his new surroundings and providing his new team with very solid goal-tending.

    However, if by mid-season, Niemi's numbers suggest he might have been a one-trick pony in Chicago, he's likely going to watch more games than he plays as the Sharks will look to another Finnish goal-tender, Antero Niittymaki, to take over starting duties.

4. Jimmy Howard: Detroit Red Wings

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    DETROIT - APRIL 20:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings makes a save without his goalie mask behind teammate Niklas Kronwall #55 and Lee Stempniak #22 of the Phoenix Coyotes during Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NHL S
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Forget about octopi.

    When the Detroit Red Wings start their season, the only animal to be concerned about will be the giant elephant in the locker-room representing the question about the legitimacy of Jimmy Howard's No. 1 status.

    Though Howard turned in a season-saving, Calder Trophy-worthy performance last season, the NHL is littered with goalies who appeared to have everything going for them their first year, only to crash and burn in year two.

    Andrew Raycroft and Steve Mason both won the Calder trophy as rookie goalies in 2003 and 2009, respectively.  However, the former is now little more than a third-tier back-up and the latter will begin his third season in the NHL with a big fat question mark over his head.

    A great rookie season does not an undisputed starter make, clearly.

    However, there are a few good reasons to believe that Howard will in fact side-step the "sophomore jinx" and deliver on the promise he showed last season.

    First, unlike someone like Mason in Columbus, Howard has an embarrassingly large amount of veteran talent, knowledge and support behind him, starting with Chris Osgood.

    No one on Earth knows better the perils and joys of defending the goal in Detroit than Osgood and though he's slated to start as a back-up this season, his continued mentoring of Howard will be a huge boost to Detroit on the ice.

    Second, like the aforementioned Niemi, Howard is not exactly a wide-eyed youngster.  At 26, Howard should have the maturity and experience to withstand the pressures he'll be facing entering the year as the go-to guy in net.

    Lastly, Howard is a good goalie.  His goals-against and save-percentage were both in the top five in the league last year.  And, to those that would throw out the, "Yeah, but, he plays in Detroit" argument, one must remember that he posted these numbers playing largely behind a battered, stitched-together line-up for most of the year.

    Howard's skill and potential, are absolutely for real.  However, whether he's ready to live up to both on a regular basis is something else again.

3. Semyon Varlamov: Washington Captials

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    WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23:  Semyon Varlamov #40 of the Washington Capitals looks on against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Sure, there are those that would say that, when it comes to pressure in Washington, it all falls squarely on one Alexander Ovechkin.

    As the incessant "Sid v. Ovie" debate continues to rage year after year, the two legitimate knocks against No. 8 is his heretofore unrealized leadership potential and lack of a Stanley Cup ring.

    It's true, Ovechkin has a lot to live up to after two stellar seasons in Washington supported by perhaps the most talented offensive group in the NHL.

    But, that doesn't mean another young Russian player won't be feeling the heat as his team's name and "Stanley Cup contender" are linked together repeatedly throughout the season.

    An in-series replacement for Jose Theodore two playoff years in a row, Varlamov is now the No. 1 goalie in Washington.

    Though he only has 32 regular season games on his NHL resume, his ability to step in cold and play extremely well in the playoffs should not be overlooked.

    Blessed with a large frame, solid positioning habits and a very cool demeanor, Varlamov has the tools it takes to become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

    However, his youth (22 years old) and his quiet, at times, timid, demeanor on the ice reveals a young man with a bit of a confidence problem, still trying to adapt to life and hockey in North America.

    With countrymen like Alexander Semin and Ovechkin in the locker-room, Varlamov should continue to adapt nicely to life in the NHL.  However, should he buckle under the workload required by a starting net-minder, the psychic repercussions such failure would entail may leave the young Russian without much bargaining power when his entry-level contract expires next summer.

2. Marty Turco: Chicago Blackhawks

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    What's that I said about the pressure facing a Stanley Cup winning goalie starting the following year with a new team?

    Well, the reverse also carries with it no small amount of expectation and responsibility.

    Though the 'Hawks clearly would have liked to keep Antti Niemi in the fold, their cap woes and Niemi's $2.75 million price tag determined through arbitration forced them to look in another direction.

    After taking his team to the Western Conference Finals in 2008, Marty Turco has had two rough and inconsistent seasons in Dallas that convinced the Stars that he was no longer the answer they needed in goal.

    Though Turco's puck-handling and athleticism are still his biggest assets, his ability to make them count on a consistent basis has been called into question over the past two seasons, leaving some to wonder if a change of scenery will help stabilize the 35-year-old in goal.

    Still, the one-year, $1.5 million contract that landed Turco in Chicago speaks more about his confidence in his new club than it does an actual measure of Turco's value to the team.

    After wading through the fiasco that was the Christobal Huet signing and the unexpected and unlikely emergence of Antti Niemi last season, the 'Hawks should do well to start the season with a proven, veteran starter in net.

    True, the team's depth took a large hit this summer due to cap constraints leaving Turco with a less experienced and less talented team in front of him than that that won the Stanley Cup a few months back.

    But, there remains enough talent to make Chicago fans' expectations of a successful Stanley Cup defense legitimate.

    That's where Turco comes in.

    Coming on to a talented team with expectations for success is pressure in and of itself, but, to take over as the new goalie for a team that will begin their season with a Stanley Cup banner being raised to the rafters is a different ball of hockey tape.

    Should Chicago fall significantly short of their defense campaign (say, a first round exit), fair or not, questions of, "What went wrong" will almost surely include Turco's name in the answer.

1. Roberto Luongo: Vancouver Canucks

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    CHICAGO - MAY 03: Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks falls on the puck for a save against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center on May 3, 2010 in Chicago,
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Until last February, you could honestly have called Roberto Luongo "the best goalie who never won anything."

    However, after Team Canada's gold-medal win at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Luongo finally had a coveted piece of hockey-hardware to place on his mantle.

    Then again, considering the All-World defense and forward corps in front of him, Team Canada could have had a rusty trash can propped up in goal and achieved the same result.

    There's no question that Luongo is an extremely talented goalie deserving of his elite status.  However, that sterling reputation may start to tarnish a bit should he once again fail to help his team get out of the second round of the playoffs in 2010-11.

    Gold medal aside, Luongo's ability (or inability) to win a Cup will be what defines his career.

    On paper, the Canucks have as good a team as any and will be at the top of many Stanley Cup favorites lists this season, and rightly so.

    They have the offensive talent and defensive strength to go toe-to-toe with any team in the league and, with Luongo in goal, have a better chance than most of earning a 'W' on most nights - at least, in the regular season.

    Though Luongo has long been considered a top-flight goalie, his first taste of the playoffs didn't come until 2007, his sixth year in the league.

    He's made return trips to the post-season each year since, however, has been shown the door (each time by the Chicago Blackhawks) in the second round the past two playoffs.

    Immediately upon being eliminated from the playoffs In 2009, a visibly shaken Luongo explained his performance that saw him give up seven goals in the sixth and deciding game against Chicago as "unacceptable."

    Losing the series was hard enough, but to see an elite goalie surrender a touchdown and an extra-point in an elimination playoff game is a rare thing indeed.

    The Canucks looked to be poised for much better things at the start of last season's playoffs as they dispatched the upstart LA Kings in six games and went on to face Chicago yet again.

    Unfortunately for them, the result was the same from the year before as they were once again eliminated by the 'Hawks in six games.

    While Luongo didn't repeat his seven-goal-surrendering performance, his 3.23 goals-against-average and .895 save percentage throughout the playoffs revealed that, for whatever reason, he wasn't able to live up to the world-beating goalie he's been made out to be.

    This season, the Canucks and Luongo will be expected to exorcise the ghosts of playoffs past and at least push past the second round, with a Stanley Cup finals appearance a realistic expectation.

    However, should Luongo fail to deliver the goods in the second season yet again, expect to see his name and "overrated" appearing together at all times for the foreseeable future.

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