In Praise of the Elusive Goalie Controversy

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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.

Buffalo Sabres: Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth vs. the trade deadline

In this corner: Neither of the Sabres’ two goalies have been especially good this year. Then again, nobody’s been all that good in Buffalo, period, which makes it a tough situation for any goaltender. They’ve split time, with Enroth getting the majority of the starts, and have put up numbers that are below average without being embarrassing. Under the circumstances, that’s not bad.

And in this corner: Both guys are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, and the Sabres are clearly going to be sellers as we lurch toward the deadline. Enroth was already rumored to be on the way to Minnesota at one point, so it seems likely that one or both players will be moved.

The battle so far: The Sabres haven’t started dealing yet, and we’re still five weeks away from the deadline, so there’s time for this to play out. The Sabres still need a goalie, for both the rest of this year and beyond, and they don’t have anyone ready to step right into an NHL starter’s role, so they’ll probably at least take a shot at resigning one or both of their current tandem. But this year is already a write-off, so if Tim Murray can extract good value for either guy, he may pull the trigger and then figure out the rest in the offseason.

And the winner is: I’m not going to say “whoever gets traded away from this mess,” but you were thinking it.

Edmonton Oilers: Ben Scrivens vs. Viktor Fasth

In this corner: Scrivens was acquired last season and made a heck of an early impression, setting an NHL record with a 59-save shutout in just his fourth start as an Oiler. He finished the year strong and seemed poised to finally bring some consistency to Edmonton’s crease in 2014-15. Instead, he’s struggled badly, posting numbers that are well off of his career averages.

And in this corner: Fasth’s story is similar to Scrivens’s: Edmonton acquired him midway through last season, and he played well. But he, too, has looked awful this season; among goalies with at least Fasth’s 17 starts, only Mike Smith has posted a worse save percentage.

The battle so far: Scrivens has been getting about two-thirds of the starts, so he seems to be the guy for the rest of the season. You feel like the Oilers would gladly ride either guy if he got hot, but with a handful of brief exceptions here and there, it just hasn’t happened.

And the winner is: Oilers fans dreaming of Connor McDavid? Look, goaltending fluctuates over small samples and both these guys are almost certainly better than they’ve shown this season. The bigger question will be whether either guy is back next year, or whether the Oilers go looking for new blood once again.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jonathan Bernier vs. James Reimer

In this corner: The Leafs acquired Bernier from the Kings two years ago with the clear intention of seeing him win the starter’s job over incumbent Reimer. While he was a highly regarded prospect and had posted strong numbers as a backup in Los Angeles, he’d never been a full-time starter before arriving in Toronto.

And in this corner: Reimer’s an odd case. He came out of nowhere to win the Leafs’ starting job in 2011 and played well for three seasons. He led the Leafs to their only playoff spot in a decade in 2013, and while everyone remembers Toronto’s Game 7 collapse against the Bruins, it was Reimer who stood on his head to get them even that far. But the organization brought in competition anyway, and when the team imploded down the stretch last year with Bernier injured, Reimer took much of the blame.

The battle so far: While both guys had similar career numbers heading into this year, Bernier has been the better goalie this year and now seems firmly entrenched as the top guy. He’s never been healthy through a full season as a starter, which would be a concern if the Leafs were looking at a playoff run, but their recent losing streak has put any of those ideas to rest.

And the winner is: It’s Bernier’s job now. But the organization faces some tough decisions going forward with a pair of guys who each have fewer than 150 career starts. It’s long been assumed that the Leafs would eventually trade Reimer. But Bernier still needs a new contract, and that’s where things get tricky. The Leafs’ cap situation is a mess and they can’t afford to give out yet another big deal that they’ll regret. Do they gamble on Bernier being a future workhorse? Do they keep Reimer after all, if only as insurance? This battle is essentially over on the ice, but it may be about to heat up in the front office.

Dallas Stars: Kari Lehtonen (then) vs. Kari Lehtonen (now)

In this corner: Kari Lehtonen, who is good.

And in this corner: Kari Lehtonen, who is not.

The battle so far: OK, clearly I’m cheating here, because there’s no goaltending controversy in Dallas in a classic sense. The Stars have played 47 games and Lehtonen has appeared in 40 of them, putting him among the league leaders. He’s clearly the guy in Dallas.3

The question is, what happened to him? Lehtonen had been a consistently decent goalie for years, never quite a superstar but always a dependable starter. He has a career .914 save percentage, which is right around average for a full-time starter in the cap era, maybe a little better. But this year’s dipped down to .903, and no goalie in the league has given up more goals against.

So what’s the deal? Maybe he’s worn out — he led the league is games and minutes played last year. Maybe he’s old, having tipped past the wrong side of 30 in recent years.

Or maybe this is just one of those outlier seasons that comes along every now and then. Sometimes good goalies just have bad years. Jonathan Quick, who has similar career numbers to Lehtonen’s, put up a .902 a few years ago4 and then bounced back to his typical levels.

And the winner is: To be determined. It’s too late for the Stars now, but if Lehtonen can get back to his old standards, they could be back in the playoff hunt next year.

Minnesota Wild: Devan Dubnyk vs. Darcy Kuemper/Niklas Backstrom

In this corner: Dubnyk was acquired from the Coyotes two weeks ago and was essentially handed the starter’s job, mainly because …

And in this corner: … Kuemper and Backstrom have both been awful, and their play has essentially torpedoed Minnesota’s season. Kuemper started strong, with back-to-back shutouts to open the season, but has faltered since, and Backstrom just never got going. Only Edmonton’s team save percentage is worse than the Wild’s, which is why they’re well back of a playoff spot today despite decent underlying numbers. Put it this way: Whenever your answer to a problem is “let’s go out and get the guy who couldn’t hold a job in Edmonton,” you’re screwed.

The battle so far: Dubnyk’s tenure started off well, with a shutout win over the Sabres in his debut game. Since then he’s been up and down, but that’s not really the point. Dubnyk is on his fifth team in less than two seasons, and he isn’t necessarily the long-term solution in Minnesota. But this is the second straight season that the Wild have had to resort to airlifting guys in at the midway mark to try to address their goaltending (last year it was Ilya Bryzgalov), and with the amount of money being spent on building the rest of the roster into a contender, something has to give soon.

And the winner is: Whichever established starter the Wild go out and overpay for in the offseason to make sure this never happens again.

Philadelphia Flyers: Rob Zepp vs. reality

In this corner: Zepp has been one of the best stories of the year. At the age of 33, and after more than a decade spent bouncing around minor leagues in North America and Europe, Zepp finally made his NHL debut this year after Steve Mason got hurt.

And in this corner: This isn’t Hollywood. The Flyers have two veteran goalies, so there’s no room for Zepp unless somebody’s hurt.

The battle so far: Zepp hasn’t exactly stood on his head in his limited action so far. But he’s played well enough to push regular backup Ray Emery, who’s having a tough season. The starter’s job still belongs to Mason once he’s healthy, and that will probably be soon, so there’s a chance that Zepp has already played his last NHL game. Then again, Mason’s already been hurt a few times, Emery is struggling, and the Flyers are out of the playoff hunt. So maybe, just maybe …

And the winner is: Reality, at least for now; Zepp was sent back down to the minors yesterday.

Ottawa Senators: Craig Anderson vs. Robin Lehner

In this corner: Anderson has had a remarkably inconsistent career as a starter. He broke through in 2010, starting 71 games for Colorado and finishing fourth in Vezina voting. The next year he was awful, losing the starting job and eventually being moved to Ottawa near the deadline for a goalie the Avs didn’t even intend to re-sign.5 He had a solid first year as a Senator, then posted the league’s best GAA and save percentage in the lockout-shortened 2013. Last year he was bad; this year he’s good again. Oh, and he’s 33, an age at which goalies tend to be in decline. Good luck predicting what next year will hold.

And in this corner: Lehner has been the organization’s goaltender of the future for the last several years, looking impressive enough in the minors that the team felt comfortable trading Ben Bishop to the Lightning two years ago. But he’s yet to beat out Anderson for the starter’s job, and his NHL numbers haven’t been great. He’s just 23, so there’s still time for him to develop into a legitimate no. 1, but you get the sense that the Senators had hoped it would happen by now.

The battle so far: Anderson has been the clear starter this year, playing well while Lehner struggles to keep his save percentage above the .900 mark. The future is the bigger question, as the Senators appear headed to another season outside the playoff race. They seem like a team in need of a shakeup, if not a full rebuild, so it’s no surprise that both goalies have had their names show up in trade rumors in recent weeks.

And the winner is: This one probably comes down to how realistic the Senators can be about the team’s status. If they need to rebuild, then they should be moving veterans for future assets, and trading Anderson would bring plenty. If they still think they can be a playoff team, then they’ve got plenty of holes in the lineup to fill and moving Lehner could be a way to address them.

Winnipeg Jets: Ondrej Pavelec vs. Michael Hutchinson

In this corner: Pavelec has been the Jets’ (and Thrashers’) starter since 2009, and headed into this season locked into that role yet again. That’s despite some unimpressive career numbers — he’s had a save percentage over .910 only once as a starter — and plenty of hot takes that the Jets would never go anywhere until they finally upgraded in goal.

And in this corner: Hutchinson had made only one career start heading into this season.

The battle so far: Pavelec has had a good year. His .911 save percentage is just one point off his career best, and his 2.52 GAA is significantly better than he’s ever posted before. But the real revelation has been Hutchinson, who’s been brilliant. His .190 GAA and .935 save percentage are among the league leaders, and he’s been earning more playing time than anyone expected. That’s led to some occasional talk of a controversy, although at this point the Jets seem content to use both guys.

And the winner is: The Jets, so far, as a team that few expected to be a factor in the Central has hung tough in the playoff picture all season. The picture doesn’t look all that complicated the rest of the way: You’ve got two good goaltenders, and you ride them both as long as you can.

But things may get more interesting in the playoffs, when most teams prefer to ride a clear no. 1. If Hutchinson is still dominating in April, will the Jets stick with Pavelec? For now, Winnipeg fans are probably just happy they’re going to get a chance to find out.

Filed Under: NHL, St. Louis Blues, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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