Thursday, January 29, 2015

Breaking down the league's goaltending controversies

Goalie controversies are almost always fun. There are two guys (or more), one job, and a whole lot of passive-aggressive sound bites about just wanting what’s best for the team. If we’re really lucky, the two guys involved actively hate each other, although that’s just an added bonus.1

Goalie controversies are also relatively rare these days. Right now, roughly two-thirds of the league has a goaltending situation that’s more or less set, with one clear starter and a capable backup. For our purposes, that list includes teams with an established starter who’s currently hurt, such as Nashville, Detroit, and Columbus.2

That leaves 10 teams where the situation is somewhat more unsettled. These aren’t necessarily full-blown goaltending controversies in the classic sense, and the guys involved probably don’t hate each other, although it’s more fun if we go ahead and pretend that they do. But they are cases in which there’s at least some degree of uncertainty, so let’s see if we can figure out how they might end up.

St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott vs. Jake Allen

In this corner: Elliott looked like a fringe NHLer over the first few years of his career, before a breakout 2011-12 season in which he won the Jennings and earned a spot on the All-Star team. He followed that up with an off year, but he’s been excellent in the two years since (not to mention stealing the show at All-Star weekend).

And in this corner: At 24, Allen is the goalie of the future in St. Louis. There was some thought that the future would arrive this year, but so far Allen hasn’t been especially impressive.

The battle so far: Elliott has clearly had the better season. The two goalies have split starts almost evenly, but that’s due to a knee injury Elliott suffered in November. That was the same injury that led to the Blues’ bizarre decision to bring in Martin Brodeur, which created the impression that they were hedging their bets on their established tandem. Brodeur was merely OK in seven games of action, and on Tuesday it was announced that he’s retiring.

On its own, the Brodeur situation may seem like a blip, one that was odd but ultimately didn’t disrupt the status quo in the long term. But there’s context here — this is the second year in a row that the Blues have added a big-name goalie during the season, following last year’s expensive trade for Ryan Miller. It sure doesn’t seem like the organization trusts Elliott to be the undisputed starter on a Cup contender, does it?

And the winner is: Elliott. It has to be, right? He’s done everything you could ask a guy to do over the last two years, he’s an All-Star, and as long as he stays healthy, the job has to be his. There’s no question about it. (Fast-forwards a few weeks to visions of “Blues talking to Hasek about comeback?” headlines.) OK, there’s not much question about it.

Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward vs. Anton Khudobin

In this corner: Ward has a reputation as one of the game’s top goalies, thanks to his Conn Smythe–winning performance in the 2006 playoffs. But that was nine years ago, and since then he’s been an average goalie at best, even though he’s paid as if he were an elite guy.

And in this corner: Khudobin is a late bloomer who was a backup in Minnesota and Boston before arriving in Carolina, where he was fantastic last year when Ward missed much of the season due to injury. It seemed like a good bet he’d end up as the starter this year, either by outplaying Ward or by seeing the veteran traded away by the rebuilding Hurricanes.

The battle so far: It’s been surprisingly even — Khudobin has been better, but not by all that much. And while Ward’s name comes up in trade rumors every now and then, the market for him seems to be lackluster given his contract.

And the winner is: GM Ron Francis, if Ward can play well enough to convince some other team to take his deal off Carolina’s hands. Assuming that doesn’t happen, this one looks like a split decision until next year.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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