The NHL is celebrating something of a renaissance these days. Scoring is up across the league on the backs of an exciting new class of superstar talent that is setting the league on fire. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and Patrik Laine are infusing a newfound excitement league-wide as elite scorers, all 24 and younger. While this group of young, offensive-minded talent paints a rosy picture for most hockey lovers, it's a different story for those tasked with keeping pucks out of the net.
As you might expect with goal totals up, goaltenders are having a tougher time doing their jobs. While it's still early in the 2017-18 season, an early offensive flurry has goalies sporting the league's highest goals against average in 12 years. Things don't get any better when you look at individual performances. Widely considered the league's best netminder, Carey Price has been unable to buoy his struggling Montreal Canadiens and has stumbled out to a 3.54 goals against average and a sub-.900 save percentage. It's not just one guy either, as the usually reliable group of Cory Schneider, Tuukka Rask, Roberto Luongo, Frederik Andersen and Devan Dubnyk have gotten off to slow starts.
Slow starts aside, at least the aforementioned group can feel secure in their future in the league. They all remain the best option moving forward for their club between the pipes. That isn't true of every one of the league's 31 starting goalies, however. For some, this offensive onslaught could signal a slippery slope that might even have them out of the league in the not too distant future. Here are eight goalies that might be starters right now, but aren't all that far from being out of the league entirely.
No, Semyon Varlamov is not the chief cause of the lowly Colorado Avalanche's woes - not even close. Despite star-caliber talent in Nathan Mackinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs have been mired in dysfunction, including the trade demands of Matt Duchene. Still, Varlamov hasn't exactly highlighted himself as an asset worth poaching by a contending club.
To his credit, the 29-year-old has put up solid numbers early this season while helping Colorado out to a decently respectable 5-4 start. Owing in part to being barraged with shots every night, Varlamov has posted a sparkling .929 save percentage. Of course, that's a pretty small sample size that can't be over-stated one season after he posted an .898 mark to go with a 3.38 goals against average. There may not be many takers for the netminder of the league-worst Avs, but a KHL offer could be enticing enough for the Russian-born Varlamov.
8 15: In His Place: Jaroslav Halak
The future between the pipes in the Mile High City rests in the hands of prospect Adam Werner. However, the 20-year-old Swede projects to be at least two or three years away from taking over. If the Avs still hope to salvage something from this current disappointing era, they will need more consistency from the position in the interim.
As the likes of Mackinnon and Landeskog enter their prime, Colorado would be wise to find a serviceable stop-gap option to hold the fort until Werner arrives. That option could be Jaroslav Halak, a pending unrestricted free agent who is currently sharing starting duties in Buffalo. Halak would only cost the Avs cap space, of which they currently have plenty, and would bring stability, not to mention a capable eventual mentor to Werner.
Let's get one thing straight here - after 13 seasons, two All-Star appearances, one Vezina trophy and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, Henrik Lundqvist has earned the right to make the call on just when his tenure in New York ends. The Rangers should - and probably will - have a spot for him for as long as he chooses to continue suiting up.
But for as legendary a career as King Henrik has enjoyed in the Big Apple, things could get awkward in a hurry if he keeps regressing on a team expecting to contend. Last season saw Lundqvist post a career low save percentage (.910) and career high goals against average (2.74). Putting aside how remarkable it is that those represent the worst numbers of his career, his continued struggles this year signal a natural, age-related decline. Is retirement on the horizon?
7 In His Place: Sergei Bobrovsky
New York City loves its stars, and few have ever matched the persona of the city quite as well as Lundqvist did. Looking ahead, the Rangers may have hopes of prospect Adam Werner one day hopefully embracing the pressure of NYC. However, Werner likely remains several years away from contributing at the NHL level and current backup Ondrej Pavelec - well - isn't exactly the star needed to fill Lundqvist's pads.
Nothing against Pavelec, but the Blueshirts will certainly need more of a sure thing between the pipes if they hope to maximize the remaining prime of the veteran-heavy roster. Enter two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. A very different personality from Lundqvist, Bobrovsky is nonetheless quirky enough to endear himself to the Broadway faithful. In terms of availability, the 29-year-old will be heading into a contract year next season and might command more money than Columbus can afford.
It's a tough act to follow when you are preceded in net by the likes of Chris Osgood, Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph, not to mention arriving amidst a stretch of 25 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. So it isn't much of a surprise that Jimmy Howard has felt the heat from the pressure and expectations association with minding net for the Detroit Red Wings. While Howard has stuck around long enough to spend over 400 games between the pipes in Motown, that may not be enough for a club finally on the downturn.
Injuries and poor performance mired his 2016-17 season, which also happened to double as the club's first non-playoff year in a quarter century. The underwhelming campaign from the 33-year-old prompted the Wings to turn to 25-year-old Petr Mrazek, who didn't quite play well enough to make the change stick. Though Mrazek may not be the answer in Motown, that doesn't mean Howard is.
6 In His Place: Philipp Grubauer
Mrazek started the bulk of his team's games over the past two seasons. After an average 2015-16 campaign that did little to dissuade the Wings' faith in their supposed goalie of the future, 2016-17 represented a significant step back. By going back to Howard as the starter, Detroit has now made it difficult for themselves to ever get Mrazek back to where they hoped he'd be with the organization.
Don't be surprised then if the Red Wings go goalie shopping sooner rather than later. Enter Philipp Grubauer, who was widely expected to be claimed in the Expansion Draft but remains in Washington as backup to Braden Holtby. Holtby isn't going anywhere, so the 25-year-old German will likely need to be moved for any chance at an NHL starting job.
Once a ballyhooed prospect in the Ottawa Senators' system, Robin Lehner hasn't developed as expected and now might be nearing a point where a second NHL club is set to give up on him despite being just 26 years old. In his first season as a bona fide starter last year, the Swede had impressive stretches for the Buffalo Sabres, but struggled to find consistency and - more importantly - failed to elevate a team with playoff aspirations.
A change in net won't cure all that ails the under-performing Sabres and their frustrated star Jack Eichel, but it might be one of the easier moves to make. Journeyman backup Chad Johnson has already been acting as a de facto platoon goalie, playing nearly half the club's games thus far. In other words, few Sabres fans would really miss Lehner.
One fascinating wrinkle of this summer's Expansion Draft was getting a glimpse into how each club evaluated their own talent, both through the protected list and the side deals they were willing to strike up with Vegas GM George McPhee to keep him away from certain players. In Buffalo, goalie prospect Linus Ullmark had to be left unprotected, but that didn't mean the Sabres were keen on losing him.
The Vegas Golden Knights were paid a sixth round draft choice by Buffalo to convince them to take William Carrier and, ostensibly, keep their hands off Ullmark. Carrier might wind up bringing value for Vegas, but the Sabres clearly view the 24-year-old Ullmark as the future in net. As it stands, the future might come sooner rather than later.
5 On The Way Out: Antti Raanta
Giving Antti Raanta the nod in net was a worthwhile gamble for the Arizona Coyotes, particularly given their lack of goaltending depth following the off-season departure of Mike Smith. Louis Domingue hasn't established himself as a starting-caliber goalie and Raanta has shown promise despite not getting much of a shot behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York.
The problem here is that Raanta is a pending unrestricted free agent, meaning that the clock is ticking on the Coyotes figuring out what they have in the 28-year-old Finn. Being slowed by an early season lower body injury as the club stumbled out to a winless start hasn't helped matters. Two years in the Big Apple produced some encouraging stats, but the 'Yotes will certainly need to see more than his 55 games over two years with the Rangers to make a decision on Raanta's future.
4 In His Place: Jacob Markstrom
Arizona is coming off of a bit of a frenzied off-season in which it parted ways with long-time captain Shane Doan, all the while adding veterans Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson in a bid to win now. While that effort looks laughable for now in light of a franchise-worst start to the season, it does show that young GM John Chayka isn't content to sit on his hands.
That active approach would strongly suggest that Chayka won't take a potential pursuit of a goaltender lightly. A wheeler and dealer, Chayka would be wise to look to the Vancouver Canucks and their massive 6'6" goaltender Jacob Markstrom for potential trade help. The Canucks look like they are ready to continue their rebuilding efforts and Markstrom is currently blocking the path of emerging prospect Thatcher Demko.
Could the celebrated franchise goalie of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights really be out of the league so soon? Well, you never know. The popular former Pittsburgh Penguin acquitted himself well in Vegas over the first few games before suffering a concussion on October 13th. In his place, waiver wire pickup Malcolm Subban has dazzled, bringing questions of whether the club's goalie of the future might also be the goalie of the present.
This scenario of Fleury being Wally Pipp'ed by Subban seems rather unfair to the three-time Stanley Cup champion and former No. 1 pick, but nonetheless conceivable. As in Pittsburgh with Matt Murray, Vegas has a young netminder ready to step in and the organization could come to view Fleury as too expensive, at $5.75 million, for backup duty. Even at just 32, it's hard to see where he fits with a big cap number.
3 In His Place: Malcolm Subban
It's amazing how quickly things have changed in Vegas. Their unprecedented hot start has produced a number of unlikely heroes, but Subban's rise has been the most pronounced and surprising. In the same month as he was placed on waivers by the Boston Bruins, the 23-year-old has posted a .936 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average in three starts with his new club.
Now sidelined with his own injury, the younger brother of PK Subban will now have to wait until late November in hopes of picking up where he left off. The immediate future in Sin City might produce something of a goaltending controversy, but Subban has needed all of three starts to establish himself as the clear front-runner for the job in the long-term.
After Steve Mason agreed to terms on a two-year contract with the Jets on July 1st, it took all of one start this season to wonder if it was a good idea. Mason surrendered five goals on 20 shots at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs before being pulled after two periods, lending support to critics who questioned the move. The 29-year-old proceeded to give up 11 goals over his next two starts, all but removing him from the starting role within the season's first month.
There's a significant segment of Jets fans who surely rushed to say 'I told you so' when Mason flamed out early. Many scratched their heads over his off-season signing, wondering why Winnipeg would commit $8.2 million to a veteran netminder when a) they have an NHL-ready prospect in the system and b) Mason boasted similar numbers to Ondrej Pavelec, who left the 'Peg for NYC for just $1.3 million. Now a potential buyout candidate, Mason may be out of chances in the league.
2 In His Place: Connor Hellebuyck
If Mason's stock is plummeting, Connor Hellebuyck's is soaring. Amidst the dumpster fire that was the veteran free agent's debut in Winnipeg, the 24-year-old Hellebuyck has surged out of the gate in his place. While Mason coughed up 16 goals his first three starts of the season, his younger replacement won each of his first four stars while allowing just eight total goals. Now, there is no goaltending controversy in Winnipeg - the Michigan native is the starter moving forward.
For a Jets team that still looks to be in the playoff mix, Hellebuyck has suddenly established himself as a crucial piece of the puzzle. While this might have been precisely the scenario they were hoping to avoid by signing Mason, the young netminder seems game for the pressure-filled role.
The Philadelphia Flyers are traditionally the NHL club known to face consistent struggles in net, but the Calgary Flames might not be far off. The Flames, who boast Stanley Cup aspirations, entered the 2017-18 season with their third entirely different goaltending tandem in as many years. Things hardly seem any more settled this time around, with Calgary curiously opting to backstop their talented young roster with 35-year old veteran netminder Mike Smith.
Smith has been serviceable early on, but it's worth wondering what the long-time Phoenix/Arizona Coyote will have to offer given that he's lost 33 more games than he's won over the past three years and hasn't sniffed the playoffs in five years. The teams in front of Smith surely shoulder most of the blame, but it's a wonder that the Flames couldn't fare any better amidst such an active off-season goaltending carousel. Even with a fresh start in Calgary, it's tough to see Smith suddenly finding new life at this stage of his career.
1 In His Place: Carey Price
Yes, that heading says Carey Price, the best goaltender in hockey. Things are not going well in Montreal these days and while the fault for the Habs' poor start hardly falls at the feet of Price, is it that hard to imagine the former Hart trophy winner being a casualty of his club's downfall? If Montreal's slide down the standings isn't going to reverse itself soon, there could be pressure to undergo a larger rebuild rather than mere tinkering. And the 30-year-old would both bring a massive return and clear serious cap space as a trade chip.
While this scenario may seem far-fetched, it also seemed unlikely that the Canadiens would part ways with PK Subban before they did exactly that. If a Price trade were to come together, the blue, blanc et rouge could do worse than the Flames as a trade partner. Residing in the other conference, Calgary would also be able to put together an awfully tempting package of young, NHL-ready talent like Sam Bennett along with an array of picks and prospects. Never say never.
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