Goaltender continues to be hockey’s most fickle position. Unless your name is Andrei Vasilevskiy.
He won the 2019 Vezina Trophy after finishing third in the vote the previous year. But Pekka Rinne, the 2018 winner, slipped to ninth while 2018 runner-up Connor Hellebuyck didn’t even receive a vote. Meanwhile, the two 2019 Vezina finalists behind winner Vasilevskiy were Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, neither of whom received a single vote the year prior.
Success at the position has become virtually impossible to predict. That’s scary, as goalies remain extremely important. Look at how Jordan Binnington changed the St. Louis Blues’ fate last season. And the two “best defensive teams in the NHL,” the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars, actually ranked 12th and 16th in shots against per game – but ranked first and second in save percentage.
It’s thus crucial to improve your goaltending if it’s subpar, even if doing so involves a ton of guesswork. Which teams appear to have made the savviest improvements to their creases this off-season? Of the netminders who changed teams, I’ve ranked each one who has a strong chance to start at least half his new squad’s games in 2019-20. Ages are as of Oct. 1, 2019.
1. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (age 31)
A Panthers team that looked pretty talented on paper underachieved yet again in 2018-19, and goaltending was largely to blame. The banged-up battery, headed by about-to-retire Roberto Luongo, posted the second-worst team SP in the NHL last season at a putrid .892. It was thus money extremely well spent when GM Dale Tallon caught big-fish Bobrovsky for seven years and $70 million. That’s a lot of cheddar, but a two-time Vezina winner hitting on the open market while still in his prime hasn’t happened since Ed Belfour did it in 1997. Bobrovsky turns 31 in September, but 31 isn’t all that old in goalie years. Since changing his training regimen and losing weight to increase his flexibility starting in 2016-17, he’s been one of the NHL’s best and most durable stoppers, ranking second in games started, first in wins and second in SP among goalies with more than 30 starts over that span.
If there’s a concern for the Panthers, it’s that (a) they’ve been done in by slow starts in recent seasons and (b) ‘Bob’ was a nightmare last October, posting an .882 SP, and October is historically his weakest month, with a 2.88 goals-against average and .908 SP across 61 career games. Then again, even a .908 SP would be downright luxurious compared to the quality of goaltending the Panthers got last year. ‘Bob’ is a massive upgrade. Over the past three seasons, among goalies with at least 100 games played, he’s second in 5-on-5 SP, high-danger SP and goals saved above average per 60 minutes. He should add five wins to the Panthers’ total this coming season, propelling them to their first playoff berth since 2015-16.
2. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (age 28)
It was stunning to see Lehner change teams following a magical season in which he posted an incredible .935 SP in 5-on-5 play, finished third in the Vezina vote and won the Masterton Trophy after going public about his struggles with bipolar disorder. Particularly shocking was Lehner’s revelation that the Islanders signed Semyon Varlamov when, in Lehner’s mind, the negotiations were still alive.
But perhaps the Islanders didn’t view Lehner as a star of his own making. One of the only goaltenders whose advanced save metrics actually topped Lehner’s in 2018-19: his own teammate Thomas Greiss, who, minute for minute, was as good as any goalie in the NHL last season. That Lehner and Greiss both had the seasons of their lives simultaneously, coming off horrible years, might be the best testament of all to the power of goalie guru Mitch Korn. So if Korn, the mind who helped mold Dominik Hasek, Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby, was the real key to the Isles’ goaltending turnaround, maybe GM Lou Lamoriello could sleep easy walking away from Lehner.
Where does that leave Lehner and the Blackhawks, then? It’s not like Lehner will “unlearn” whatever Korn taught him, and Hawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite has been quite successful shepherding Corey Crawford, Scott Darling and even stopgaps like Jeff Glass in recent seasons. It’s also important to remember Lehner (a) has his mental health in a better place than ever now and (b) was always a top-tier prospect, expected to be a star, blessed with a powerful, puck-swallowing build at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. He’s arguably the purest raw talent Waite has had to work with in Chicago and, signing a one-year contract, Lehner will be just as motivated to dominate as he was last year. His numbers probably won’t approach last season’s, but he should at least remain a solidly above-average option. That’s important, as longtime Blackhawks starter Corey Crawford’s concussion history makes him a shaky bet month to month or even week to week. Lehner has a strong chance to start half Chicago’s games if not more.
3. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders (age 31)
If you subscribe to the Korn theory, the Isles should turn Varlamov into a star this year. Injuries and ineffectiveness have rendered him mediocre of late, and he lost the Colorado Avalanche crease to Philipp Grubauer in 2018-19, but isn’t Varlamov’s game in a better place than Greiss’ and Lehner’s were a year ago? Theoretically, Korn’s new pupil arrives at a better starting point. Across the past three seasons, among 77 goalies with 1,000 or more minutes played at 5-on-5, Varlamov ranks 41st in goals saved above average per 60 minutes at -0.01. That puts him close to the league average. He ranks 16th in shots against per 60 minutes over that span, so he’s been a pretty busy goalie, having played on a few defensively leaky Colorado teams.
He should be a decent stopgap to replace Lehner this coming season, and Varlamov should eventually be a mentor to countryman and top Isles goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin, who could ascend to the NHL by 2020-21 after Greiss’ contract expires.
The knock on Varlamov is durability. He sustained season-ending groin, hip and knee injuries in 2014-15, 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively. He hasn’t crested 50 starts since 2015-16. He won’t necessarily have to with the Isles but, for four years at a $5-million AAV, it would be nice to know he could if called upon.
4. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Age 37)
Peter Chiarelli fired off one final shot before being ousted as Oilers GM, signing goaltender Mikko Koskinen to a three-year extension as a $4.5-million AAV Jan. 21, then getting pink-slipped Jan. 23. It was quite possibly the biggest contract for the smallest sample size in the entire salary-cap era. Koskinen has been mediocre at best, and his deal might have been the reason new GM Ken Holland couldn’t lure a better goaltender than Smith this off-season. The cap space just wasn’t there.
So is Smith an upgrade over Koskinen – or Cam Talbot, who switched teams with Smith and joined the Calgary Flames? Smith, 37, remains a sublime puckhandling goaltender, but he posted the lowest SP of his career last season at .898. And it’s not like the sample size was itty-bitty at 40 starts and 42 games. Among 56 goalies who logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Smith was 50th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes. He was one of the league’s weakest puck-stoppers, period. But Koskinen was a subpar 38th in the same stat, so his grip on the starting job is hardly tight. Smith is still capable of getting hot when his body is co-operating. He posted a .917 SP during Calgary’s five-game loss to Colorado in Round 1 of the 2019 playoffs, including a shutout in Game 1 and three outings with a .923 SP or higher. If the Oilers end up a better team than expected, they could turn to the more seasoned Smith in higher-stakes games just as Calgary did when it nudged David Rittich aside.
THE ‘BACKUPS OR MORE?’ TIER
These new-team netminders could carve out significant workloads:
1. Cam Talbot, Flames – Rittich was pretty good last year but not good enough for Calgary to trust him in the playoffs. Door is open if Talbot rediscovers 2016-17 form.
2. James Reimer, Hurricanes – Petr Mrazek caught fire in second half last season, but if there’s one thing he’s known for, it’s inconsistency. If he struggles early, Reimer should see plenty of work.
3. Curtis McElhinney, Lightning – No one’s displacing Vasilevskiy, but the Lightning will want to manage their star’s workload. That should mean 20 starts or more for McElhinney, one of the league’s better backups.
4. Keith Kinkaid, Canadiens – Signed simply as a failsafe behind Carey Price, but good health never a guarantee for him. Pattern the past five seasons: healthy, hurt, healthy, hurt, healthy…
All advanced statistics courtesy of naturalstattrick.com
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