With two months of the season in the books, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that some goaltending controversies have cropped up. These last few weeks in particular have seen the emergence of some backup goaltenders and forced us to question the standing of once safe bets. It seems appropriate to offer our thoughts on who’s worth backing.
Jaroslav Halak/Brian Elliott
After stinking it up last season, Elliott didn’t even get a guaranteed spot on an NHL roster. The Blues inked him to a two-way contract so that he could battle Ben Bishop for the backup job. However, Elliott has not only won that battle, he’s challenged Halak for the starting job with a 10-2-0 record, 1.53 GAA, and .945 save percentage. Elliott started the season by allowing two or fewer goals in 11 straight starts, a streak that was finally broken on Saturday. Meanwhile, Halak had a 3.58 GAA and .843 save percentage in October, although he has a 1.59 GAA and .939 save percentage in his last eight starts. Neither goaltender has had anything close to picture perfect careers to this point, but we’ve seen prime examples of just how close to unbeatable both of them can be when they’re playing at their best. However, between the two, Elliott has the more deserved reputation of being a very streaky goaltender. We’ve seen stretches where Elliott has looked like the best goaltender in the league and others where he’s looked like the worst. For now, while both of them are playing at their best, we expect them to split the netminding duties pretty evenly, but in the long run, we think Elliott is much more likely to fall down to Earth.
Dwayne Roloson/Mathieu Garon
Roloson entered the season as the clear number one after leading the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals last season, but he’s faltered in 2011-12, posting a 3.51 GAA and .887 save percentage in 15 games. By contrast, Garon is having a great season with a 2.47 GAA and .915 save percentage in 15 contests. As you can see, the two have both gotten their fair share of playing time, although at this rate, the scales are likely to tip more in Garon’s favor. The problem is that I don’t see Garon maintaining this pace, nor am I entirely convinced that the 42-year-old Roloson will bounce back significantly. Roloson’s age is an obvious concern, but it’s also worth noting that he played into late May for the first time since 2006. If anything, I fear that the Lightning’s goaltending problems will grow as the season continues and that makes this a goaltending situation I’d like to avoid altogether.
Rick DiPietro/Al Montoya/Evgeni Nabokov
The Islanders goaltenders read like a Hollywood cast. You’ve got the once great prodigy who’s fallen from grace and has something to prove, the man who’s worked his way up from nothing and seems poised to finally outshine the big boys, and the man dangerously close to the twilight of his career who has had more success than the other two combined, and reluctantly joined the trio due to circumstances beyond his control. But we might not have seen our last plot twist, and that should give anyone who attempts to predict the ending pause. However, if you want to bet on this situation, then bet on Al Montoya. DiPietro not only has an extensive injury history, but he’s far removed from any sustained on-ice success. Nabokov is a more interesting option, but he barely played last season and when he did, he hasn’t particularly impressive. Nabokov is also the one the Islanders would probably most like to trade, when he’s healthy, and if they do so, that should solidify Montoya’s place as the team’s starter.
Steve Mason/Curtis Sanford
My recurring theme since the summer has been bet against Steve Mason. After two months of regular season play, I don’t see the need to change that tune. Mason is young and talented, but he’s also inconsistent and this season, inconsistent might be too kind of an assessment of his performance. I still think Mason has the potential to be a big part of the Blue Jackets’ future – and I assume the team feels the same way, based on the loyalty they’ve shown him. However, at this point, I need to actually see sustained results before I pick him up again. That being said, I’m not recommending Sanford now because I don’t trust Mason. As I mentioned in a recent Waiver Wired article, Sanford has been excellent at the AHL level. For example, he had a 1.93 GAA and .930 save percentage in 40 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs last season. I don’t expect Sanford to maintain his current 2.10 GAA and .926 save percentage and after his rough start against Edmonton, I expect Steve Mason to start getting some playing time again. That being said, I do expect Sanford to clearly outplay Mason this season. The only potential wrinkle is Mark Dekanich, who was originally projected to start the season on the Blue Jackets’ roster, but has been sidelined all season. At this point, it looks like Dekanich will play in the AHL when he’s healthy, but if Sanford or Mason sustain an injury, Dekanich might join the Blue Jackets and surprise a lot of people with his performance.
Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider
To me, this goaltending controversy feels like an invention of the media than anything else. Luongo has proven himself to the Canucks management, as evidenced by the 12-year, $64 million contract extension that began last season, but it seems like a section of the media and fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop with him. Admittedly, he has a talented, young, and comparatively cheap understudy. Luongo’s struggles are magnified because, if given the chance, Schneider could probably be a terrific starter. We saw signs of that lately when he allowed just four goals over a five-game span from November 20th to 29th. That being said, despite the Schneider’s more favorable age, Luongo is the Canucks’ goaltender of the future – his contract ensures that – and while he did get off to a rough start, it shouldn’t be long before he bounces back. Even if Schneider steals the show for a string of games here and there, they’ll keep going back to Luongo every time Schneider shows signs of cooling off. Luongo’s days of starting in 60+ games might be over as long as Schneider is breathing down his neck, but Luongo is still the top goaltender. That being said, with Schneider becoming a restricted free agent this summer, we wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dealt before the start of the 2012-13 campaign.