The 2016-17 NHL season is among us and teams are attempting to piece together their rosters. One of the most pivotal positions in all of hockey starts from the back with goaltending. Without solid goaltending, it’s almost impossible to even get into the postseason. As always, new talent emerges - just look at Matt Murray’s playoff run with the Pittsburgh Penguins or even Martin Jones' stellar season. The team as a whole is important to a goalie as well. As Tim Thomas said after his Stanley Cup win, “Goaltending is the most team-dependent position that there is in hockey.”
The upper-echelon of netminders such as Braden Holtby, Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop, Corey Crawford and Carey Price won’t be featured because they are consistently great at what they do. Not to be disparaging, but Holtby’s 48 win season will be hard to top, and even Quick’s 40 wins in 68 games in 2015-16 will be hard to crack. They all start approximately 60 games, and since their teams don’t appear to be worsening anytime soon, these goaltenders should stay within the same range.
Throughout the NHL there are many goalies but only so many spots. This list will take a look at some of those who are bound to improve this season and finally make their mark in the league. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and so due to age or decline in play, the list will also project goaltenders that are destined to regress in the 2016-17 season.
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15 IMPROVE: Robin Lehner, Buffalo Sabres
The 25-year-old Swede hasn’t been able to live up to his expectations so far. The Sabres organization paid a good price to acquire his services in hopes that he could be the rock in net that grows with the team through the rebuild. After finally looking like the rebuild was over and drafting an elite centre in Jack Eichel, the team thought that 2015-16 could be a playoff-worthy season. Unfortunately, Lehner was injured early on and the team couldn’t climb back high enough. He only featured in 21 games last season and posted five wins with a .924 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average. As the Sabres have begun their ascent after the teardown, Lehner will be relied upon heavily this season to lead them into the postseason. The once highly touted goaltending prospect still has a lot to show, so 25 to 30 wins is a real possibility.
14 REGRESS: Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
At age 35, time is slowly creeping up on the Senators veteran goaltender. His numbers haven’t been great as of late, suggesting that he may begin to decline in performance. His 60 starts in 2015-16 show that he can still handle the time in the crease, though with Andrew Hammond waiting in the wings, the ice time may start being shared. Anderson has seen his save percentage drop from .923 to .916, and his goals-against average increase a bit from 2.49 to 2.78. The Senators team seems to have some questions surrounding them, especially with a new coach and staff coming in. They had the fifth-worst goals-against per game in the league (2.94) and faced the most shots per game. The team must clean up its defensive game, and with an aging and slowly declining Anderson, the situation could be messy. Don’t expect Anderson to be the savior in net.
13 IMPROVE: Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche
Varlamov has been able to provide solid goaltending for the Avalanche even though the team hasn’t qualified for the postseason in two years. At age 28, the 6’2” goaltender is in his prime and should be able to play in at least 55 games for the fourth consecutive season. He put up a 9.14 save percentage, combined with 2.81 goals-against average and 27 wins on a mediocre Avalanche team. With Patrick Roy now out of the mix, the new coaching staff could help shore up the squad’s defence as a cohesive unit. He will undoubtedly see a lot of playing time, and combined with what hopefully brings better overall team play, Varlamov’s numbers could easily repeat his 2013-14 season in which he put up 41 wins. He has looked solid so far for Russia in the World Cup of Hockey that should have Avs fans excited for the 2016-17 season.
12 REGRESS: Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers
Mason’s performances in the last quarter of the season were good; he was a major catalyst in the Flyers’ run to the postseason. Outside of that, though, he’s never seemed to cut it as a bonafide NHL starter. Mason hasn’t been able to create consistency, and his gaffe in the second game against the Washington Capitals in the 2015-16 playoffs pretty much summed him up. His best seasons came in Columbus in 2008-09 with 61 starts and 33 wins, and in 2013-14 with a similar clip of 33 wins. His save percentage has dipped over the past couple seasons from .928 to .918 and his career average indicates a subpar .911. His performance in the playoffs last season wasn’t great either. Along with a questionable Flyers defense, it’s hard to see Mason have a stellar season. His trend downward could start now.
11 IMPROVE: Cam Talbot, Edmonton Oilers
Talbot presents an important aspect of this young Oilers team that may get overlooked due to the spotlight of Connor McDavid. As a team that has had so many disastrous years, one of the common issues was the lack of solid goaltending. Talbot came to Edmonton in hopes of proving that he is a capable number one. In 2015-16 he started 53 games and had 21 wins behind a team that missed McDavid and had many issues on the back end. As the Oilers group must finally get out of the basement of the NHL and snap out of the decade-long misery, Talbot will have to be one of the catalysts. With a healthy Oscar Klefbom, a developed Darnell Nurse, along with new acquisition Adam Larsson leading the core of the blueline, Talbot will finally have a solid defense core to grow with. This should be the year that he cements himself as a legitimate starter in the NHL.
10 REGRESS: Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes
Ward’s days as an effective starter are long removed. He has been on the downswing for quite some time but was brought back to the Hurricanes organization as more of a stopgap to help transition towards the new era of goaltenders in Carolina. Eddie Lack hasn’t taken the steps forward to grab the reigns of the crease and Alex Nedeljkovic is still young. His two-year contract renewal should see off his career as a capable starter, and his numbers would dictate towards that. His numbers have been trending down for the past handful of seasons, and the Canes have been stashed away in the NHLs basement. Ward is an aging vet, and his regression will see off the last bit of mediocrity in Carolina. They have been building a solid team and the next few years are filled with tons of promise. Unfortunately for Ward, it doesn’t look like he’ll be a part of the long-term plan in Carolina.
9 IMPROVE: John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks were able to trade away Frederik Andersen mainly because they knew that they had a great goaltender in Gibson. Playing in 40 games in 2015-16, Gibson had a .920 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average that contributed in 21 wins. He also had four shutouts that garnered proper recognition in being an exceptional goalie. Jonathan Bernier was brought in to backup Gibson who will be the clear-cut starter. He is more than capable of breaking the 30-wins barrier in the upcoming season. Gibson will be trusted with a large workload that should see him start in the 50-55 games area. It also helps that the Ducks also have a young, solid defense core to grow with Gibson. 2016-17 will be the year that Gibson takes a great leap in development and continues to improve.
8 REGRESS: Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars
Lehtonen’s winning record is sheltered by the high-powered offensive juggernaut that is the Dallas Stars. He likely will split the crease again with Antti Niemi. He appeared in 43 games last season and won 25, putting up a 2.76 goals-against average and .906 save percentage - not spectacular at all. He hasn’t been able to live up to the hype of being one of the next big goaltenders of his generation, and now at 32-years-old, his career numbers are a reflection of that: a .913 save percentage and 2.70 GAA. Lehtonen was one of 36 goaltenders to play at least 1500 minutes in 2015-16 and his even-strength save percentage ranked last with .909. The Stars’ defensive issues are often related to the lack of solid goaltending, and they won’t be any better with Lehtonen backstopping them. His numbers indicate that he won’t be getting better, and the Stars really need to find themselves a reliable goalie if they want to win anytime soon.
7 IMPROVE: Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings
During the 2015-16 season, Mrazek showed just why he is considered as the next number one goalie in Detroit. Although he stumbled a bit towards the end, he put on a great performance in the Red Wings only round of the playoffs. Without a doubt, Jimmy Howard is feeling nervous that Mrazek will take over the crease. Through 49 starts he put up 21 wins, 2.33 goals-against average, and a .921 save percentage that ranked 11th best. He is still developing and will be sharing starts with Howard, though the Red Wings will be leaning on Mrazek a bit more. He should be a lock for at least 55 starts and 30 wins, improving well on his way to becoming a bonafide number one. With Mrazek’s progression, Howard is very well on his way out of Detroit.
6 REGRESS: Ryan Miller, Vancouver Canucks
Miller was once regarded as one of the NHLs best goaltenders. Those days are in the rearview mirror. At 36-years-old, he’s in his decline. Miller isn’t a terrible goaltender, though; he is largely a victim of being on a bad team. The Canucks took a major step backwards last season and are poised to finish somewhere along the bottom of the league again. His 17 wins in 51 starts is an indication of larger struggles, and a .916 save percentage and lowly 2.70 goals-against average could have been much, much worse considering the lack of depth on the blueline. With his contract in mind, he’ll likely be the starter in Vancouver again. He’ll probably split some time with Jacob Markstrom who is waiting in the wings. Miller’s regression this year will be inevitable as he enters the twilight of his career.
5 IMPROVE: Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues
The Blues are thankful that they’ve had good goaltending over the past few seasons. The emergence of Allen has allowed them to trade off Brian Elliot for a pair of draft picks, therefore giving the number one title to the 26-year-old Allen. He was able to snatch the crease from Elliott in 2015-16 with 47 appearances and 26 wins. His .920 save percentage ranked 13th best in the league, and his stellar six shutouts were third. With Carter Hutton as the only backup currently, Allen will definitely have the majority of the workload in the upcoming season. He should be able to start around 60 games and will have no problem posting 30 wins at least. With the solid Blues defense core, Allen will have great protection. 2016-17 will be the year that Allen fortifies his position as a number one goaltender in the NHL.
4 REGRESS: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Finding Rinne on this list may seem difficult for some to look at. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Finnish goaltender hasn’t been a consistent performer in the crease. In three of his past four seasons he’s put up below-average numbers, but then his other season had him performing like a Vezina candidate. The Predators have been a solid defensive team for quite some time and there’s no doubting Rinne’s elite status. His performances last season are an indication that he’s on his downswing. He ranked 26th in save percentage last season, but he only faced the third-fewest shots per game. His days of being the number one in Nashville could be limited, though he will still be relied upon to take a lot of the time in the crease until a suitable backup is found. The 2016-17 season will be a telling time in Rinner’s career; he can either improve or lose his mark as a bonafide goaltender.
3 IMPROVE: Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s not every day that a 22-year-old leads his team to a Stanley Cup. Murray, with the Penguins, had a magical run and put on exceptional performances that led his team to glory. He was put in net after the longtime number one, Marc-Andre Fleury, recovered from his concussion. With only 13 regular season starts, the Penguins were definitely hesitant. Not only did Murray post a 15-6 postseason record, but also his .923 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average were simply incredible. He seemingly displaced Fleury for the starting spot in the Penguins crease, thus allowing trade rumors to swirl that Fleury could be shipped out due to the looming expansion draft. Without a doubt, Murray has all of the tools to be the Penguins goaltender of the future, and he was even played as the starter for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey. Murray will definitely fight for more starts in 2016-17, possibly splitting the net with Fleury and therefore should easily record at least 20 wins.
2 REGRESS: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Rask is one of the most surprising candidates to be regarded as a regressing goaltender. He is only a handful of years removed from the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup win and his Vezina Trophy in 2013-14. He’s also been trending downwards for the past two seasons, producing a save percentage that dropped from .930 to .922 to .915 and a 2.56 goals-against average last season. In 64 appearances last year he had a decent 31 wins. Rask is still a great goaltender, but a large part of his regression is due to the fact that he’s on a Bruins team that is declining as well. They’ve missed the last two playoffs as well. The Bruins aging defense core is a big question for the upcoming season; it features a slow-footed Zdeno Chara that will be 40 years-old by the end of the season. Rask hasn’t been a great help either, as his quality starts amongst goalies that have made at least 20 appearances ranked 28th in the league. Rask will still have the reigns in the crease for the upcoming period of time, but there are valid concerns regarding the quality of the 29-year-old.
1 IMPROVE: Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils
Schneider has always gone somewhat under the radar, which is really unfair considering how great of a goaltender he really is. The Devils were smart when they traded for him because he has established himself as one of the league’s best. His numbers don’t lie - he hasn’t finished with a save percentage below .920 in the last six seasons. In the last six seasons in which he started at least 20 games, his goals-against average has never been worse than 2.26. Schneider is a lock to start around 65-70 games, and as the Devils attempt to climb out of a playoff-less funk, he will be looked at to be the man to get them to the postseason. The team is on the upswing, and paired up with the solid defensive system and the addition of Taylor Hall, they’re onto something good. Schneider will definitely ease past his first 30-win season and improve dramatically. He has the Vezina Trophy in sight for the near future.
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