News item: Ken Hitchcock gets fired in Columbus less than a year after being celebrated for getting his team into the playoffs.
News item: Brian Burke executes blockbuster trades in Toronto.
News item: The Boston Bruins drop nine consecutive games and fall to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
The common thread that binds the recent big stories? Somewhere, a goalie lurks in the picture.
In Columbus, Steve Mason is suffering through a sophomore slump. His slide is not the sole reason for Hitchcock’s departure, but if last year’s Calder Trophy winner had been able to repeat his 2008-09 heroics, Hitchcock would still be employed in Ohio.
In Toronto, Burke reached to his past to grab Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the hopes he can stabilize the Leafs’ woeful net situation. A one-time Conn Smythe winner, Giguere has been just average the past couple seasons. The man for whom he was dealt, Vesa Toskala, has the worst save percentage by far among league stoppers. At one time, Toskala was viewed as a saviour in southern Ontario.
In Boston, Tim Thomas has been unable to duplicate his Vezina Trophy showing. He hasn’t been brutal, but he hasn’t consistently flashed the fabulous form that helped make Boston a feel-good story last season.
The point? High-level netminding, so crucial to a team’s fortunes, is difficult to find, but even tougher to sustain year-over-year. A goalie can make a coach or GM look brilliant, or he can facilitate a firing. And it’s only the very rare superstar who is able to consistently stay at the crest of the position.
Check out some recent history for further proof. Thomas, Mason and Niklas Backstrom finished 1-2-3 in Vezina voting last year. We’ve already touched on the fate of the former two; Backstrom ranks 36th in save percentage this season, just barely above the .900 mark.
Atlanta has been waiting forever for Kari Lehtonen to prove he was worthy of a second overall selection; Carey Price, supposed the be the Next One, is still trying to get back on that trajectory; each time Philadelphia believed it found a steady stopper over the past couple decades, turns out it hadn’t; Marty Turco has at times been among the best goalies in the league, at others the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs; the disparity is even greater for Stanley Cup champ Chris Osgood, an apparent Hall of Famer during some stretches, a world-class sieve in others. You get the point.
Why the wild variances? Perhaps the chasm isn’t that wide after all. The line between what is perceived as good and bad may in fact be ultra-slim. When a forward makes a mistake, it’s easily overlooked. When a defenseman makes one, there’s a chance it could lead to a goal against. When a goalie commits an error, it’s a red-light special.
As we heard one struggling goalie say, his objective was simply to make one additional save each game. Consider the math. A netminder who stops 27 of 30 shots posts a save percentage of .900. If he allows one more goal, stopping 26 of 30, the SP plummets to .867. If he makes two extra saves per game, all of a sudden he’s in Dominik Hasek territory at .933.
The really good ones, such as Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov and Henrik Lundqvist are able to make that extra save consistently, each and every year. They have the mental toughness, confidence, fitness level and, of course, skill set that set them apart. And when a GM thinks he has found that, he’d be well-advised to never, ever let it go.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
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