Several quality netminders found new homes as the goaltending carousel spun this summer, but which masked men will succeed in their new area codes?
Arguably the most active market since the end of the season has been that for goaltenders, as we’ve seen nearly a dozen quality netminders change area codes since the Stanley Cup was handed out in mid-June.
The goaltending carousel has been spinning in about every way possible, too. A trade kicked things off, when the Dallas Stars made the move to acquire Ben Bishop, but since then the expansion draft, the trade market and free agency have all played a part in shuffling the deck when it comes to creases around the league.
For some teams, the moves were made out of necessity. A team without a starting goaltender — or any goaltenders, for that matters — needs someone who can stop a few pucks. For others, the moves were made to bring some stability to a shaky situation. And in a select few situations, a netminder was brought aboard to help mentor or share the crease with a younger, less experienced netminder.
But what does the situation look like for each of these netminders with new homes, what will be expected and how will they fare in the coming campaign?
THE NEW NO. 1s
Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes
Raanta enters the coming campaign with the biggest opportunity of his career, a chance to turn the promise of last season’s performance into proof that he can be a true starting netminder. Raanta has turned in stellar numbers in each of the past three seasons — he boasts a .924 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average across 69 games — but he’s going to be facing tougher competition on a regular basis.
There’s reason for faith in Raanta given the company he keeps among the 5-on-5 SP leaders over the past three years, though. Similar netminders include Matt Murray, Devan Dubnyk, Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond. And, excluding Hammond, that’s some pretty promising company. Not only that, but the Coyotes’ acquisition of Niklas Hjalmarsson, and adding him to a group that includes Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski, stands to give the Coyotes the best defense they’ve had in ages. That’s the type of top-three defenders a first-time starting netminder should be excited about.
That said, the rest of the roster is still growing, and that could lead to some growing pains for Raanta. It’s hard to project a huge climb up the standings for the Coyotes, and that will likely be reflected in Raanta’s numbers in his first year in Arizona.
Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes
Hurricanes GM Ron Francis has seemingly been grooming his club for this coming season since he took over in 2014-15. It’s been a long build, completed through drafting and developing and a few trades here and there, but Carolina looks as though they could be one of the biggest movers up the standings this coming season with a roster that’s much more solid than years prior from top to bottom. Darling is not small part of that.
Though he’s relatively untested as a starter, Darling took on the heaviest workload of his NHL career as Corey Crawford’s backup this past season in Chicago, and he was excellent. Darling turned in a .924 SP, 2.38 GAA and a sparkling 18-5-5 record. The one concern, however, is that 17 of his 32 outings came against non-playoff teams.
Still, Darling’s numbers across the past two campaigns as a Blackhawk are tremendously promising. He has a .929 SP at 5-on-5 while facing nearly 30 shots per 60 minutes. That’s the 26th-most of the 64 goaltenders to play 1,000 minutes over the past two seasons. Put Darling behind one of the league’s more sneaky-good defense corps, and he’s in line to turn in a stellar campaign.
THE FRESH STARTERS
Mike Smith, Calgary Flames
Of all the netminders who were expected to end up in Calgary this summer, Smith was rather far down the list, well behind the likes of Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury. Yet, with options limited, it was Smith that Flames GM Brad Treliving targeted and nabbed in an off-season deal. And, in some ways, it was a rather curious decision.
Smith has had some successful seasons, to be sure, but despite the fact he was arguably the Coyotes’ MVP this past season, Smith’s most recent season that was truly productive came in 2011-12. That’s five seasons ago. Since then, he has turned in a .912 SP and 2.83 GAA at all strengths, and over the past four years, Smith’s 5-on-5 SP is .924. Of the 39 goalies to play at least 5,000 minutes, that ranks 25th.
The thing is, though, that Calgary has worked to build one of the league’s most outstanding defense corps. The group is led by Mark Giordano, supplemented by Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie and the summer acquisition of Travis Hamonic and re-signing of Michael Stone makes this an awesome group in front of Smith. And with that kind of defense, Smith may only be asked to be average. If that’s all that’s asked of him, there’s no reason success shouldn’t follow. Anything more, though, and there’s potential for trouble.
Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
Bishop was set to become the most sought after free agent goaltender in the league if he hit the open market. So, trying to get ahead of the game, the Stars went out, acquired Bishop’s rights from the Los Angeles Kings and inked him to a six-year deal. Goaltending was the Stars’ most glaring need, too, so Bishop certainly fits the bill.
That said, though, the hope in Dallas has to be that Bishop’s play this past season isn’t indicative of a trend downwards. After two finishes as a Vezina finalist over the past three seasons, Bishop turned in a .910 SP and 2.54 GAA, a significant dip from the .926 SP and 2.06 GAA he posted the year prior. Worse yet was the fact Bishop’s 5-on-5 SP dipped from .932 in 2015-16 to a mere .917 in 2016-17.
Luckily, there’s nothing to indicate that Bishop’s play last season should be a harbinger of things to come. Everyone on the Bolts had a down year and Bishop was no different, and a change of scenery and playing behind what should be an improved team both offensively and defensively bodes well for Bishop. The Stars are looking to have a huge turnaround this coming season, and Bishop stands to be a big part of that.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
The way Fleury played for the Penguins in the post-season, especially given he knew his days with the club were numbered, makes it hard not to pull for him to be successful in Vegas. Unfortunately, the Golden Knights haven’t built a team around Fleury that allows for much in the way of hopefulness about the coming campaign.
After a run of mediocre play in the middle of his career, Fleury started to turn things back on in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns, but the past season was an ugly one for ‘Flower.’ Not only did he lose his starting job on a full-time basis for the first time in his career, but Fleury managed a .909 SP and 3.02 GAA. Those are among the worst marks of his tenure as a Penguin, and it came behind a team that had the firepower and enough defensive depth to win the Stanley Cup. Now, imagine that behind a ragtag Golden Knights group. It’s not a pretty picture.
That’s no fault of Fleury’s, mind you. He can only do his job with what’s in front of him. But the Golden Knights are almost intentionally setting themselves up for mediocrity and high draft picks in order to build from the ground up. Even a great season out of Fleury might not look like all that much in comparison to his counterparts.
Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers
After landing with the Calgary Flames, the past campaign was Elliott’s opportunity to prove he could be the clearcut No. 1 guy in an NHL crease. It went…not so well. Elliott’s save percentage dipped a full .020 from the year prior, going from .930 in 2015-16 to a mere .910 in his first and only season as a Flame, and it took a long, long while for Elliott to finally find his game. Once he did, he had some success down the stretch before an ugly few playoff outings resulted in him getting the hook and ending his Calgary career watching from the bench.
But in Philadelphia, the expectation is that Elliott can recapture the ability he was showcasing during his final years as a St. Louis Blue. In his final three years in St. Louis, Elliott turned in a .923 SP across 119 games, and his SP at 5-on5 was a sparkling .931. That put him among the top 10 over that period, alongside the likes of Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider and Braden Holtby. Elliott will be platooned in 1A-1B scenario, too, with Michal Neuvirth taking the additional starts.
Elliott’s success in Philadelphia will likely hinge on the success of some of the young Flyers’ defensemen, however. Ivan Provorov has proven his mettle, but now it’s time for Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin and possibly Philippe Myers to do the same. If Philadelphia’s ‘D’ is sound, Elliott has the ability to have a bounce back year that makes him look like a spectacular signing.
Steve Mason, Winnipeg Jets
A subpar year likely robbed Mason of his opportunity to land a starting job somewhere, but his loss stands to be the Jets’ gain, especially as they look to solidify what appears to be the only weak spot on an up-and-coming roster.
Mason is underrated, most likely because of his troublesome years as a Columbus Blue Jacket, but over the past four seasons he has been nothing short of excellent at five-a-side. In fact, only two goaltenders have posted a better SP than Mason’s .931 mark at 5-on-5 over the past four years: Carey Price and Braden Holtby. That’s good company to be keeping.
Given Winnipeg’s offensive output in 2016-17, Mason, like Smith, will be asked to simply stop some pucks this time around. The Jets couldn’t keep anything out of their net last season, surrendering the fourth-most goals against and boasting the league’s third-worst SP, and Mason simply needs to be average to improve that. His underlying numbers over the past several seasons have been far better than average, and a good, young Winnipeg squad could make Mason worth every cent of his $4.1-million contract.
THE OTHER GUYS
Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: The plan won’t be for Miller to start often behind John Gibson, but he’s a capable hand. After years as a middle of the pack netminder behind a struggling defense — he posted a .924 5-on-5 SP, 24th of 38 4,000-minute goaltenders — Miller should be able to fare well behind the Ducks’ strong defense corps. He’ll be a backup, though.
Chad Johnson, Buffalo Sabres: Johnson’s career year came in Buffalo in 2015-16 and he returns to the Sabres after another decent season. He’s not going to be relied upon as the starter, but Johnson has start-stealing potential. Across similar minutes over the past two seasons, though, Sabres starter Robin Lehner has a .928 SP to Johnson’s .922 mark. Expect him to remain a decent second option.
Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche: Colorado should ride the hot hand whenever possible, so if Bernier heats up, he could get a some stretches of starting minutes. The Avalanche defense is much worse than the Ducks’, however, which could pose problems. With a shaky defense in Toronto, Bernier managed a .923 SP at 5-on-5, 17th among the 25 3,000-minute netminders. He’ll have to be better. If not, things will get ugly in a hurry.
Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: A standout season in Buffalo has set Nilsson up for a potential 1B role. Of goaltenders with 1,000 minutes played, Nilsson’s .933 5-on-5 SP was the ninth-best mark. That’s a nice upside. He will face a similar in-game workload in Vancouver, but if he can piece together a similar season, he could be in for a heavier share of starts than some are expecting.