If the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks have proven anything this season, it’s that you don’t have to know in October who your starter will be in April to be a successful club.
Back at the start of 2009-10, Antti Niemi was a little-known, undrafted first-year Finn who kicked off his season with a shutout overseas, but had a terrible .874 save percentage over his following four scattered starts that took us to November.
Michael Leighton wasn’t even on the Flyers roster in October and had allowed 25 goals in seven games – for an .848 SP – with Carolina before they let him get away on waivers in December.
In fact, of the Top 20 goalies ranked by THN in our season preview issue, one made the conference final (No. 11 Evgeni Nabokov), while six lost their starting jobs (No. 2 Tim Thomas, No. 13 Nikolai Khabibulin, No. 15 Marty Turco, No. 17 Chris Osgood, No. 18 Carey Price and No. 20 Vesa Toskala).
Five of the top 10 didn’t make the playoffs (No. 4 Henrik Lundqvist, No. 5 Niklas Backstrom, No. 6 Miikka Kiprusoff, No. 8 Cam Ward, and No. 10 Steve Mason) and of the four who did, only two made it out of the first round (No. 1 Roberto Luongo and No. 7 Marc-Andre Fleury).
When we picked Flyers to win the Cup, it obviously had a lot to do with the addition of Chris Pronger. But it also had a lot to do with the fact Ray Emery, a pariah returning to the fold, took the Ottawa Senators to the Cup final in 2007 and was supposed to finally (somewhat) stabilize Philadelphia’s goaltending for the first time in 30 years. Turns out he had little, if anything, to do with their success.
This all makes for interesting theatre on the free agent goaltending market this summer, as Nabokov, Turco, Dan Ellis and Chris Mason headline a crop that two years ago would have been described as ‘excellent.’
Just who will toss up starter’s dough for any of these guys? Where do they fit in? After the goaltending performances we’ve witnessed this year and with the underdogs we’ve seen starting Stanley Cup final games since the lockout, you’d think teams would be keener than ever to pull from their system and see what happens.
One of those teams rich in blue ice barriers is the Los Angeles Kings. At the start of the season, Jonathan Quick was emerging from a handful of prospect goaltenders showing some promise. Erik Ersberg was also in the conversation after splitting duty in 2008-09, as was Jonathan Bernier, the franchise’s American League keeper.
“There’s lots to be learned,” said Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford. “It takes time. I think the biggest thing we’ve learned in my four years with L.A. is don’t rush the guys – let them develop. It seemed to work so far.”
Eight months later, Quick posted a 39-win season, Ersberg was a credible backup and Bernier posted an AHL-best .936 SP to complement a 2.03 goals-against average that resulted in him being named the development league’s best netminder. Quick has three years remaining on a deal that pays him a manageable $1.8 million against the cap, while Ersberg (UFA) and Bernier (RFA) will be up for renewal in the summer of 2011.
So if this summer’s free agent goalie market is worth watching, the Kings’ goalie shuffle is an intriguing storyline that may have more implications on next year’s post-season than what happens July 1. One thing is for sure, it will be difficult to keep Bernier in a minor league he dominated so thoroughly this season, but at the same time, do you want him in the NHL if he’s only going to get spot duty?
“The reason we went the route we did this year was to make sure both guys (Bernier and Quick) were playing,” Ranford said. “Jonathan Quick has to prove he can come back with another strong season in the NHL and Bernier’s big thing is he has to prove he can play consistently at the NHL. Both guys will have good tests next year.”
Although Quick had a breakout season strong enough to warrant an Olympic team selection, his play fizzled down the stretch as he lost 10 of his last 13 regular season games and allowed 34 goals against. His post-season play was also drab with a 3.50 GAA and .884 SP. After the Kings took a 2-1 series lead on the Canucks, Quick allowed 13 goals in the next three games, culminating in a first round ouster.
Bernier, meanwhile, took his fourth-place Manchester Monarchs to the conference final where they were narrowly beaten by the powerhouse Hershey Bears. In a six-game series that included four overtime contests, Bernier allowed 15 goals. His post-season stats read 1.81 GAA, .939 SP.
So the Kings have some tough in-house goaltending decisions to make this summer and they’re far from the only ones. Ottawa, Toronto, Atlanta, Florida and Philadelphia could avoid the market by looking within the organization for a starter. Not to mention how Vancouver, Minnesota, Boston, Montreal, Washington and Chicago seemingly have their starters, with a backup capable of at least putting up a fight for the lead role.
All of which makes you wonder if Nabokov will find greener pastures outside of San Jose and whether Turco’s days as an annual multi-millionaire are up.
It also makes you wonder if Ersberg will be the odd-man out in L.A., perhaps becoming a discreet waiver-wire pickup by some team in the middle of next winter. Ersberg as a starter in the 2011 Stanley Cup final? 500:1 odds? Get your bets on the table now.
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