Once upon a time, there were three young goaltenders: Carey Price, Semyon Varlamov and Jonas Hiller. All three were tremendously skilled, but all three quickly discovered that a starting job in today’s NHL is not handed out freely.
Possibly the most frequently asked question in the THN Fantasy Mailbag and on my own website are ones asking for my thoughts on the goaltending situation in a certain city. The three most common ones being Montreal, Washington and Anaheim, although Toronto, Chicago and, more recently, Tampa Bay are not far behind. Let’s take a look.
The Golden Boy is Carey Price. A world junior gold medal, followed by an American League Calder Cup led to an NHL career as a 20-year-old. After a great rookie campaign, he continued to dominate last season. On Dec. 31, 2008, Price was 16-4-5 and had held opponents to two goals or fewer 18 times. That’s last year – just 10 months ago. Since then he is 10-18-5 after returning from a high ankle sprain.
Jaroslav Halak is a fantastic goalie in his own right. However, he wasn’t drafted fifth overall. Actually, he was barely drafted at all (271st overall in 2003). No matter how well Halak plays, Montreal’s brass really wants Price to succeed. Teams will always give a high draft pick more chances at stardom than a low draft pick. So even if Price gets blown out of the water a couple of times and Halak gets the call and starts winning, they will always go back to Price. If the youngster can ever string together a hot streak, then Halak, deserved or not, will ride the pine.
We hadn’t seen any indication of that until Price’s standout performance Thursday against the Bruins. If he rides the wave of confidence stemming from that victory he’ll have a great year with a good 55 to 60 starts. If he slips back into his early-season doldrums, you’ll see 40 starts and some pretty weak numbers. He makes a decent buy-low option in trade talks, as his owners are no doubt frustrated and there are 50-50 odds of a turnaround. In keeper leagues this especially holds true, as he will be just fine in the long term. After all, at the age of 22 the likes of Ryan Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff and about 20 other starters hadn’t even sniffed the NHL yet.
Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are goaltenders of the future, while Jose Theodore is the highly-paid former Vezina winner who is struggling. Varlamov took over the goaltending duties early in the post-season and carried the team. However, one thing that you have steadfastly heard from coach Bruce Boudreau over the past five months is that Theodore is the starter. His goals-against average and save percentage have been superior.
That being said, it is my opinion Varlamov will be the starting goalie for Washington by the stretch run (i.e. after the Olympics). The Caps win more often with him between the pipes and it’s all about winning. Regarding Boudreau’s frequent comments backing Theodore – that’s exactly what he is supposed to say. If you only show 99 percent confidence in a struggling and rather shaky goaltender such as Theodore, you run the risk of making things worse. The only cure is to remain steadfast in your support. When it’s time to announce a switch, you have to do it quickly, suddenly and painlessly. So one day in January or February you will see Varlamov ring off 20 starts in a row and you won’t have any warning.
Theodore is a free agent in the summer and the torch will be passed to Varlamov, who will then need to fight off the promising Neuvirth. But that’s a tale for another day.
The tale in this city is much more cut and dried, although poolies are having trouble letting go of a former Stanley Cup winner and four-time 30-game winner. Jonas Hiller carried the Ducks down the stretch last campaign and throughout the post-season. His numbers are far superior to J-S Giguere’s after the first month of 2009-10. Granted, Giggy has been hurt, but that’s one of just two things that are preventing the situation from being a slam dunk in Hiller’s favor.
The other is the fact Hiller is an unrestricted free agent this summer, whereas Giguere will be making $6 million in 2010-11. I can see this playing out in one of three ways and all of them involve the Ducks signing Hiller to an extension. Giguere will either be traded next summer for package that brings in a lot of salary (i.e. accepting another team’s salary dump), he will be bought out (a pretty expensive proposition) or he will remain the highest-paid backup in the league. But this is Hiller’s team now to the tune of 55 or 60 starts per season.
For what it’s worth, I think Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala will split the duties in Toronto going forward, as the team tries to showcase the latter and hope for a trade offer. I think Antero Niittymaki has already stolen the starting job in Tampa from Mike Smith and he will see 60 percent of the starts going forward. Injuries will hold him back from starting 70 or 80 percent of the time. In Chicago, I can see Antti Niemi taking advantage of a Cristobal Huet injury and getting the majority of starts down the stretch. He is a great candidate to stash on your bench until that happens.
Marc-Andre Fleury seems to sustain an injury every season and when that happens this campaign, your competitors will be flocking to pick up his backup goaltender Brent Johnson. Let them. While they’re doing that, you can just waltz in and snag John Curry, who would likely see more NHL starts than Johnson if such an injury occurs. The late bloomer is having another big season in the AHL, with a 5-2-1 record, a 2.20 GAA and .926 save percentage. He should be the backup in Pittsburgh next season after Johnson moves on.
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