Greatest goalie generation? Why this is a special time for American netminding

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If you ask me, this is a golden era of goaltending for hockey. While the “Dead Puck Era” produced better numbers in many cases, it’s hard to imagine a time in which so many teams had so many solid-to-great goalies. Maybe that might make it tougher for individuals to stand out, but there really aren’t a whole lot of teams who are just flat-out “lost” at the position anymore. There aren’t many squads that need to camouflage Dan Cloutier-type liabilities in net.

We could debate the bigger picture merits of goalies all day, but there’s one thing you’ll have a really tough time making me dismiss: this is the highest point for American hockey goaltending ever. One could argue that is true from both a quality and quantity standpoint. With all due respect to the legendary Olympic run of Jim Craig, scattered talents throughout older times and a solid recently past era that included Tom Barrasso, John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter, this is a peak generation for U.S. netminding.

Let’s take a look at a list of the most prominent active American goaltenders to drive the point home.

Tim Thomas

It’s been said over and over again, but it never really gets old: Thomas put together a combined playoff and postseason run for the ages this year. He generated a record-breaking .938 save percentage during the regular season and somehow found a way to top that by reaching the .940 mark in the playoffs. Oh yeah, he also won the Vezina Trophy, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in the process. It isn’t outrageous to wonder if Thomas literally put together the best single season and playoff run an NHL goalie ever enjoyed, although it’s tough to be sure because different scoring eras fudge the numbers (we’re looking at you, high-scoring 1980’s).

Thomas might not be a traditional butterfly goalie, but his “redneck style” and resilient journey to the NHL make him the American dream in leg pads.

source: Getty ImagesRyan Miller

If you just flat-out refuse to admit that an unorthodox goalie is the best in the world, then Miller provides another example of an American netminder who is clearly at the top of the form. While Thomas owned just about everything that had to to with 2010-11, Miller was the darling of the 2009-10 season, including the 2010 Olympics. He carried the U.S. to a surprising silver medal after helping them make it within a famous Sidney Crosby overtime goal of the gold and took home the 2010 Vezina Trophy as well.

For those counting at home, the last three Vezina Trophies went to American goalies: Thomas twice and Miller once. The closest example of that happening before was when Barrasso won it in 1984 and Vanbiesbrouck took it in 86.

source: Getty ImagesJimmy Howard

This class of American goalies runs deep. Howard might not roll of your tongue when you’re naming the NHL’s elite, but he’s the present and future of Detroit’s goaltending. The past has been pretty sweet, too; he’s currently riding two consecutive 37-win seasons. After his stats slipped a bit from the 09-10 to 10-11 regular season, Howard responded with a .923 save percentage in the 2011 playoffs.

Jonathan Quick

Jonathan Bernier couldn’t win the Jonathan Championship from Quick last season and it’s going to be tough for Bernier to usurp the steady American next season. Quick  won 39 games in 09-10 and 35 last season while improving his individual numbers along the way. The Connecticut product could rise in many peoples’ eyes if he comes through in what looks to be a promising 2011-12 season for the Kings.

source: APCraig Anderson

The jury seems to be out on Anderson, but one cannot deny his potential after he carried the Colorado Avalanche to a surprise playoff berth in 09-10. The Ottawa Senators made a big investment in Anderson and he might just have the tools to make that pay off.

Ben Bishop, Brian Boucher, Jack Campbell, Scott Clemmensen, Ty Conklin, Rick DiPietro, Brent Johnson and Al Montoya

The long list of backups and/or emerging prospects might push this era over the edge. Boucher and Johnson rank among the better journeyman backups in the league while Conklin isn’t far behind. Bishop is an over-sized goalie for St. Louis while Clemmensen signed an over-sized contract with Florida. DiPietro’s health is a problem and his contract is a punchline, but there was a time when he was an All-Star goalie. Campbell and Montoya are former first round draft picks we’ll probably see more of in the future. If nothing else, more American born goalies are getting work than ever before.

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Again, if you ask me, this marks the highest point for American goaltending at both the elite level (three straight Vezina trophies) and from a sheer quantity standpoint. I’m curious to hear counterarguments to this point, though, so feel free to light some logical fireworks in the comments.

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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