When the goaltending for this year’s Canadian Olympic team was discussed this past summer, invariably commentators suggest that two players were locks: Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks. Behind those two were three other goaltenders, all under the age of 25, and all coming off strong seasons: Marc-Andre Fleury, Steve Mason, Cam Ward. Two of those three have a Stanley Cup win under their belts, while Mason won the Calder last year and backstopped the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first ever playoff berth. Few others were given a chance; Chris Mason and Dwayne Roloson lacked the necessary lustre, while Carey Price had seen his reputation tarnished by a year of poor play.

Fleury, who eventually got the number three job, has had the finest season of that group of three although he’s struggled, particularly of late. Fleury’s .903 save percentage puts him outside the top-30 goaltenders in the NHL, and of the league’s 20 wins leaders, only Fleury has a save percentage below .908. It’s been a somewhat surprising but not espeically shocking downturn for Fleury; he was brilliant in 2007-08 but other than that he’s never been much more than an average starter. Last season when he won the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh, his regular season save percentage was .912, and in the playoffs that dropped to .908 – an especially surprising shift given that scoring generally goes down in the playoffs.

Still, despite Fleury’s mediocrity, he was easily the leader of this pack. Cam Ward has been marginally better in save percentage than Manny Legace, and despite the fact that he’s playing for such a lousy team he should certainly be expected to outplay a marginal NHL goaltender who went unsigned as the NHL season began. When the Carolina Hurricanes extended Ward I thought it was a bad bet despite the fact he was coming off a strong season, and I had two key questions about the player:

  • Was this last season a breakthrough, or an aberration?
  • Will Ward continue to develop into an elite (read: top-five) goaltender, or will he be a top-15 guy?

It turns out that I wasn’t pessimistic enough. Ward hasn’t been able to keep up his play from his career-best season last year, and has instead regressed to where he was before. Here are Ward’s regular season save percentages, year-by-year:

  • 2005-06: .882
  • 2006-07: .897
  • 2007-08: .904
  • 2008-09: .916
  • 2009-10: .900

If Ward continues at his current pace, that will mean that in three of the past four seasons he’ll have been a below-average starting goaltender (below average is gentle, actually; we’re talking Peter Budaj-level performance here). Why the Hurricanes felt compelled to spend franchise-player money on this guy continues to baffle me, as the only time he’s ever been an elite NHL goaltender was for two dozen games in the 2005-06 playoffs; he’s the Fernando Pisani of starting goaltenders.

Finally, Steve Mason has been a big part (perhaps the biggest part) of the Blue Jackets collapse this season. Of the league’s 30 most active goaltenders, Mason ranks dead last in save percentage. As of this writing, he no longer has the starter’s job – that honour goes to Mathieu Garon, the very definition of a backup goaltender, who is also having a mediocre season. Mason may bounce back, of course. But like other brilliant rookie goaltenders before him he has struggled as a sophomore, and it remains to be seen if he’ll bounce back or hop on the Andrew Raycroft train to fringe NHL’ership.

It’s been a very rough year for these guys, and the more I think about it the more I wonder if the Canadians wouldn’t have been better off to bring along a Roloson or Mason. The number three goaltending job isn’t an important one, and the probability here is that Yzerman and Co. just want a potential starter in the future along to enjoy the atmosphere and get a sampling of the Olympic experience. It’s hard to fault them for that reasoning, and in Fleury they’ve also picked the guy who has put on impressive runs (2007-08 was a very good year for him) and has two full years of being a top-15 NHL goaltender. I’d be surprised if Fleury didn’t bounce back to the form they expect of him at some point over the next few seasons.