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Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Around the NHL, there are different schools of thought about the best way to manage the goaltending position.
It’s great to build a team around an elite netminder in his prime playing years, but that can also eat up significant salary-cap space. Without a capable backup who can provide relief when needed and step up if the starter gets injured, a team’s season can go south in a hurry—just ask the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens.
Whether it’s about preparing for all possible eventualities or simply trying to shuffle the deck during the offseason in the hopes of finding a more reliable goaltending situation, these seven teams are coming into the new season with some big question marks in net.
Here’s a look at the most unstable goaltending situations and how they might play out over the course of the 2017-18 season.
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Goaltenders: Backup Jonathan Bernier left as an unrestricted free agent after one season with the Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson, 24, is entering the second year of a three-year contract that will pay him $2.3 million. He’ll be backed up in 2017-18 by Ryan Miller, who signed a two-year deal for $2 million per season.
Notable factors: Gibson’s a terrific goalie, but he has a hard time staying healthy. He boasts a save percentage of .922 and 12 shutouts over his 118-game career, but his transaction page at The Hockey News shows 45 games missed during six separate periods since he debuted in the NHL in April 2014.
Injuries have knocked Gibson out of the playoffs in two of his four postseasons so far, including for the deciding Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the Nashville Predators last spring. The Ducks outshot the Predators 41-18, but Bernier surrendered four goals on 16 shots as Anaheim fell to Nashville by a final score of 6-3 and was eliminated from the playoffs.
Now 37, Ryan Miller is the second-oldest goaltender in the NHL behind Roberto Luongo, who’s 38. Miller missed 21 games with a knee injury during the 2014-15 season but has held up pretty well over the last two years, missing just 10 games while making 51 starts in 2015-16 and 54 in 2016-17 with the Vancouver Canucks.
Analysis: Miller is coming into Anaheim to provide a reliable veteran presence and some support for Gibson, but this will be his first time in a backup role.
If he plays well, will head coach Randy Carlyle be tempted to lean on him—especially if injuries become an issue for Gibson once again?
Also, at 37, will Miller be able to stay healthy all year? After missing the playoffs with Vancouver for the last two seasons, he will need to pace himself differently through the season if he hopes to be sharp when he could be called upon during the 2018 postseason.
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Goaltenders: For the second straight year, the Calgary Flames will be starting fresh with a new goaltending tandem.
Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson had their ups and downs last season, getting Calgary into the playoffs but then failing to win a single game. For 2017-18, the Flames will turn to former Arizona Coyote Mike Smith and one-time Carolina Hurricane Eddie Lack.
Notable factors: Calgary general manager Brad Treliving served as assistant GM of the Coyotes from 2003 to 2014. Smith was the team’s starting goaltender for the last three years of that period, and he backstopped the team on its franchise-best run to the Western Conference Final in 2011-12.
Smith hasn’t had a sniff of the playoffs in five subsequent seasons, but Treliving is hoping the 35-year-old can channel that 2012 playoff beast when he suits up for the Flames this fall.
Lack is also an interesting case. Originally undrafted, he appeared in 41 games in two straight seasons with the Vancouver Canucks before going into a tailspin after he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Kurt Dusterberg of NHL.com reported on coach Bill Peters’ dressing down of Lack early last March, when he summed up the goaltender’s performance as “not good enough.” The Swede answered back with a decent 6-3-1 record down the stretch, with a 2.09 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
The 29-year-old’s connection to the Flames links through head coach Glen Gulutzan. He was an assistant with Vancouver for three years, including Lack’s two seasons with the team.
Analysis: Both Smith and Lack have been outstanding at times, but goaltending is all about consistency. The Flames are rolling the dice on two players who are familiar to key thinkers in the organization.
Based on past roles, Smith should have the inside track on the starter’s job, but like last year with Elliott and Johnson, that could change quickly if the wins don’t come.
The Flames have taken steps to improve their defense, but the 2017-18 season could feel a lot like last year’s roller-coaster ride unless Smith and Lack play well all year.
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Goaltenders: No change for the Detroit Red Wings this season but no greater clarity, either. Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek return at a collective cap hit of $9.29 million, or 12.4 percent of the Red Wings’ cap space.
Notable factors: Howard’s personal numbers were excellent in 2016-17. His 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage were both the best single-season stats of his career. But the 33-year-old was limited to just 26 games due to a lower-body injury; and when he did play, he had a hard time delivering wins. His record for the season was 10-11-1.
Last year’s situation was a sharp contrast from 2015-16. At that point, Mrazek took the lead role with both goalies healthy, playing 54 games and delivering a record of 27-16-6.
Analysis: It was a surprise to see Mrazek, 25, left unprotected in the expansion draft. It was even more of a surprise that GM George McPhee didn’t claim him for the Vegas Golden Knights—particularly when he targeted minor league forward Tomas Nosek from Detroit’s unprotected list instead.
The Red Wings seem to be signalling that Howard will be their starter when they open the doors at the new Little Caesars Arena this fall, but what happens next is anybody’s guess.
This is the fourth season we’ll be seeing Howard and Mrazek battling each other for playing time. Goaltending is just one of the issues that looks to be telegraphing another tough year in Detroit.
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Goaltenders: The Florida Panthers have a new coach behind the bench in Bob Boughner and are trying to rebound from a season that saw them drop by 22 points in the standings.
They will hit the ice in October with the same goaltending tandem as last season—Roberto Luongo, now 38, and 29-year-old James Reimer.
Notable factors: For the first time in his three years in Florida, Luongo appeared in less than 60 games for the Panthers. His season ended in early March after he suffered a lower-body injury. Before that, he put up a respectable 17-15-6 record in 40 games.
One year ago, Reimer signed a five-year deal with Florida as an unrestricted free agent. In his first season, his personal numbers were a little better than Luongo’s, but he delivered basically the same results—two games above .500 with a record of 18-16-5 in 43 appearances.
Analysis: Luongo is now the oldest goaltender in the league. With Jaromir Jagr and Shawn Thornton gone, he’s also now the oldest player on the Panthers team.
Luongo has ended his last two seasons with injuries, which does not bode well for his durability at this stage of his career.
However, once Dale Tallon stepped back into his role as general manager last April, he told Craig Davis of the Florida Sun-Sentinel that “he expects Roberto Luongo to return as the No. 1 goalie despite the 38-year-old ending the past two seasons with injury concerns.”
At some point, the Panthers will shift from Luongo to Reimer as their No. 1. The question is whether it happens this season, and if so, how soon?
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Goaltenders: Steve Mason appeared in 58 games for the Philadelphia Flyers last season and delivered 26 of the team’s 39 wins. He moved on to the Winnipeg Jets as an unrestricted free agent.
Michal Neuvirth will be back for his third season in Philadelphia. He’ll share the crease with Brian Elliott, who signed a two-year deal as an unrestricted free agent after a disastrous playoffs with the Calgary Flames.
Notable factors: At first glance, it looks like the Flyers will have a stable setup for the next two seasons. Elliott’s 32 while Neuvirth is 29, and the former is earning slightly more—a cap hit of $2.75 million per season while Neuvirth gets $2.5 million.
Originally drafted in the second round by the Washington Capitals back in 2006, at one point Neuvirth was tracking to become the Capitals starter.
After being knocked down the depth chart by veteran Tomas Vokoun, the Czech was eventually rendered expendable by up-and-coming Braden Holtby. He went on to play for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders before landing in Philadelphia.
Elliott has had to fight for every second of playing time he has received.
Originally a ninth-round pick by the Ottawa Senators back in 2003, his career highlights came with the St. Louis Blues. Elliott shared the William M. Jennings Trophy with Jaroslav Halak as the tandem allowed the fewest goals in the league in 2011-12, and he became St. Louis’ go-to goalie when the Blues reached the Western Conference Final in 2015-16.
Analysis: If the Elliott who shows up in Philadelphia resembles the inconsistent netminder who lost his coach’s confidence in Calgary for a stretch of the regular season before flaming out in the playoffs, Neuvirth could get a chance to step into the No. 1 spot that eluded him while Mason was in Philadelphia.
Starting with a clean slate on a new team next season, Elliott needs to play consistently well if he hopes to keep his career alive. Coach Dave Hakstol will do whatever it takes to try to provide the best possible support for a rapidly improving young group of defensemen.
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Goaltenders: Ryan Miller has moved on after three seasons, which leaves the Vancouver Canucks’ crease guarded by a pair of Swedish twin towers. Jacob Markstrom, 6’6″, will be starting his third full season in Vancouver and will be joined by free-agent signing Anders Nilsson, who’s also listed at 6’6″.
Notable factors: Now 27, both Canucks netminders have been on the NHL radar for awhile. Markstrom was drafted 31st overall in 2008 and Nilsson was chosen 62nd in 2009.
It’s unclear if either netminder is ready to step into a starting role—Markstrom has 109 games of NHL experience, topped by 33 games with the Canucks in 2015-16; Nilsson has appeared in 78 total games, topped by 29 games with the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues in 2015-16.
Markstrom and Nilsson have been teammates before. They won a bronze medal as the two goalies for Team Sweden at the 2010 World Junior Championship, where the former played five of six games.
Analysis: The No. 1 job should be Markstrom’s to lose. Though he wasn’t able to supplant Miller during his two previous seasons in Vancouver, he is the incumbent, was the more highly regarded prospect and he makes more money—$3.667 million per season compared to $2.5 million for Nilsson.
Markstrom has also had success in the past with new Vancouver head coach Travis Green. The pair were part of a Utica Comets team that reached the AHL Final in 2014-15, and Markstrom was named to the AHL’s second all-star team.
That being said, Nilsson was brought into Vancouver after a strong 2016-17 campaign. The Buffalo Sabres allowed more shots per game than any other team in the league, but Nilsson posted a 10-10-4 record and had a career-best .923 save percentage. If he can bring that same level of play into Vancouver, he could take a run at the starter’s job.
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Goaltenders: Ondrej Pavelec moved on after finishing his five-year contract at the end of the 2016-17 season, but Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson didn’t exactly inspire as the Winnipeg Jets’ goalies of the future when they were handed the reins last year.
Steve Mason has joined the Jets on a two-year contract that will pay him $4.1 million per season—more than Hellebuyck ($2.25 million) and Hutchinson ($1.1 million) put together.
Notable factors: As a team, the Jets ranked 27th defensively last season, allowing an average of 3.11 goals per game. Hellebuyck carried the bulk of the load—and was the best of a bad bunch. His 2.89 goals-against average ranked him 41st among 48 goaltenders to appear in at least 25 games last season, while Hutchinson was 42nd at 2.92.
Mason’s .908 save percentage with the Philadelphia Flyers last season is only a hair better than Hellebuyck’s .907, but his 2.66 goals-against average earned him a 28th-place ranking.
Analysis: Hellebuyck’s path to No. 1 status is on hold, at least for now. Mason is making starter’s money and is used to playing starter’s minutes. He appeared in at least 51 games during each of his four full seasons in Philadelphia.
With a diminished workload, a rested Hellebuyck should get a chance to spend some time working on his game and be able to make the most of his starts.
In the meantime, the veteran Mason, 29, should be able to offer the stability that will help the Jets build on their strong finish in 2016-17 and get back to competing for a playoff spot in the tough Central Division.
Contract info from CapFriendly. Stats from NHL.com.