In the span of one season, Winnipeg went from needing Steve Mason-shaped safety net behind presumptive crease heir Connor Hellebuyck to inking the 25-year-old netminder to a six-year, $37-million pact on the heels of a campaign in which he led the Jets to the Western Conference final, set the franchise win record and finished second in Vezina Trophy voting. Year over year, it was almost inarguably the greatest single-season turnaround a goaltender saw during the past campaign.
Not every netminder fared the same, though. For a few, one bad year was all it took for them to be left looking for work elsewhere. Take Robin Lehner, who now finds himself as the No. 1 for the New York Islanders. He was once the future in the Buffalo Sabres’ crease but was jettisoned as a restricted free agent. The same goes for Petr Mrazek, who went from heir apparent to the Detroit Red Wings’ starting gig only to be exposed at the expansion draft and eventually shipped off at the deadline before landing as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes. Similar fates befell Jaroslav Halak, Chad Johnson, Kari Lehtonen and others.
For several other keepers, though, last season’s poor performance is one that they are primed to erase from the collective conscience with a bounce back season in 2018-19. From all-world goaltenders to last-chance starters, here are five netminders in position to rebound this coming campaign:
CAREY PRICE, MONTREAL CANADIENS
Given his track record, no netminder had a more bizarre statistical campaign than Price. Heading into last season, Price had a career .920 save percentage, 2.40 goals-against average and was only two seasons removed from winning the Vezina, Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award. He had been remarkable, almost unbeatable, for the past four seasons and had earned himself an eight-year extension ahead of the campaign worth $10.5 million per season. So, to see him struggle the way he did last season verged on mind-blowing. Price finished the campaign with a career-worst .900 SP and 3.11 GAA and his 43.8 quality start percentage — starts in which he posted a SP higher than the league average — was 10 percent worse than any other season of his career.
This is Carey Price we’re talking about, though, and nothing about his body of work suggests last season’s performance is going to continue. He has a career .929 SP at 5-on-5, which is the best mark of any starting goaltender over the past 11 seasons. He has a career quality start percentage of nearly 58 percent. And he’s only one season removed from finishing third in Vezina voting. If any goaltender is a lock to put a bad season behind them, it’s Price.
BRIAN ELLIOTT, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
You have to feel for Elliott. Stuck as a split-time starter during his time with the St. Louis Blues, he’s finally earned his chance at a No. 1 gig over the past two seasons only for it to go sideways on him. He flamed out in spectacular and heart-breaking fashion in Calgary and followed that up by getting rocked in his first campaign as a Flyer before suffering similar fortunes in the playoffs. But not all is lost.
Last season, 36 netminders played at least 1,500 5-on-5 minutes, including Elliott. And of those netminders, there are only 10 who finished with a better 5-on-5 SP than Elliott’s .931 mark. If that’s limited further to 2,000-minute netminders, only six goaltenders were better than Elliott. He was excellent when the Flyers kept out of the box. The issue, of course, is that when Philadelphia was shorthanded, Elliott was atrocious posting a .816 SP, the worst among netminders to play 150-plus minutes on the kill.
The good news is there’s absolutely no reason to believe that poor shorthanded play will continue to haunt Elliott. He had a career .882 SP shorthanded coming into the past season, the seventh-best mark among 47 goaltenders with 1,000 penalty kill minutes since the start of the 2007-08 campaign. He’s been top quality on the PK, and if he improves there, he should shore up the Flyers’ crease in a hurry.
MATT MURRAY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Who picked Murray among potential top-five Vezina Trophy finalists prior to last season? Come on, you can safely admit it. It wasn’t a foolish choice given Murray was fresh off of posting a .923 SP, 2.41 GAA and four shutouts in 49 games of split-time duty in the Penguins’ crease. And with the reins all to himself with Marc-Andre Fleury off to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, there was seemingly not all that much standing between Murray and a challenge for top goaltender honors.
Unfortunately, however, the one thing that ended up killing his candidacy for the Vezina was his own mediocre play. Murray wasn’t outright bad, but he wasn’t altogether good, either. Only 19 of his 45 starts qualified as quality starts as his overall SP dipped by 16 points and his GAA rose by more than half a goal.
Murray’s track record suggests that’s an aberration, however. This past campaign was the first time since his penultimate major junior campaign in 2012-13 that Murray posted a sub-.920 SP across a 10-plus game span at any level or any competition. All of his longer term OHL, AHL and NHL performances have seen him play as one of the top netminders. Chances are that will continue when the 2018-19 season rolls around.
JAKE ALLEN, ST. LOUIS BLUES
It wouldn’t seem it, given the Blues finished with seventh-fewest goals against last season, but their goaltending was somewhat of an Achilles heel last season. Sure, Allen turned in an above-.500 record at 27-25-3, but in his second season with the reins as St. Louis’ starter, Allen’s SP dipped to .906 while his GAA rose to 2.75. It’s not as though there was a sizeable swing in the way the team played in front of Allen, either. In fact, the underlying numbers stayed largely the same from 2016-17 to 2017-18. Allen’s inability to shoulder the load, though, vaulted Carter Hutton into a larger share of the starts than the year prior and it was his play, not Allen’s, that truly resulted in St. Louis’ favorable goals-against total.
So, why does Allen recover? Well, his track record suggests he’s much better than what he showed last season. More than that, though, it’s the fact that his biggest downfall came not at even strength but on the penalty kill. His .834 SP with the Blues shorthanded was 30 points worse than his previous career low. So, despite actually posting a better even strength SP than the year prior, Allen’s overall numbers suffered. With a stronger kill in front of him, Allen should be much improved.
SCOTT DARLING, CAROLINA HURRICANES
A conventional bounce back campaign, one in which a netminder improves his SP by several points, would still leave Darling at the back of the pack when it comes to starting netminders. His first campaign as a Hurricane was atrocious. Suiting up in 43 games, Darling posted an .888 SP, 3.18 goals-against average and he had only 14 starts all season where he posted a single-game SP higher than the overall league average. Considering the amount of action he saw, his career rate suggested he should have had twice as many outings in which he proved himself a capable No. 1.
But Darling might have the easiest case for a bounce back year. Everything around the netminder seems to be in place. Carolina made a move to improve their defense corps by acquiring Dougie Hamilton and now boast one of the best bluelines in the NHL. Their forward group, while not top-tier, is responsible at both ends of the ice and has proven as such over the past few seasons. And Darling is going to have all the support he needs from the organization. They may have flirted with the idea of moving the netminder, but the Hurricanes are behind Darling and believe he can turn it around. He seems a safe bet given his career .923 SP before landing in Carolina would suggest he’s got much more promise than he’s shown thus far.
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