Forget about being a backup netminder, when the 2018-19 campaign started, Jordan Binnington was expected to be nothing more than a split-timer in the minor league. In fact, in The Hockey News’ Yearbook prior to the campaign, Binnington wasn’t even listed as one of the top three netminders on the St. Louis Blues. Those honors went to Jake Allen, Chad Johnson and Ville Husso, in that order.
That said, we couldn’t have known then what we know now, that Binnington would burst onto the scene midway through the campaign, take center stage, save St. Louis’ season and play a considerable role in leading the Blues to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Quite frankly, no one did. And if you are trying to assert that you had some sort of inkling that was bound to happen, you’re kidding yourself.
Binnington wasn’t the only depth chart dweller to shoot into the spotlight. In Calgary, where incumbent veteran stater was on an admittedly short leash, David Rittich managed to pry the Flames starting gig away for stretches, though eventually surrendered it again in the post-season. Before he was handed his inadvisable contract, Mikko Koskinen assumed the No. 1 spot with the Edmonton Oilers, who eventually sent Cam Talbot packing. And before the season was through, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Carter Hart, who wasn’t expected to see NHL action last season, was thrust into the top job due to injury and held it down for the back half of the season.
So, who are the keepers who will do the same this coming season? There are several potential split-time starters who could earn the lion’s share of the work, such as new Chicago Blackhawks netminder Robin Lehner or Thomas Greiss, who could unseat New York Islanders off-season signing Semyon Varlamov. But here are five goaltenders who stand to enter the season as clear-cut second stringers but could very well be the first choice by next April:
Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes
Maybe not an awfully bold suggestion given the 29-year-old finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting last season thanks to his play down the stretch, but with Coyotes No. 1 netminder Antti Raanta set to return from injury, Kuemper is likely to start the season second on Arizona’s depth chart. But given his success last season, would anyone be all that surprised if he were to start winning the bulk of his starts and give coach Rick Tocchet something to think about moving forward?
Goaltending can be what makes or breaks the Coyotes next season as they look to snap their post-season drought, and riding the hot hand is going to be a necessity. If last season was a sign of things to come, it might only be a matter of time before Kuemper and Raanta switch spots on a much more permanent basis.
James Reimer, Carolina Hurricanes
Reimer, 31, was always an odd fit in Florida. Stuck behind Roberto Luongo on the depth chart, he maxed out at 44 starts in the Panthers’ crease during his three seasons with the franchise and when the top job finally opened up following Luongo’s retirement, the Cats had their sights set on Sergei Bobrovsky, signing him and thus keeping Reimer second in command. Thus, he was shipped to the Hurricanes, where he now assumes the No. 2 role behind returning hero Petr Mrazek, who backstopped Carolina to their first playoff berth in a decade.
But here’s the thing: In 338 career games, Reimer has a .914 save percentage. Mrazek, meanwhile, has a .911 SP in 223 career games. The former has also been far more consistent across his career than the latter, and if Mrazek’s past inconsistency is any indication, there will be an opening at some point this coming season for Reimer to swoop in and take over.
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets
In some ways, Merzlikins is only the prospective No. 2 netminder in Columbus because he doesn’t have much in the way of NHL experience. Actually, scratch that. He doesn’t have anything in the way of NHL experience. He signed with the Blue Jackets late last season but didn’t see a single second of ice time in North America during the 2018-19 season. So, given last season’s backup, Joonas Korpisalo, has 90 games under his belt with a career .907 save percentage, we’re going to assume he’s the starter for now. How long that lasts is up for debate, though.
During his time with the Swiss League’s HC Lugano, Merzlikins, 25, was the circuit’s goaltender of the year twice and he was named a top-three player on the Latvian national team at three consecutive World Championship tournaments from 2016 to 2018. There are high hopes for Merzlikins, and he could fulfill those by replacing Korpisalo as the starter by season’s end.
Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings
A bold choice? Maybe, but if we’re taking last season’s numbers into consideration, it might not be one that is all that surprising. Longtime Kings starter Jonathan Quick battled injury last season, but even when healthy, his numbers were ugly. He sported a career-worst .888 SP by the time the campaign closed and his 3.38 GAA was the highest of his career.
But Los Angeles’ poor overall play didn’t impact Campbell, 27, in the same way. In fact, he was maybe one of the most surprising netminders in the NHL last season despite a subpar 10-14-1 record. In the 31 game she played, Campbell posted a .928 SP, 2.30 GAA and measured against the 56 netminders who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, his .46 goals-saved above average per 60 minutes was tied – with Robin Lehner, no less – for the sixth-best mark in the league.
The 2010 first-round pick struggled to find a fit early in his career, but he might be rounding into form in his late-20s.
MacKenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils
Since an outstanding run of play as the Devils’ last line of defense over his first three seasons with the organization, Cory Schneider has had difficulties remaining the starter. That is, of course, due in part to injury, but his numbers when healthy also haven’t supported his case. To wit, his SP has declined in each of the past three seasons and he has a .907 SP across his past 126 games played. So, that’s where Blackwood comes in.
In the past, it was Keith Kinkaid who supplanted Schneider, but backup duty now falls on Blackwood, who played well in his 23 appearances last season. He finished with a 10-10-0 record, boasted a .918 SP at season’s end and his 2.61 GAA was nearly half a goal better than Schneider’s 3.06 mark. The kicker here is that Blackwood’s GSAA was .24 per 60 minutes in 1,011 minutes of action at five-a-side. In 1,082 minutes at the same strength, Schneider had a negative-.30 GSAA per 60 minutes. Only seven 1,000-minute goaltenders were worse.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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