If you need evidence to illustrate the vagaries of NHL goaltending, look no further than Roberto Luongo, the guest editor of the Oct. 20 edition of The Hockey News. One minute you’re on top of the world, winning Olympic gold medals and being talked about as a Vezina Trophy candidate. Not long after, you’re fishing pucks out of the back of the net and making self-deprecating jokes on Twitter.
Let’s start with the following premise: There is no position wracked with more instability and less sustained excellence than that of goaltender. In terms of consistent performance these days, there’s Henrik Lundqvist and then everybody else. It seems that from one season to the next, teams have no idea what kind of goaltending they’re going to get. Where have you gone, six-time Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek? A goaltending fraternity turns its lonely eyes to you.
This is not an indictment of the quality of goaltending we’re seeing overall. Quite the contrary, actually. It’s probably as good as we’ve ever seen it in the history of the game. Goalies are better athletes than ever. They’re better coached and better protected than they have been at any other time. Which makes it more perplexing that they’re up and down so much in their career timelines.
Raise your hand if you truly know what kind of season Carey Price is going to have. Last season, he was sensational in the NHL and Olympics. Much of that was attributed to the influence of new Habs goaltending coach Stephane Waite, who helped pull Price out of the dumpster. Waite will be there again this season, but who’s to say the message will continue to stick? Would anyone be surprised if Price responded with a less-than-stellar season? Your trusty correspondent wouldn’t, if for no other reason than predicting the performance of goalies these days is a mug’s game.
In 2011, people were laughing at Colorado Avalanche GM Greg Sherman, not because they had no idea who he was, but because he had given up a first- and second-round pick for Semyon Varlamov. At the THN World Headquarters™ we all wondered who the Capitals were going to take with their lottery pick in 2012. They ended up picking 11th and took Filip Forsberg, who they shipped to Nashville to get Martin Erat. Yikes! Well, I’ll be if Varlamov didn’t emerge as one of the top goalies last season, rescuing an Avalanche team that was one of the worst possession teams and making them look much better than they actually were. This season? Who knows? It sure seems, though, that Varlamov is on a lot of lists of goalies who are primed to fall in 2014-15. Mike Smith of Arizona spent much of last season fretting about being on the Olympic team and, as a result, turned in an un-Olympic, subpar performance.
Five different goalies have won the Vezina the past five seasons. We haven’t seen that kind of turnover in 20-plus years. In a league where players have such trouble scoring, there is a dearth of goalies who can come up with top performances year after year. And because of that, teams are more judicious about spending money on them.
Look at the Anaheim Ducks. As it stands, the Ducks will spend $1.87 million on goaltending with Frederik Anderson and John Gibson splitting duties until one of them emerges. Contrast that with the Carolina Hurricanes, who will spend $8.55 million on Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin.
If Ward were a forward, the Hurricanes would be able to gulp, put him on the fourth line and grumble about him being overpaid. Not so when he’s a goalie. Can we expect a player upon whom so much is relied to carry his team year-in and year-out in today’s parity-laden NHL? As great as Ken Dryden was, there were nights he could have adopted his leaning-on-the-stick stance for the entire game and still allowed two or fewer goals.
So why is this happening? Could it be that today’s goalies are coached in the fundamentals so extensively they’ve become robots? Perhaps now when the puck is being moved around them so quickly, they’re so used to dropping and blocking that they can’t track the puck and read the play the way Hasek did. And because of that, they don’t use their athleticism/instincts the way Hasek or Curtis Joseph did to make saves that looked impossible.
Whatever it is, it’s fascinating. Corey Crawford, this season? Anyone? Anyone? While we’re at it, anyone have an idea how M-A Fleury, Ben Bishop, Steve Mason, Ryan Miller, Craig Anderson, Pekka Rinne and even Jonathan Quick are going to perform this season? If so, you stand to make a lot of money. And the rest of the NHL would probably appreciate you letting it in on your little secret, because it’s pretty much guessing at it, too.