NHL Predictions: 12 Goalies Who Must Step It Up for the 2011-12 Season

Adam Graham@@adam_grahamAnalyst IIJuly 8, 2011

NHL Predictions: 12 Goalies Who Must Step It Up for the 2011-12 Season

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    It may not have been a motion picture worthy of an Academy Award, but the movie Double Team, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman, provided us with a quote that sums up just about every sport.

    "Offense gets the glory. But defense wins the game."

    The value of a strong defense has been proven throughout history, and in hockey, your most important defender is the one who stands between the pipes.

    If your goaltender can step up and make the big saves when it matters the most, you usually have a good chance to win.

    With that being said, here are 12 goaltenders who are in situations where they need to raise their performance to the next level in the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Ilya Bryzgalov

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    The Philadelphia Flyers went through a lot to finally lock up an elite NHL goaltender.

    First, they gave up a minor league player, a third-round draft pick and future considerations to simply acquire the negotiating rights of Ilya Bryzgalov from the Phoenix Coyotes.

    Then they had to trade two marquee players to free up enough salary cap space to sign Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal. It’s debatable if they needed to trade both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards away, but they did, and now Bryzgalov really needs to step up and prove he’s worth all the money and fuss.

    Philadelphia is nothing like Phoenix when it comes to their passion for hockey and the microscope they put their athletes under. If Bryzgalov let’s in a soft goal or says something that raises some eye brows to a reporter, he’s going to hear about it.

    He’s also going to hear about it if he doesn’t improve his numbers in the playoffs. As good as Bryzgalov has been in the past two regular seasons for the Coyotes, his playoff numbers have been the opposite.

    It may not have mattered as much with the Coyotes because they were probably going to lose to the Detroit Red Wings anyway, but it will matter with the Flyers.

    After all, it was the abysmal playoff performances of all three of the Flyers goalies in the playoffs this year that prompted GM Mike Holmgren to shake things up so drastically in Philly.

    If Bryzgalov doesn’t step his game up, both he and Holmgren are going to take a lot of heat.

Ryan Miller

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    It may seem a little bit odd to suggest that Ryan Miller needs to step his game up, but after a Vezina-winning season in 2009-2010, his play dropped off slightly last season.

    Furthermore, it appears that the Buffalo Sabres finally have an owner who is willing to spend money on players in order to win. But the acquisitions of Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, and Ville Leino aren’t going to mean much to the improvement of the Sabres if Miller can’t play at an All-Star level.

    The time is now for the Buffalo Sabres and the soon to be 31-year-old Ryan Miller to contend for a Stanley Cup. If this is going to happen, Miller is the most important Sabre who needs to step his game up.

Cam Ward

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    After a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes have missed the playoffs the last two seasons.

    But they haven’t missed out on the postseason by very much and if Cam Ward can give the Hurricanes just a few more timely saves, their regular season fortunes might turn around.

    The Hurricanes have had a similar team on paper for the last three seasons. In this time, the individual statistics of Cam Ward have proven to have a direct correlation to the success of the hockey team.

    In 2008-2009, Ward posted a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.44, and the Hurricanes made the playoffs as the sixth seed in the East. Ward then outplayed both Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas in the first two rounds of the playoffs as the Hurricanes upset the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins.

    In 2009-2010, Ward missed several games due to injury and managed just a 2.69 GAA when he was healthy. As a result, Carolina finished 11th in the conference and missed the playoffs.

    However, in 2010-2011 Ward’s GAA improved to 2.56 and the Hurricanes still missed the playoffs but finished ninth in the conference. Another step in the right direction for Cam Ward could bring the Hurricanes back to the playoffs, so it’s imperative to his team that he steps his game up.

    The other reason Ward should step up his game is because he is currently being paid $6.3 million per year. That’s the second highest annual salary in the entire NHL amongst goaltenders, and while Ward has performed fairly well over the last few years, he certainly hasn’t played like the second best goaltender in the league.

Jonathan Quick

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    In his three seasons as the starting goaltender for the L.A. Kings, Jonathan Quick has put up admirable numbers. However, the playoffs have been a different story. His goals-against average in both 2010 and 2011 have been well over 3.00 in two first-round losses.

    This summer the Kings have improved their roster by adding Mike Richards, and young stars like Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are only getting better. But the goalie position is still unclear for the Kings because Quick hasn’t proven that he has what it takes to lead his team on a long playoff run.

    There is also pressure on Quick to step up because his backup is a 22-year-old former first-round draft pick by the name of Jonathan Bernier. At one point, Bernier was thought of to be the goalie of the future in L.A. and he played well in his 25 games last season.

    So even though Quick is the Kings starting goalie right now, he only has two years left on his contract and if he doesn’t step it up, he won’t get a new deal from Kings GM Dean Lombardi.

Jose Theodore

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    It seemed far-fetched at this time last year to think that Jose Theodore would ever be on a list involving some of the most significant NHL goaltenders ever again.

    He was without a contract until just one week before the 2010-2011 NHL season began until Josh Harding, the backup of the Minnesota Wild, seriously injured his right knee. Even then, Theodore played in only 32 games and had average statistics.

    But this season the Florida Panthers have given the veteran a chance to be their No. 1 goalie. If Theodore wants to prove he can still play at a good enough level to be a full-time starter, he needs to step his game up.

    Theodore also needs to step his game up for the Florida Panthers to have any hope of making the playoffs. The Panthers have spent a lot of money this offseason to bring in other players with hopes of turning their franchise around.

    Their chances at a postseason berth in 2012 are still slim, but anything is possible if Theodore can step his game up and re-discover some of his magic from earlier in his career.

Mike Smith

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    In 2007, Mike Smith was a 25-year-old backing up Marty Turco in Dallas and was considered to be one of the best non-starters in the NHL. So when the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired him in a trade in February of 2008, they had high hopes for Smith to be their goalie of the future.

    Unfortunately, they never materialized as Smith never played more than 42 games in a season for the Lightning and couldn’t solidify himself as their No. 1 guy in net.

    But now that Ilya Bryzgalov has left Phoenix, Smith has been given another chance to be the starter with the Coyotes. He has big shoes to fill as Bryzgalov was the Coyotes MVP the last two seasons, in which the team made the playoffs both times.

    Smith’s numbers have always been decent at the NHL level, but if he wants to keep the Coyotes in the playoffs, he must step his game up significantly. He also needs to step it up in order to prove he can be a starting goaltender at the NHL level.

Steve Mason

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    In the 2008-2009 season, Steve Mason was outstanding. He performed as well as a rookie goalie could and won the Calder Trophy with 10 shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.29. He also helped the Columbus Blue Jackets reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

    However, Mason’s next two seasons were dreadful and the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs both times.

    It’s hard to pinpoint what has gone wrong with Mason over the last two years and not many people are sure if he’ll ever get back to the rookie sensation he was in 2008-2009.

    The Blue Jackets are definitely hoping he can because they spent a lot of money recently to acquire players like Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski with the hopes of improving.

    Steve Mason needs to step up his performance this season to help his team get back to the playoffs but also to prove that he can still be a productive NHL goalie.

    Mason becomes a restricted free agent in two years, and if he wants to get another seven-figure contract, he’ll have to prove he’s more than just a one-year wonder.

Jaroslav Halak

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    The St. Louis Blues, much like the Columbus Blue Jackets, have a legitimate chance of getting back to the playoffs in 2012 if everyone can stay healthy. They just acquired veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, so it’s clear they’re serious about winning.

    But in order to win consistently, they’ll need to get All-Star calibre goaltending from Jaroslav Halak.

    This isn’t implying that Halak wasn’t good last season for the Blues because he was. But if the Blues want to make a return to the playoffs in 2012, Halak will need to play like he did in 2010 when he carried to Montreal Canadiens to the playoffs and then single-handedly won the two rounds once they got there.

    St. Louis has the potential to be a very good team. But they need their Slovakian sensation to step his game up once again this season.

Roberto Luongo

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    Roberto Luongo posted a 2.11 goals-against average, a 9.11 save percentage and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this year. So why does he need to step his game up in 2011-2012?

    Look no further than the Vancouver Canucks four losses to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals to find your answer. Luongo gave up 18 goals in those four games and proved that he still needs to be more consistent in big games in order to silence his critics.

    The Canucks will once again be a serious Stanley Cup contender in 2011-2012, and for them to win it all, everyone has to be at the top of their game, especially the goalie.

    Luongo will obviously have to be good in the regular season, but it’s the postseason where he needs to step up his game the most.

Cory Schneider

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    You might be wondering why the backup to one of the best goalies in the world is on this list. But if you followed the Canucks throughout the 2010-2011 season, you’d know that the presence of a backup as good as Cory Schneider played a big role in the Canucks success.

    Schneider was great in his 25 games last season. He was the main reason the Canucks could afford to give Roberto Luongo more nights off than ever before and Luongo was better as a result.

    But at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Finals, Luongo mentioned how tough the playoffs are mentally. Therefore, the best way the Canucks can mentally prepare Luongo for the playoffs might be to rest him more during the regular season.

    That's why they are going to need even more out of Schneider in 2011-2012 if they want to win the Stanley Cup.

    Another reason why Schneider needs to step his game up again in 2011-2012 is because this is the final year of his contract. He may only be a restricted free agent next year, but if he wants to get a raise or convince another team he’s capable of starting then he must keep playing well.

Semyon Varlamov

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    This might be the goalie on this list that needs to step up the most. The Colorado Avalanche made a very risky trade in order to acquire Semyon Varlamov from the Washington Capitals.

    At times in his young career, Varlamov has looked very good. However, his inconsistency caused him to fall to third on the Capitals goalie depth chart before he was traded.

    Varlamov’s second chance comes on a young Avalanche team that desperately needs their goalie to play at a high level. Two years ago, Craig Anderson was outstanding and back-stopped the Avalanche to the playoffs.

    Last season however, Anderson wasn’t as good and was traded to the Ottawa Senators and the Avalanche ended up with the second worst record in the league.

    It’s clear that the success of this team rests between the pipes. But the future of Avalanche GM Greg Sherman also may rest on Varlamov’s shoulders. If the team doesn’t perform well with Varlamov in net, the first-round draft pick Sherman gave to Washington in order to get Varlamov will be extremely high and will look terrible on his resume.

    The future of the Colorado Avalanche and their GM will be decided based on how well Semyon Varlamov performs. Oh and, of course, he’ll also have to play well to prove he can actually be a full-time starter in the NHL and have a successful future for himself.

Tomas Vokoun

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    Tomas Vokoun has always been one of the better goaltenders in the NHL. Now he finally gets a chance to win a Stanley Cup.

    The Washington Captials are one of the top contenders to win the cup in 2012, and they are counting on Vokoun to finally provide some stability in goal.

    There’s no reason why a talented veteran like Vokoun can’t step his game up and back-stop the Capitals to Stanley Cup glory. But he hasn’t had a chance to prove his value in the playoffs since 2007 when he played for the Nashville Predators.

    Vokoun will be judged more based on how he performs in the playoffs because the Capitals have had plenty of regular season success recently. But both Vokoun, who has never been out of the first round, and the team in front of him need to step it up in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    If they can, they’ll have a very realistic chance of winning it all.