It’s not easy becoming an NHL team’s number one goaltender. There are only 30 positions available and hundreds of goaltenders looking for their shot. Talented young goaltending prospects often find themselves starting out in the ECHL, simply because there’s no room on a team’s AHL affiliate. Players gradually work their way up the depth chart until they finally get called up to the big club — and end up as the perennial backup, stuck behind an aging incumbent or an undrafted Finnish phenom.
Getting a chance to finally take centre stage and stand in the spotlight as a team’s go-to goaltender is a rare opportunity. At the start of this season, five goaltenders were given that opportunity after spending last season as a backup: Cory Schneider, Anders Lindback, Sergei Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby, and Tuukka Rask. The results so far have been mixed.
Cory Schneider in Vancouver (6-5-3, .910 SV%, 2.63 GAA)
Vancouver was a goalie graveyard when the Canucks drafted Schneider in the first round in 2004. It was hoped that he would be the goaltender of the future. Just two years later, the Canucks traded for Roberto Luongo and Schneider’s been stuck behind him on the depth chart ever since.
This season was supposed to be different. After Schneider stepped in for Luongo during last year’s playoffs, it was all but certain that Luongo would get traded during the off-season and Schneider would take over the number one job. Instead, Luongo’s still on the roster, albeit ostensibly as the backup.
Schneider got the first start of the year and it blew up in his face, as he gave up 5 goals on 14 shots and was pulled in the second period. Since then, he’s been better, but has struggled with consistency, resulting in average statistics. Meanwhile, Luongo has outplayed him and looks poised to take back the number one role.
Anders Lindback in Tampa Bay (9-6-1, .899 SV%, 3.04 GAA)
After two seasons of the ancient Dwayne Roloson, with the slightly less-ancient Mathieu Garon backing him up, Steve Yzerman wanted youth in net for the Lightning. Instead of acquiring, say, Jonathan Bernier, he made a trade for Lindback, who is massive and has talent, but is also relatively inexperienced at the NHL level.
Lindback spent the last two seasons backing up Pekka Rinne in Nashville after coming over from Sweden, putting up respectable, but not overly impressive, numbers. Yzerman handed him the number one job in Tampa Bay after just 38 NHL games in, it’s worth noting, a system that is known for making goaltenders look good.
He hasn’t looked good this season, as he’s tied for 30th in save percentage and 35th for goals against average. He may have turned the corner recently, however. He’s only given up 2 goals in each of his last four starts, which isn’t amazing, but at least gives the Lightning a chance to win. Still, for Yzerman, it’s beginning to look like he made the wrong decision this past off-season.
Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus (8-6-4, .923 SV%, 2.19 GAA)
Bobrovsky is unique in this group in that he has previously been an undisputed number one goaltender, playing 54 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010-11 after coming over from the KHL. After putting up solid rookie numbers during the regular season, things fell apart in the playoffs. After allowing just 1 goal in a game one loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Bobrovsky allowed 3 goals on 7 shots in game two and was quickly pulled. Brian Boucher stepped in and Bobrovsky was even exiled to the press box in favour of Michael Leighton.
Bobrovsky didn’t get a chance to establish himself in Philadelphia, as the Flyers traded for Ilya Bryzgalov, which has worked out really well for everyone and no Flyers’ fans are unhappy.
While Bobrovsky struggled as Bryzgalov’s backup last season, he’s settling in to Columbus, as he’s 5-0-2 in his last seven starts and was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week last week. He has thoroughly outplayed Steve Mason, as well as, incidentally, Bryzgalov.
Braden Holtby in Washington (9-9-0, .909 SV%, 2.97 GAA)
Holtby cemented his role as Washington’s number one goaltender with a stellar playoff run in 2012. While he couldn’t get the Capitals past the second round of the playoffs, he did win the Dino Ciccarelli Award for best rookie of the postseason, according to me, which is almost as good.
While he was definitely outstanding in the playoffs, the Capitals were giving Holtby the number one job after only 21 regular season games and 14 playoff games of NHL experience. They were taking a risk and it hasn’t paid off. Holtby has been below-average this season, but it’s hard to blame him, considering how terrible the Capitals have been overall.
It’s not all bad news. Holtby is tied for second with 3 shutouts and he is at no risk of losing the number one job, as Michal Neuvirth has performed even worse as his backup. There are a lot of things to fix in Washington before they start worrying about their goaltending.
Tuukka Rask in Boston (13-2-3, .927 SV%, 1.96 GAA)
While Rask has never been a pure number one goaltender before, he did split the job with Tim Thomas in 2009-10, appearing in 45 games for the Bruins and winning the job heading into the playoffs. Thomas took over for the next two seasons, putting Rask in a more straight-forward backup role. But Rask still had 115 games of NHL experience heading into this season.
It’s understandable, then, that he’s performing the best out of all the new number ones, although it helps that he’s a fantastic goaltender playing behind a very defensively-sound team.
Rask ended up with the number one job in the oddest way possible: the incumbent announced on his Facebook page that he was going to take a year off from hockey. For Rask, this removed any possibility that he would lose the number one job and he’s taking the opportunity to establish himself as one of the league’s elite goaltenders. He is currently fourth in the league in save percentage and goals against average and he could be a Vezina candidate by the end of the season.
Honourable mention: Viktor Fasth in Anaheim (10-1-1, .929 SV%, 1.92 GAA)
Fasth was signed by Anaheim to be Jonas Hiller’s backup, but his incredible performance has already earned him a contract extension. While he hasn’t officially stolen Hiller’s job, he may do so by the end of the season.