5 Reasons the Northeast Division Is Home to the NHL's Best Goaltending

Shawn Hutcheon@@ShawnHutcheonContributor IIAugust 25, 2011

5 Reasons the Northeast Division Is Home to the NHL's Best Goaltending

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    The National Hockey League has a long, rich history of world-class goaltending. The league and its observers have been trying to find ways to increase goal scoring for some time now. Some of the ideas that have been bandied about and experimented with have been smaller nets, smaller goaltender equipment and larger offensive zones. One thing that has not been mentioned by many people is that maybe shooters are not scoring at a high rate because the league's goaltenders are the best they have ever been.

    Coaching, new techniques and lighter equipment have contributed to this. The days of putting the kid who is the weakest skater between the pipes are over. Today's goaltenders are some of the best athletes on their respective teams. They need to be great skaters, quick, agile and physically strong to withstand the speed and rigors of the position.

    We have the pleasure of watching world class athletes such as Pekka Rinne, Antti Niemi, Jonathan Quick, Roberto Luongo and Miikka Kiprusoff in the Western Conference. In the East, fans have grown accustomed to the outstanding performances of Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.

    It is no coincidence that three of those goaltenders—Miller, Price and Thomas—play their trade in the Northeast Division. It is the division where the top starting and backup goaltenders, as a group, reside.

    Let's examine who they are and how the teams in the division obtained the best goaltending in the NHL

Ottawa Senators: Craig Anderson Is Reforming Parliament Hill

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    Craig Anderson arrived in Ottawa from the Colorado Avalanche on February 11, 2011, just before the National Hockey League trade deadline. To say he saved the season may not be as absurd as it sounds considering the Sens finished in last place in the Northeast Division.

    Anderson was brought in as part of the fire sale that Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray conducted in order to rebuild the club for the future. Murray had no choice but to concentrate on the future after a dismal January, 2011. The team won just one game during the entire month.

    Anderson, a native of Park Ridge, Illinois, was traded for starting goaltender Brian Elliot and quickly settled things down in the crease. Anderson started 18 games for Ottawa. He was the goaltender of record for 11 wins, five losses and one overtime loss. Two of his 11 wins were shutouts. More impressively, the 30-year-old posted a 2.05 goals against average and a save percentage of .939

    Anderson, who was slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, impressed Senators management enough to earn a new four-year contract before he hit the free-agent market.

    Ottawa management has the luxury of deciding who will be Anderson's backup from three very capable candidates: veteran Alex Auld and rookies Robin Lehner and Mike McKenna. 

    Auld has been with Vancouver, Florida, Phoenix, Boston, Dallas, New York (Rangers), Montreal and is in his second stint with the Sens. Since 2001, he has performed in 223 NHL games and has amassed a record of 89-84-2-28. The 30-year-old returned to Ottawa on July 1, 2011 when he signed a one-year contract with the Senators. 

    Lehner is Ottawa's goaltender of the future. The Senators drafted him in the second round (46th overall) of the 2009 NHL entry draft.  While seeing action in eight NHL games in 2010-2011, the organization let the Swedish native hone his skills with their American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton where he led the Baby Sens to the 2010-2011 Calder Cup championship and was named most valuable player of the AHL playoffs. Ottawa signed the 20-year-old to a three-year, entry-level contract in March 2010.

    McKenna was a 2002 draft pick (6th round) of the Nashville Predators. The 28-year-old puck-stopper has been slow to develop and has spent the majority of his career in the American Hockey League. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, McKenna has been a starter at that level. He has appeared in 17 NHL games with Tampa Bay and New Jersey. McKenna has compiled an NHL career record of 4-9-0-1. The Senators signed him to a one-year contract in July 2011.

Toronto Maple Leafs: James Reimer Has Reached the Top of the Tree in Toronto

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    For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the future is now. General manager Brian Burke has rebuilt the Leafs into a young, physical, fast-skating team that is learning the NHL game together. The organization appears to be on the same page from top to bottom and exciting times may be coming to Air Canada Center sooner than expected.

    The chief reason for this anticipation is because of the solid and reliable play of goaltender James Reimer. The Maple Leafs drafted the Manitoba native in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 2006 NHL entry draft. After learning his craft in the ECHL and the AHL, Reimer began the 2010-2011 season as the Leaf's third-string netminder. His persistence and dedication paid off with an ascent to the role of starter.

    Reimer played in his first NHL game on December 20, 2010 against Atlanta. He would appear in 37 games with Toronto. The 23-year-old puck-stopper was named NHL Rookie of the Month in March 2011. He would emerge from the season with a record of 20-10-5. He amassed a goals against average of 2.60 to go along a save percentage of .921.

    Reimer is a crowd favorite in Toronto. He is giving the masses reason to believe in their team again. Maple Leaf management agrees with those fans. They rewarded Reimer with a three-year contract in July 2011.

    Reimer's backup heading into training camp appears to be Swedish native Jonas Gustavsson.

    Signed as a free agent by Toronto in the summer of 2009, "The Monster" as he is called throughout hockey circles, has seen NHL action in 65 career games. He has recorded 22 wins, 28 losses and 11 overtime losses.

    The 6'3" goaltender began last season as J. S. Giguere's backup. Injuries and a heart problem restricted Gustavsson's progress, and he ended the season as Reimer's back up.

    Gustavsson has the ability and experience (2009 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and 2010 Olympic Winter Games) to fill in for Reimer if/when necessary and steer the Maple Leafs ship through any type of NHL waters they may face. He is also capable of winning the starting job in training camp.

    Whoever emerges as the No. 1 puck-stopper in Toronto, he will be up to the task every time the puck is dropped.

    If the Leafs fail to make the playoffs in 2011-2012, goaltending will be the least of their concerns.

Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller Is as Sharp as They Come

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    Let's see, Hobey Baker Award, check. Starting NHL goaltender, check. NHL All-Star, check. Winter Classic participant, check. Franchise record holder, check. Olympic medal, check. Olympic tournament Most Valuable Player, check. Vezina Trophy, check. Ryan Miller has accomplished more than most NHL goaltenders, but one thing is missing from his resume, the Stanley Cup. 

    Miller has been a member of the Buffalo Sabres for his entire eight-year NHL career. He has led his club to the Stanley Cup playoffs four out of those eight seasons but has not had his day with hockey's holy grail. 

    Miller arrived in Buffalo from Michigan State University in 2002 after a record-setting career with the Spartans. In 399 NHL games, Miller has compiled a record of 221-126-1-41. His career goals against average is 2.57. His NHL save percentage is .914. 

    Miller, a native of East Lansing, Michigan, battled an unspecified injury at the end of the 2010-2011 season that lingered into the playoffs. He led the Sabres to a seven-game opening-round series against Philadelphia, but the Sabres lost the series.

    The 31-year-old netminder has played a lot of hockey during the last two seasons; however, no one is questioning whether Miller will bring the Sabres back to the playoffs. The only question surrounding him is how long will it be before he and his teammates win the Stanley Cup?

    Miller will be backed up by 23-year-old Jhonas Enroth. Enroth was drafted by Buffalo in the second round (46th overall) in the 2006 NHL entry draft. He remained in his native Sweden until signing a three-year entry-level contract with the Sabres in 2008.

    After spending the 2008-2009 season with Buffalo's AHL affiliate in Portland, Enroth joined the Sabres for one game in 2009-2010, which was a loss to Boston.

    He enjoyed better fortune in 2010-2011. He went 9-2-2 in 14 appearances with the Sabres. His performance warranted one playoff game against Philadelphia in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    Perhaps no National Hockey League team has made more significant changes to its roster during this offseason than the Buffalo Sabres.

    With Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth stopping pucks, the Sabres may be an elite NHL team for many years to come and at some point, Stanley Cup champions. 

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price Can Lead Habs to Cup No.25

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    When it comes to the world of professional sports, the most difficult job on Earth may be that of goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens. 

    Aside from being the center of attention every night he steps on the ice, Carey Price is also being judged against some of the game's greatest legends. It is inevitable that when one mentions Montreal goaltenders, names such as Jacques Plante, Gump Worsley, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy are reverently discussed. Carey Price wants to be included with those names, but he needs to duplicate their feat of winning a Stanley Cup in order to be looked upon as their equal.

    When Price joined the Canadiens, there were very high expectations surrounding him. He had been drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 2005 NHL entry draft. He remained with his junior club, the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, for the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons.

    2006-2007 proved to be a season to remember for Price. He was named Goaltender of the Year in the Canadian Hockey League, he backstopped Canada to the World Junior Hockey Championships Gold Medal and then took Montreal's AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs to the AHL championship. He was awarded the Most Valuable Player award of those playoffs. To say he set the bar high for himself is an understatement.

    Price has been with Montreal since the 2007-2008 season. It has been an up and down ride for the 24-year-old. Until the 2010-2011 season, the Anahim Lake, British Columbia native had trouble with playing consistently. Fans were growing tired of not knowing what to expect from him. It was in that 2010-2011 season that it all began to come together for him. Price posted a 38-28-6 record, tying him with Vancouver's Roberto Luongo for most wins by a goaltender. His goals against average was 2.35 and his save percentage was .923. Price had become a Vezina Trophy contender.

    Price would also lead his club to a seven-game Eastern Conference Quarter-Final playoff round against eventual Stanley Cup champion and arch-rival Boston.

    In 206 career games with Les Canadiens, Price has accumulated a record of 98-76-0-24. His goals against average stands at 2.60 while his save percentage is .916.

    In 2011-2012, Price's backup will be the highly capable Peter Budaj.

    Budaj signed a two-year contract with Montreal on July 1, 2011. He arrives in La Belle Province from Colorado where he spent all of his six-year NHL career with the Avalanche.

    Budaj reached the 100-career wins plateau in 2010-2011. His career record is 101-92-0-27 in 242 games. He has primarily served a backup throughout his career, giving him the advantage of always being prepared to step between the pipes and win games when called upon.

    Carey Price is, arguably, one of the top-five goaltenders in the NHL. Peter Budaj was a highly sought after backup on the free agent market. The Montreal Canadiens have the netminding to take them deep into the playoffs in 2011-2012.    

Boston Bruins: Tim Thomas Clawed His Way to a Stanley Cup

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    Quick, can you think of any NHL player who has taken a longer road to a Stanley Cup victory in the history of hockey? It only took hockey's newest superstar, Tim Thomas, 14 years and nine combined minor league and European teams for him to become an overnight sensation. 

    His story is well documented and was spoken of throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs on radio and television. If you are a parent or a coach of a player who is always hearing he cannot achieve his dream of becoming a professional hockey player, point them in Thomas' direction. 

    Thomas was drafted in the ninth round (217th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft by a team that no longer exists, the Quebec Nordiques. 

    With the exception of the 2009-2010 season, the Flint, Michigan native has made steady progress since he became an NHL goaltender with Boston in 2002. Thomas has made enough progress to have gone from a player no one in North America wanted to starting three consecutive NHL All-Star games, winning an Olympic Silver Medal, being named the Vezina Trophy winner twice (2009 and 2011), the 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and 2011 Stanley Cup champion. 

    After watching his performance in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, young goalkeepers around the world want to be the next Tim Thomas.

    Thomas' story will make a great movie one day.

    Thomas' backup is Finnish product Tuukka Rask. 

    Boston acquired Rask from Toronto on June 24, 2006. The Maple Leafs drafted Rask in the first round (21st overall) in 2005. The 24-year-old puck-stopper remained in Finland until the 2007-2008 season. He then honed his game with Boston's AHL affiliate in Providence. Rask played in five games between 2007-2009 with Boston, posting a 3-1-0-1 record.

    Rask became the starter with the Bruins in 2009-2010. He had a stellar rookie season, accumulating a record of 22-12-0-5 and led the NHL with a 1.97 goals against average. His save percentage was .931. There was a widely held belief that Rask had permanently supplanted Thomas as the No. 1 netminder in Boston.

    Through a twist of fate, Thomas, who underwent offseason hip surgery, regained the starting goaltending job during the 2010 training camp. Rask was returned to backup status and went 11-14-0-2 in 2010-2011. 

    With the 2011 training camp on the horizon, Thomas' hip is no longer a concern and Rask has recovered from the knee surgery he underwent shortly after the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. 

    Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask make up the best goaltending duo in the National Hockey League. Both are determined to a repeat as Stanley Cup champions. With their experience, talent, confidence and return to good health, the odds are not against them.