One thing the NHL has proven is that its not possible to predict where it will be year over year, and sometimes week to week. There have however been a few constants in the NHL over the past few years. Number one goaltenders do shift over time, with one or two losing their grip on the starting job each season, sometimes never to regain it, in other cases pulling themselves back into the saddle in time for the playoffs. I don’t think I can recall a year where crease chaos has been so prominent and so high profile.
For more than a generation Martin Brodeur has been the standard by which other goaltenders were measured. He’s arguably the greatest goaltender of all time. Vezinas, Stanley Cups, he’s got those. More minutes played than any other goaltender, he’s got that too. No full season under a .900 sv% in a career stretching back to the early 90’s. Until that is this season. The savior of this years season is likely to be Brodeur’s even older nominal backup Johan Hedberg. The career backup is not just having a career year, he’s out performing Brodeur by a large enough margin that it’s unlikely that anyone other than Brodeur would see a start until he was injured or to worn down by the schedule to keep it up. Brodeur (.879)is currently ranked 38th for save percentage leaders, Hedberg (.920) is 19th with each having played in 13 games.
The Minnesota Wild are working their way towards a genuine goal-tending controversy of their own. Not because their starter Niklas Backstrom has performed poorly but because he’s suffered his second injury of the year. In his absence, and on rest days for the 33 year old Finnish goaltender the backup has upstaged him. Stealing the spotlight from a goaltender with a .929 sv% and 2.15 GAA isn’t precisely easy. Harding has done so. With a .938 sv% and 1.96 GAA against some of the best of the NHL, including three games against Detroit, and two against the St Louis Blues who are currently tied for the Central Division lead. Both are above average keepers, but with more than five million dollars in difference in their salaries one wonders when the uproar will begin in the Twin Cities.
Once upon a time there was a goaltender who represented his country in his home arena on the largest of international stages for the pride of his homeland. This hero brought home the goods. He went on to lead his team to the Stanley Cup finals. Along the way his numbers were better in both the regular season and playoffs than the two goaltenders who last hoisted the Stanley Cup. He ran into a better goaltender and was saddled with a less determined team. The next season Roberto Luongo (among many others) got off to a slower than usual start, and was slid aside while still dubbed the number one guy in favor of his backup. Cory Schnieder’s .930 and 2.12 would demand a higher than usual percentage of starts even if Luongo were performing closer to his career average of .919 sv% and 2.54 GAA, and not reporting in with .892 and 3.05. The fact that Luongo’s contract stretches over the event horizon and into the next decade makes this a drama almost distracting enough to ignore the rest of the rest of the teams play.
In any other season a sentence that started with “Brian Elliot is leading the league in…” would almost certainly end with something possibly deserved and not especially flattering. In the Bizzaro World that belongs to the bullies of the bluepaint this year, it would have to end with “both save percentage and goals against average, by a wide margin.” This has led to Elliot to displace Halak under the now Hitchcock led St Louis Blues to be tied for the division lead. His 10 wins in 11 starts are made even more stunning by not having given up more than two goals in any game. Even when he eventually reports back to the Milky Way galaxy, if not the solar system it’s unlikely the pending UFA will have trouble collecting a much larger paycheck next season.
Perhaps the most surprising fall from grace of any number one goaltender belongs to the man most responsible for the Buffalo Sabres being in any way competitive the last half dozen seasons. Ryan Miller won the Vezina two seasons ago. This year he’s suffered a couple injuries, one of disputed cause, and certainly some severely abraded pride. While a .909 sv% isn’t exactly shameful, his 2.86 GAA has caused some to look askance at the former silver medalist. Jhonas Enroth had to be considered even less unlikely than Elliot to end up with a large percentage of the workload coming into the season. At this point he’s fueled calls for Ryan Miller to be moved elsewhere. In an age where (not quite justifiably) hulking goaltenders are all the rage, even more so than the slight Miller the downright tiny, rookie Enroth is defying the trend towards linebackers as net minders. The 5 foot 10 inch 166lb Stockholm native has held opponents hostage with a sv% of .925 and a GAA of 2.32.
It’s still early in the season, and goaltending is difficult to predict in any given year, this years waffleboard warriors are making it the most entertaining position to watch this season.