Today we look at five of the more intriguing goaltending battles heading into training camp and the pre-season. One common word you’ll see here is ‘consistency’; only one of the five teams listed had consistent goaltending last year (San Jose). With the two-goaltender system becoming more and more prevalent, consistency is more important for teams.
Here are the top five goaltending battles/controversies I’m intrigued by as camp approaches…
1. Ottawa: Leclaire vs. Elliott Pascal Leclaire entered the 2009/10 season as Ottawa’s starting netminder, but struggled to gain consistency from the on-set and eventually missed time due to multiple injuries. His replacement Brian Elliott wasn’t dominant by any means, but put the Sens in a position to win more times than not. He was the one who backstopped their surprising 11-game win streak following the New Year.
Neither goalie was able to play consistently in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, though Leclaire was great in a triple overtime victory in Game 5. The Sens may start the season with Leclaire as their number one, but he’ll likely be on a short leash given Elliott’s success over the duration of last year.
2. San Jose: Niittymaki vs. Niemi After electing not to re-sign franchise mainstay Evgeni Nabokov, GM Doug Wilson triggered a makeover between the pipes in San Jose. Antero Niittymaki was signed on July 1 to be paired with last year’s backup Thomas Greiss. ‘Niitty’ was solid at times in Tampa Bay in 2009/10, but the blueline kept him from having a better season.
Meanwhile, Antti Niemi – won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, recording all 16 wins in the postseason – signed in late August. Contrary to Niittymaki, though, Niemi benefitted from a superb defensive core in front of him. Look for Todd McLellan to play the hot hand until (or if) one of these Finns emerges as the true starter.
3. Tampa Bay: Smith vs. Ellis Mike Smith and the aforementioned Niittymaki split time in net last year, but neither could stay steady behind a shaky blueline. Smith posted a 3.09 GAA for the year, and has been wildly inconsistent in two-plus seasons with the Bolts (30-46-16, 2.84 GAA, .906 SV%). Because of that, new GM Steve Yzerman went out and signed veteran Dan Ellis, who had a productive three-year stay in Nashville.
Between Smith and Ellis, the Bolts should win enough games to make the playoffs… the key word is should. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these two play musical chairs most of the year as Guy Boucher gets a feel for both. It will definitely be interesting to watch Smith and Ellis – friends from their days in Dallas – duke it out.
4. Toronto: Giguere vs. Gustavsson A lot of people will rip Toronto’s goaltending duo mainly because of the team they play for. However, both J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson have confidence coming off the second half of 2009/10. Giguere recorded a 2.49 GAA after coming over from Anaheim, while the ‘Monster’ went 7-2-1 with a 2.33 GAA following the Olympic break.
In the final stages as an Anaheim Duck, the popular belief was that Giguere was wearing down, vastly overpaid, and wouldn’t be able to recover. He has a chance to prove them wrong, especially being alongside familiar goalie coach Francois Allaire. Gustavsson, just 25, could improve in his second NHL season. This duo could create a lot of buzz in the media hotbed that is Toronto with a hot start.
5. Atlanta: Mason vs. Pavelec One area that let the Thrashers down last season was goaltending. They were in the playoff mix in the final weeks, but the duo of Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec couldn’t lift the team to a win when they really needed one. Hedberg has left for greener pastures, but Pavelec re-signed this summer and has a different veteran by his side.
The steady Chris Mason was signed by the new regime on July 1 to likely be the 1A option for Atlanta. Mason carried the Blues to a surprise postseason appearance in 2009, and is durable. After an eventful summer, this has the potential to be a breakout year for this Thrashers club. Mason and Pavelec hold the keys to their success and must stay consistent.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.