It could be a matter of parity. Perhaps it’s a problem with perception.
But it’s virtually impossible to find any consensus when trying to identify who the NHL’s best goalie is. A straw poll of nine people with close ties to the league—one current goalie, seven former players (including five goalies) and a former coach—produced six different answers when asked Wednesday to name the goalie that would give a team the best chance to win the Stanley Cup this season.
Reigning champion Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller received two votes apiece while Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina’s Cam Ward got one.
Even though none of those names counts as a major surprise, it’s telling that the answers were so varied.
Interestingly, none of the goalies mentioned are among the handful who have set the league ablaze over the first couple weeks of the season: Jonathan Quick sports a 0.81 goals-against average through his first six starts for the Los Angeles Kings, including three straight shutouts; Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars and Tomas Vokoun of the Washington Capitals each remain unbeaten; and Nikolai Khabibulin is turning back the clock in Edmonton with a 3-0-2 record, 0.97 GAA and .963 save percentage.
What makes Khabibulin’s start so impressive is that it comes after a couple years of struggles with Edmonton.
“He has really knuckled down here and tried to do everything he possibly can to help a young group be better,” said Oilers coach Tom Renney. “It’s easy to be talkative and interactive and fun-loving and all that kind of stuff when you’re on the top of the heap. How are you handling it when it’s tough? When it’s tough on you personally. What type of leadership are you displaying then? What type of example are you then?
“He’s been nothing but a pro from start to finish, so this looks awfully good on him. I hope for his own sake, and naturally ours in the long run, that it still ends up that way at the end of the season.”
Of course, success can be fleeting, especially at the NHL’s most unpredictable position.
Fans of the Vancouver Canucks need not be reminded of that with the Roberto Luongo debate continuing to rage. The veteran goaltender is a notoriously slow starter but that hasn’t kept him from averaging more than 38 wins per season during his five years with the Canucks. The biggest difference this time around is how fresh the memory of a Stanley Cup disappointment—and Luongo’s role in it—remains.
Even Thomas has endured an up-and-down start to the year. The Bruins goaltender owns the most hardware among the six named in the straw poll (two Vezina Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the last three years), but was just 3-3-0 to start this season.
His record-setting 2010-11 season was one of the finest in history by a goaltender. Thomas set a new standard with a .938 save percentage in the regular season and followed it up with the most saves ever in a single post-season (798) and Stanley Cup final (238).
Even still, there are those close to the game who believe a team trying to win the Stanley Cup now would rather have Rinne, Miller, Lundqvist, Fleury or Ward.
So who is No. 1? Only the guy left lifting the Stanley Cup and only for a very brief moment in time.
ROOKIE WATCH: The moment of truth finally arrived for Mika Zibanejad, who was sent back to Swedish club team Djurgardens by the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.
That leaves four players drafted in June still skating with a NHL team: Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, New Jersey’s Adam Larsson and Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier.
With each of those players set to appear in his ninth game of the season in the coming days, they’ll each learn definitively whether they’re staying in the NHL this season or heading back to junior. Playing a 10th game burns the first year of a player’s contract.
A couple rookies from the 2010 draft class have already received good news this week. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announced Tuesday that forward Brett Connolly would remain with the team while FloridaPanthers GM Dale Tallon told reporters Wednesday that defenceman Erik Gudbranson was “likely” to stick around as well.
RED HOT: This is the James Neal the Pittsburgh Penguins thought they were acquiring from Dallas in February. The 24-year-old winger scored just twice in 27 games for the Penguins last season, including playoffs, but is off to a fine start with eight goals in 11 games this year.
That left him just one behind league leader Phil Kessel, off to a hot start with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second straight year. Kessel tends to be a streaky scorer but with nine goals already, he’s a good bet to challenge his career best total of 36.
With files from Robin Brownlee in Edmonton.