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Crease Concerns: Five netminders struggling to find their game

It’s the most important position on the ice, and the early season performances from these five keepers has left much to be desired.

The Calgary Flames have seen two versions of Mike Smith.

The first showed up during the first half of the 2017-18 campaign, which came in the aftermath of Mike Smith’s acquisition from the Arizona Coyotes. At the time, the veteran keeper looked like a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate and there was an argument to be made that he could have even been in the Hart Trophy conversation. By the all-star break, he was sporting a .926 SP and had gone 17 consecutive games allowing three or fewer goals.

But the back half of the year was disastrous for Smith, the Hyde to his early season Jekyll. Half a dozen games after the break, Smith found himself on the sidelines with a groin injury, and the ailment kept him out of action for 13 contests. When Smith finally returned, his play was ugly. In eight games, he posted an .880 SP and lost five straight starts at a crucial point in the campaign as the Flames missed out on the post-season by more than a dozen points. His final 14 outings, Smith posted an .886 SP.

However, there was hope entering this season that a reconfigured blueline, additions up front and a new bench boss in Bill Peters would help Smith recapture the form from the front half of last season. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken long for Smith to set fire to those hopes. Five times in seven starts this season, the 36-year-old netminder has allowed four or more goals against and already there has been a pair of outings in which he’s been yanked in favor of backup David Rittich. Of all the poor outings has had to start the season, though, none have been as tough to watch as Thursday’s contest.

With the Penguins in town, Smith got the nod, but the star-studded Pittsburgh offense proceeded to pick apart the Flames goaltender. In the first frame, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust found twine. The second period saw Hornqvist get his second of the night, a tally that was bookended by a pair of Phil Kessel markers before the midway point of the frame. And just like that, having allowed six goals on 21 shots through less than half a game, Smith’s night was over, with the Penguins’ offensive outburst dropping Smith to an .866 SP on the season. It's the worst among goaltenders with five games played.

Smith’s poor play has been cause for concern for the Flames, who have become all-too-familiar with poor goaltending sinking promising seasons over the past several years. Calgary can commiserate with a few others teams, though, as these four netminders have also disappointed with their early play:

Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers
Shocking to see a Flyers goaltender on a list of underperforming netminders, right? Philadelphia has long been associated with goaltending greatness, a city where top flight puck stoppers have come a dime a dozen. The Flyers have never had issues in goal. Nope. Never.

Jokes aside, though, Elliott is having a tough go of it in the early going, but his start to the season — he an .886 SP and 3.39 goals-against average in eight games — is really a microcosm of his entire tenure Philadelphia. The hope when Elliott arrived was that the Flyers would be getting the league-leading netminder he had during his final season in St. Louis in 2015-16. Instead, it’s Philadelphia that’s been signing the blues as they’ve watched Elliott turn in a .905 SP in 51 games for the Flyers. That’s not to mention his atrocious .856 SP in four playoff games last spring, either.

There’s hope yet for Elliott, however. The Flyers have been a fairly limiting team defensively, allowing the ninth-fewest shots against per game and they don’t give up all that much in terms of scoring or high-danger chances. If they can insulate Elliott just a bit better, maybe he can find his game. Or maybe a returning Michal Neuvirth can bring some consistency to the Flyers’ crease.

Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers have a great many issues. The offense is far too reliant on Connor McDavid. The defense is thin at the best of times, and the off-season injury to Andrej Sekera definitely didn’t help matters. Their mascot is a murder cat. But one of the most obvious problems in Edmonton has been the play of Talbot.

Two seasons removed from finishing fourth in Vezina voting, a well-warranted result that came on the heels of a 73-game, 42-win campaign in which he posted a .919 SP, Talbot is again struggling to find consistency in the crease. In fact, heading into Thursday’s contest against the Washington Capitals, Talbot’s .891 SP was among the worst when it came to starting netminders. That his 31-save performance only raised his SP to .901 means he still has a way to go, too. It also seems worth noting that Talbot has now posted a .907 SP and 3.01 GAA in his past 75 games.

The bright side for the Oilers is that they’re winning games right now in spite of Talbot’s performance. That’s not ideal, of course, but Talbot has helped Edmonton pick up points in four of his past five starts. Plus, Talbot has posted a .920 SP or better in three of his past four games. He could be heading in the right direction.

Brayden Holtby, Washington Capitals
It’s been eight games, so what’s the big deal, right? After all, Holtby is fresh off of backstopping the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. That’s worth some leeway from the Washington faithful, leeway which Holtby is most certainly getting for the time being. Eventually, though, the Capitals and their fans are going to want to see more from Holtby, and his regular season performances since the start of the 2017-18 campaign are starting to get a bit concerning.

From 2014-15 on through 2016-17, Holtby had been a Vezina mainstay, finishing no lower than fourth in voting over the three campaigns and earning the award in 2015-16. But the voodoo that is goaltending struck last season and saw Holtby regress in a big way. Following his best full-season performance, Holtby turned in a mediocre-at-best .907 SP in 54 games for the Capitals, with his play resulting in the since-departed Philipp Grubauer getting the nod to start the post-season.

Holtby’s post-season play, however, gave hope that he would again flip the switch this season. Instead, he’s struggled mightily, posting an .888 SP in eight starts, and his consistency hasn’t been there. After shutting out the Bruins on opening night, Holtby has only allowed fewer than three goals in two of his past seven games and he was absolutely walloped last weekend in a shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, giving up four goals on 11 shots before getting the hook.

The Capitals are all in on Holtby. He’s their guy, especially with Grubauer now in Colorado. But Washington needs their starter to get back to being the ‘Holtbeast.’

Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
One reason why Columbus looked like a potential Metropolitan Division winner is that they have arguably the best goaltender in the NHL right now. Over the past three seasons, Bobrovsky’s .922 SP was the third-best mark of the 39 goaltenders to start at least 100 games, his 13 shutouts were the fifth-highest total and only six goaltenders had won more games. Bobrovsky also entered this campaign with back-to-back top-10 Vezina Trophy finishes, which included him winning the award and finishing third in Hart voting in 2016-17. If anyone was expected to perform for Columbus, it was Bobrovsky.

And that’s what makes his start so shocking. Through his first six starts, he’s been surprisingly subpar, posting an .872 SP with a GAA that’s floating close to four. In a way, he looks closer to Playoff Bobrovsky right now — he’s a career .891 SP netminder in 24 playoff games — than he does the top-tier netminder to whom the Blue Jackets have become accustomed.

Bobrovsky’s poor play is an issue for a multitude of reasons. First, it’s putting a serious damper on the pre-season projections for this Columbus team. Second, it’s not lending much support to the idea that the Blue Jackets should hold onto Bobrovsky, not to mention Artemi Panarin, with both hands through the trade deadline. And third, even if Columbus were to deal Bobrovsky, would they really get full value for him if he’s playing like this come deadline day? It’s still far too early to make any bold proclamations one way or the other on Bobrovsky, but his turn around might be the most important of any netminder for the short- and long-term future in Columbus.

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