When last season began, and hard as it may be to believe now, Connor Hellebuyck was the Winnipeg Jets’ backup netminder. In the opening game of the 2017-18 campaign, it was Steve Mason and not Hellebuyck who got the start. And even after Mason was pulled and replaced by Hellebuyck little more than 40 minutes into that contest, he found himself again watching from the bench during Winnipeg’s second contest of the season.
Of course, from there on out, the tide quickly turned. Hellebuyck started to take over in the crease, piled up the starts and when Mason found himself sidelined with a series of injuries, the Jets were more than happy to ride Hellebuyck to a franchise-best record and a playoff berth, which then became a deep run to the Western Conference final.
Granted, Hellebuyck’s situation was something of an outlier. The expectation all along was that the young netminder would, at some point, take over as the No. 1 job, and that he did so with such an incredible campaign made him a top candidate for the Vezina Trophy was simply the cherry on top.
But much like Hellebuyck last season, there are a number of goaltenders that will enter into the coming campaign with designs on moving up the depth chart. And while we’re not at all suggesting that any of the goaltenders listed below will be heading to Las Vegas to accept the Vezina, they could be the starting goalie for their respective teams by season’s end:
JONATHAN BERNIER, DETROIT RED WINGS
As he enters the final season of a six-year contract with the Red Wings, it can safely be said that the writing is on the wall for veteran netminder Jimmy Howard. Long considered as a trade chip for Detroit, albeit one that they’ve been unable to move, the Red Wings went out and brought in some insurance for the oft-injured keeper this summer when they inked Bernier to a three-year, $9-million pact. And while Bernier might not seem a sizeable upgrade over the incumbent Red Wings netminder, the numbers suggest differently.
When Howard, 34, has been healthy over the past few seasons, he has managed a halfway decent .912 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average across 123 games. But Bernier, though in a backup role, has been just as solid with a .912 SP and 2.75 GAA of his own. The difference? Bernier has more consistently average than Howard, who has only eclipsed a .910 SP once in the past five seasons. Bernier, meanwhile, has only one season below the .910 SP mark.
The two are all but certain to split time out of the gates, but if or when Howard stumbles — and if or when he falls injured — the crease is likely to fall into Bernier’s hands and it could remain that way for the next few seasons.
PETR MRAZEK, CAROLINA HURRICANES
From the Red Wings’ crease to the netminder who was once touted as its heir. Mrazek has seen a once incredibly promising career derailed in recent seasons due to nothing more than his own poor play. After bursting onto the scene in Detroit with a stellar .920 SP across his first 94 career appearances, Mrazek’s play has been the polar opposite in his next 89 games. His SP has slipped by nearly 20 points to a meager .901 across stints with the Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, his GAA has ballooned over the 3.00 mark and his confidence appears shaken at the best of times.
The good news, however, is the Hurricanes are putting some faith in the keeper, and that might be all it takes for Mrazek to get his game back on track. It wouldn’t have been all too shocking if the league as a whole passed on Mrazek after he posted unsightly numbers during his post-deadline stint in Philadelphia, but Carolina has brought him aboard to platoon with Scott Darling. The Hurricanes should be able to provide the 26-year-old with a good opportunity to rediscover his game behind a rock-solid defense corps and some promising offensive talent. And given how Darling’s last season went, Mrazek could end up as far and away the best option in the Carolina crease.
KEITH KINKAID, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Maybe it depends at which depth chart you choose to look, but in terms of salary, name value and expectation, Cory Schneider is and has been the No. 1 netminder for the Devils for some time now. The tides could be turning, however, as Schneider followed up one down year with another, which has grown into a cause for some concern in New Jersey.
The first suggestion that Kinkaid could be ready to wrest the starting job from Schneider came during the 2016-17 campaign when the Devils’ second-stringer bested the starting netminder in SP (.916 to .908) and GAA (2.64 to 2.82) while matching his two-shutout output. Last season proved that wasn’t some one-off from Kinkaid, either. Schneider again struggled to the tune of a .907 SP, 2.93 GAA and one shutout across an injury-shortened 40 games, but New Jersey rode Kinkaid for long stretches in the back half of the season and were rewarded with a .913 SP, 2.77 GAA and one-shutout performance from the 29-year-old.
Kinkaid’s rough performance in the post-season led to Schneider getting the final three starts of the Devils’ first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a match-up that New Jersey lost in five games, and it’s likely a healthy Schneider gets the call to start the year with the Devils projecting a bounce back year from a netminder who had a career .925 SP prior to posting consecutive forgettable seasons. If Schneider stumbles at all, though, Kinkaid will get the call and he looks more than ready to answer the call.
JUUSE SAROS, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Bold prediction? Sure. But there’s the distinct feeling that this could be somewhat of a transitional campaign between the pipes for the Predators, particularly given longtime starter Pekka Rinne is in the final season of his contract and getting a tad long in the tooth. He’ll turn 36 shortly after the season begins, and Nashville may want to start seeing what the 23-year-old Saros can do with a heavier workload.
However, the opportunity for Saros to overtake Rinne actually goes beyond age. While Rinne is coming off of a Vezina Trophy-winning season, one in which he posted a career-best eight shutouts to go along with a solid .927 SP and 2.31 GAA, he was as shaky as he’s ever been in the post-season and it was the fourth year in a row that teams have been able to unlock him in the playoffs. In 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18, three post-seasons that were two rounds or shorter for the Predators, Rinne’s SP was .909 or worse. And while he broke that up with a .930 SP during Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2016-17, it’s worth noting he was pulled twice against the Pittsburgh Penguins and posted a .888 SP in six games.
So, while Saros is a relative unknown, his .952 SP in four playoff appearances last season was promising, as was his ability to help Nashville find their footing each time he appeared in relief of Rinne. His .923 SP across 48 regular-season games is also promising, as is his .921 SP in the AHL over the past three seasons.
PHILIPP GRUBAUER, COLORADO AVALANCHE
Maybe this one deserves an asterisk of sorts, because it’s clear that Grubauer wasn’t acquired from the Washington Capitals with designs on him seeing only 20-or-so games as Semyon Varlamov’s backup. However, like Schneider in New Jersey, Varlamov is the longtime starter who has earned the right to be called the No. 1 for the time being. That said, the battle for starts between Varlamov and Grubauer could be one to watch this coming season.
Last season was a return to form for Varlamov, who played 51 games for the Avalanche and posted a .920 SP, 2.68 GAA and two shutouts after having his 2016-17 campaign marred by injury. Varlamov, too, has history on his side: in four of the past five seasons, Varlamov has been better than your average netminder despite Colorado’s struggles, tied for sixth with a .919 SP among the 29 goaltenders to play at least 200 games.
Grubauer has nowhere near that kind of resume, of course, but what he has accomplished across 100 games in the NHL is worth recognition. That’s particularly true of the past three seasons. Since becoming the full-time backup with the Capitals, Grubauer has started 63 games — including a career-high 28 this past season — and posted an excellent .923 SP, 2.25 GAA and six shutouts across 81 appearances. And with a three-year, $10-million contract that seems to suggest he’s viewed as the future in goal for the Avalanche, Grubauer is going to get every opportunity to prove he can translate his game from Washington to his new home in Colorado.