Drafting a goaltender in the first two rounds of a standard 12-team league is generally a good idea. The best netminders go fast, and finding a relatively safe bet between the pipes in the mid-to-late rounds is far harder than collecting solid forwards or defensemen.
Still, your pre-draft plans don’t always play out and you’ll often find yourself adjusting on the fly. In terms of goaltending, that means picking high-risk, high-reward guys--taking guys from teams that don’t have a firmly established starter in the hopes that the player you selected wins the battle.
These competitions will ultimately start during training camp and drag on into the regular season, so you’ll want to check in regularly to get the latest update on how they’re progressing. Here’s a preliminary look at some of the league’s biggest goaltending battles and our early predictions on how they’ll play out.
Anaheim Ducks: Jonas Hiller vs Viktor Fasth
Hiller’s rough start helped facilitate Fasth’s unlikely rise last season. Fasth won his first eight NHL starts and never slowed down dramatically, but Hiller still ended up getting plenty of playing time in the second half of the season after he rebounded.
This is the final season of Hiller’s contract, so there’s naturally a lot at stake for him. The free agent goaltending market typically isn’t a kind place unless you’re a star, so Hiller’s best bet at a lucrative long-term deal would be to firmly cement himself as the team’s starter. While we aren’t calling for Fasth to regress significantly this season, we do think Hiller will be able to accomplish his goals while playing in over 50 games.
Calgary Flames: Karri Ramo vs Joey MacDonald…and maybe Reto Berra…and Miikka Kiprusoff?
Let’s make this easy: If you can avoid it, don’t draft a Calgary Flames goaltender. The Flames aren’t likely to be a good team and none of the guys listed above are likely to have particularly good 2013-14 campaigns.
That said, Calgary does have an eye towards the future and journeyman Joey MacDonald isn’t likely to fit into the Flames’ long-term plans. He’s more of a stopgap measure, making the winner of the training camp battle between Karri Ramo, 27, and Reto Berra, 26 the likely starter. Berra has no NHL experience while Ramo is coming off several strong seasons in the KHL after struggling to establish himself with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he was still in his early 20s.
Between them, Ramo is likely to make the Flames’ roster while Berra adjusts to North American hockey in the minors. From there, Ramo will probably push the 50-start mark this season. Unless Kiprusoff decides he won’t retire after all. Then all bets are off.
Florida Panthers: Jacob Markstrom vs Scott Clemmensen
The Panthers are coming off of a rough 2013 campaign and that’s particularly true for Markstrom, who posted a 3.22 GAA and .901 save percentage in 23 games last season. Those aren’t exactly the numbers you want from the goaltender you hope will start carrying the franchise sooner rather than later, but he is still a highly regarded prospect.
Markstrom is likely to be used frequently in 2013-14, but Clemmensen is a more than capable understudy and should step in whenever the 23-year-old is having a cold streak. Unless Markstrom suffers a complete collapse, he should end up with close to twice as many starts as Clemmensen. Then again, it’s reasonable to expect struggles from a young goaltender on an iffy team.
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider vs Martin Brodeur
Putting their respective histories aside for the moment, Schneider is the better goaltender going into the 2013-14 campaign, and yet Brodeur is regarded as the starter. That’s the awkward situation the Devils are in as they attempt to navigate through what will probably be the last season of Brodeur’s legendary career.
Unless the Devils are in the thick of a playoff run late into the season or Brodeur is horrendous, the two are likely to split the starts evenly throughout the season with Brodeur ending up with a handful more than his younger counterpart. If you’re in a keeper league, grab Schneider early because beyond this season, he should be one of the league’s elites. Just don’t pencil him in for much more than 30-40 starts in 2013-14.
Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason vs Ray Emery
After a fantastic season as the Chicago Blackhawks’ backup goaltender, Emery is looking to re-establish himself as a starting goaltender. Meanwhile, this might be Mason’s last decent shot at a number one gig after years of struggling in Columbus.
Mason did enjoy a brief resurgence at the end of the 2013 campaign following his move to Philadelphia, leading some to wonder if all he really needed was a change of scenery. Mason has given us hope many times before, though, only to fall apart again. It seems overly optimistic to expect this time to be different.
Both will get a fair shot at the starting job, but Emery should be regarded as the favorite in this battle. He likely won’t have a sub-2.00 GAA again, but a 2.25-2.5 GAA seems like a reasonable expectation.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury vs Tomas Vokoun
More than any other battle on this list, this one is perhaps the most unlikely to come to fruition. I ultimately brought it up because Fleury did lose the starting job during the 2013 playoffs and therefore some might be worried about his standing with the team.
The thing is, though, playoff struggles are nothing new for Fleury and while that’s cause for concern for Penguins fans, it hasn’t prevented him from putting up solid numbers in regular season contents. Fleury is a full step behind the league’s elites, but he’s a safer bet to hold onto the starting job than some give him credit for.
At least for now. Another disastrous playoff run could encourage the Penguins to go in a different direction in the summer of 2014.
St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott vs Jaroslav Halak vs Jake Allen
This one is hard to predict for a number of reasons. For starters, Allen had a solid run in the NHL last season and there’s an outside chance the Blues will begin the season with three goaltenders, which would significantly diminish Elliott and Halak’s fantasy value.
There’s also the enigma that is Elliott to consider. He can be anything from the worst in the NHL to almost unbeatable and he’ll flip between the two extremes. If he gets hot early in the season, then at most, Halak will play in every other game, but if Mr. Hyde shows up, then Halak will run away with the netminding job.
The safest bet - if there is such a thing in this scenario - is Halak. He was plagued by injuries last season, but he’s healthy now and highly motivated to bounce back going into his contract season. If you’re going to roll the dice on a Blues goaltender, Halak should be your first choice.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ben Bishop vs Anders Lindback
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been stockpiling promising young goaltenders in the hopes that one of them takes the reins. Lindback had a rough debut with Tampa Bay, but he has a lot of promise and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if, at the age of 25, he took a major step forward.
Still, Bishop probably has a slight edge after his stronger 2013 campaign. But given the Lightning’s questionable defense and the likelihood that Lindback and Bishop will split the Lightning’s starts pretty evenly for months before either one firmly establishes himself as the clear starter, it would be best to avoid drafting either goaltender whenever possible.
Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby vs Michal Neuvirth
Holtby has a clear edge in this battle after his strong 2012 playoff run, which was complemented by a generally positive 2013 campaign. He played in 36 games last season to Neuvirth’s 13.
Still, people might be dismissing Neuvirth too quickly. He’s just 25 and has had some solid showings in the NHL. While Holtby should end up starting in the majority of Washington’s games, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Neuvirth bounce back and end up with over 30 starts this season.
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